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Christians 'endangered' in Palestine, church missionaries say

9/14/2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Feature By Darlene Slack*

Wherever the Rev. Alex Awad goes, he takes a piece of the Holy Land with him.

It's not a relic or souvenir, some sand from the Sea of Galilee or a stone from the Garden of Gethsemane. Rather, it's a story etched on his heart about his people, the ones seldom given a voice, or even a thought, in discussions about Middle East peace: Palestinian Christians.

As United Methodist missionaries on summer home assignment from Israel, Alex and Brenda Awad shared that story with some 40 United Methodist congregations in Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee.

While the Awads were in the United States, the Middle East was in the news. During the summer, President Clinton mediated negotiations between Palestine Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, and peace talks continued in September at the United Nations Summit in New York.

As negotiators wrestled with the most divisive issues, including control of Jerusalem and "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, Alex Awad delivered a message that startled many American Christians: "The current conflict poses greater threats to the Christian community than to the Islamic or Jewish communities." As minorities facing political and social pressures to leave, he said, Christians in the Holy Land are "endangered as far as their numbers go."

Pat Renker, a member of Heritage United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor, Fla., said those words -- and the thought of visiting sites significant to Christianity but not meeting Christians there - affected her deeply. She plans to initiate a letter-writing campaign of support by United Methodist Women circles to Christians in Bethlehem. Other churches have promised Volunteer in Mission trips, or donations for books and student scholarships at Bethlehem Bible College.

Alex Awad hopes that as more members understand the situation, the Christian church in the United States will "stand in solidarity with the church in the Holy Land, praying for the church, advocating for justice, writing to members of Congress to advocate for human rights and for a peace that will be just for both parties."

In an interview before returning to Israel on Sept. 15, he said he does not foresee a just solution for the Palestinians. They remain the "weaker link" in negotiations, lacking the political clout of the Israelis, particularly with the U.S. government, he said.

Although both sides are determined to continue, "the problem is the strong and rich can wait, but the weak and poor suffer when negotiations drag on," he said. "The Palestinian economy is in shambles."

"What the Palestinians don't want is peace at any price," such as losing more rights to occupied Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said. "As long as the Israelis claim that all of Jerusalem, east and west, is the undivided eternal capital of the state of Israel, they cannot have peace. That is a statement that goes against the passions of 250 million
Arabs and a billion Muslims."

Jerusalem has sites sacred to each faith, including the remains of King Herod's temple, the mountaintop from which Mohammed rose to heaven and the garden where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion.

Awad suggests Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem, or a shared sovereignty among Muslims, Jews and Christians. But the term "sovereignty" must be clarified. "It should mean making decisions to govern the city, not only to be the sanitation workers of the city," he said.

People at nearly every church the Awads visited expressed appreciation for "a perspective they've never heard before," and "sometimes guilt for knowing so little about the situation," he said.

Joan Johnson, dean of the West Ohio School of Mission that the Awads served, recalls her visit with a family in a Palestinian refugee camp. The father had lived there since Israelis seized his land in 1948.

"They wanted us to know not to believe everything we read in the paper or heard on the news -- to try to see both sides of the story, which we didn't have any trouble seeing at all. We knew without the guide telling us when we went into a Palestinian area because of the poverty," Johnson said. When the refugee family served their guests coffee, "I thought that probably took all of their (allotted) water for the month."

Like many native Palestinians, Awad is not as free as tourists are to travel in his homeland. He lost his residency status when the Israeli government refused to renew his ID card that proves citizenship. He was banned from his homeland during the Six-Day War in1967, when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and again in 1987 to 1993 during the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, when he became a United Methodist missionary with his wife.

Only through the lobbying efforts of U.S. United Methodists was he able to obtain a working visa from the Israeli government in 1994. He teaches at Bethlehem Bible College, where Brenda Awad helps with English correspondence and fund raising. He also serves as a pastor and she teaches Sunday school at East Jerusalem Baptist Church, an interdenominational congregation.

The Awads celebrate the work done at the college, church and other ministries to prepare Christ-centered leaders. They also grieve the injustices against Palestinians and the subsequent exodus of Christians from the Holy Land to countries where they can get access to better living conditions, health care and education.

"Most Christians in the Middle East feel out of place," Awad said. Today, they constitute 2 percent of the population. They were the majority when Muslims seized the Holy Land in the seventh century and still accounted for 20 percent of the Palestinian community in the 1920s.

To many Israelis, they're nonexistent, he said. "They assume, like many Americans assume, that when you say 'Palestinian' you say 'Muslim.' " And while Palestinians of different faiths have lived together peacefully, to some Muslims, "Christians are a very strange species," he said.

Working for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and having U.S. passports give the Awads a security most Christians in Palestine don't have.

Part of their mission is to remind Palestinian Christians that God loves them and the Methodist church does too, and to encourage them "to continue to be a witness for Jesus Christ as they have for the last 2,000 years," he said.

The Awads see a tremendous need for educating Americans about the Middle East, and Alex expresses concern about the size of the challenge.

"But our objective is to be faithful, more so than being successful," he said. "We don't know the consequences, but we leave it up to God."

# # #

*Slack is a free-lance writer and lives in Cardington, Ohio.

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