Why we should care about Christians in Gaza

As Labour launches its internationalist vision, One Nation One World, Stephen Tunstall (@SCTunstall) writes from Gaza about how local Christians are responding to the humanitarian crisis following last year’s war, and why we must act to bring an end to occupation and blockade. Stephen is Programmes Manager for Palestine and Israel at Embrace the Middle East.

GAZA.jpgVisiting Gaza provokes mixed emotions. On the one hand there is outrage, helplessness, and despair at the humanitarian situation and the global complicity which permits it to endure. You know things are bad when Palestinians tell you the situation has really deteriorated “these last two months”, as if the war last summer which killed over 1,500 civilians, including 519 children, is already a footnote in history.

Although the bombings have stopped, for now, there is very little shalom in this discarded corner of the world. Many families have returned to live on the site where their home once stood, making do amid mountains of rubble, with little or no protection against the wintery elements. Three babies died of exposure in the first two weeks of the year.

The usually reliable public sector salaries froze in December, a result of Israel punitively withholding tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for the latter’s moves to join the International Criminal Court. Given that these revenues account for around 70% of the PA’s budget, this is having a disastrous effect on the local economy.

Cash, electricity, food, shelter, water – the essentials for human survival – you name it, there isn’t nearly enough of it here to support Gaza’s rapidly growing population. If we discount the city-state playgrounds of the global elite, Gaza is the most densely populated territory on earth. Half of its residents are children.

To make matters worse, the word on the street and among NGO security wonks is that Islamic State sympathisers are gaining grassroots support. They made a rare public showing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo affair, protesting outside the French Cultural Institute and inviting a low level clash with Hamas security forces, who quickly dispersed this affront to their authority. Nevertheless, it was a frightening test of the status quo. The nightmare scenario people are beginning to fear is an IS movement confident enough to provoke all out civil conflict. When Hamas start looking like the moderate good guys, it’s another sign that things are really bad.

Saving lives

On the other hand, visiting Gaza confronts you with the strength of the human spirit: compassion, admiration, and love erupt just as often as negative emotions. I have the privilege of working closely with some of Gaza’s 1,300 Christians, a little known community of immeasurable courage and resilience. As well as contending with the violence, hardship, and imprisonment that the rest of the population has to deal with, they are increasingly concerned about the threat posed by IS copycats.

One might be forgiven for assuming the remaining Christians in Gaza are lying low and focused inwardly on mere survival; far from it. For many years this has been an outward looking community, committed to the welfare of wider society. There is a Christian hospital, five schools, four health clinics, three churches, two community centres, and a number of other small ministries.

It is this Christ-inspired service that earns Christians the respect of many neighbours and authorities. Their presence has a moderating effect on society, a reminder that religious diversity and tolerance must remain a tenet of Palestinian identity.  Recently, a Christian community centre was asked to act as the host venue for a Fatah-Hamas table tennis tournament because the organisers couldn’t find a neutral alternative.

During last summer’s war, the Christian hospital remained open 24/7 with staff risking their lives to save others, and churches opened their doors to displaced families. This commitment and sacrifice raised the profile of the Christians’ contribution to society and reinvigorated their own missional impulse to love and care for their neighbours. The hospital’s director spoke to me passionately about the hospital’s role in witnessing Christian values and earning respect for their faith in a sometimes suspicious society.

The collective contribution of the various Christian institutions is saving lives and providing thousands of people with a better chance to prosper than they would otherwise have. They are reducing the number of malnourished children, increasing the number of young people with employable skills, and healing the psychological damage that war inflicts on the minds of children. For these reasons alone it would be a travesty if the Christian population declined to a point that these ministries could no longer be sustained.

The common good

However, the crippling blockade is making life unliveable and the absence of hope is causing more to look for a way out. It is one reason why we, as Christians on the left, must take political action to address the abominable situation in Gaza. We have brothers and sisters in faith imploring us to do just that for the sake of them and their Muslim neighbours – let us not ignore their cry for help.

Just as our faith inspires us to work for the common good domestically, we must also ensure our government promotes the common good abroad. This is perhaps nowhere more important than in the Middle East, and Palestine in particular.Douglas-Alexander-014.jpg

I was proud when Douglas Alexander spearheaded parliament’s recognition of Palestine last October, but our party has a far bigger opportunity ahead. We must ensure the next Labour government acts to bring about justice in the Holy Land, ensuring that Israelis and Palestinians are afforded the same dignity, liberty, and security to live abundant lives. Palestinian political leaders are by no means exempt from blame for bickering while their people suffer, but let us not be under any illusion that the root of the present crisis is the 48 year illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel.

Christian theology has played an unwelcome role in establishing and perpetuating the occupation, so as Christian socialists we have a responsibility to make amends. Using all the diplomatic and economic levers available, the next Labour government must compel Israel to end the occupation and lift the barbaric blockade of Gaza, for everyone’s sake.

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