Palestinian Christians representing a dozen organizations in the Middle East have called on Western church leaders and theologians to repent of their “glaring double standard that humanizes Israeli Jews while insisting on dehumanizing Palestinians and whitewashing their suffering.” The open letter, published as a Change.org petition, comes a day after Israeli forces bombed a church in Gaza where civilians had been seeking shelter.
“We, at the undersigned Palestinian Christian institutions and grassroots movements, grieve and lament the renewed cycle of violence in our land,” begins the statement titled A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians.
“Words fail to express our shock and horror with regard to the ongoing war in our land,” the letter states. “We deeply mourn the death and suffering of all people because it is our firm conviction that all humans are made in God’s image. We are also profoundly troubled when the name of God is invoked to promote violence and religious national ideologies.”
The signatories represent institutions based in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and other parts of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
They not only rebuke Western Christians for uncritically “offering unwavering support to Israel’s war against the people of Palestine” but also lament the loss of life in the most recent deadly attacks, including at an Anglican-Baptist hospital and a church.
The letter also questions why “many church leaders and theologians” are silent in the face of Palestinian casualties and continue to justify and support Israel’s occupation.
It also calls out the “myopic and distorted Christian responses” that fail to consider the historical context of the ongoing conflict. The letter accuses Israel of “systemic oppression,” “ethnic cleansing,” and an “oppressive and racist military occupation.”
“This is precisely the horrific context of oppression that many Western Christian theologians and leaders have persistently ignored, and even worse, have occasionally legitimized using a wide range of Zionist theologies and interpretations,” the letter states.
The petition concludes by calling on Western church leaders and theologians who uncritically “rally behind Israel’s wars” to “reexamine their positions and to change their direction.” The letter references God’s justice in Acts 17:31, which says, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
“As Palestinian Christians, we also continue to find our courage and consolation in the God who dwells with those of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa 57:15). We find courage in the solidarity we receive from the crucified Christ, and we find hope in the empty tomb,” the Palestinian Christians’ letter states in part.
The signatories include: Kairos Palestine, Christ at the Checkpoint, Bethlehem Bible College, Sabeel Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology, Dar al-Kalima University, Al-Liqa Center for Religious, Heritage and Cultural Studies in the Holy Land, the East Jerusalem YMCA, the YWCA of Palestine, the Arab Orthodox Society in Jerusalem, the Arab Orthodox Club in Jerusalem, the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, and the Arab Education Institute Pax Christi in Bethlehem.
The Change.org petition passed its initial goal of 1,500 signatures within hours on Friday. Growing momentum is expected to push it past the second goal of 2,500 signatures.
U.S. Views of Palestinians
The recent Mideast conflict, grounded in a long history of violence and tension, came to a head on October 7 when Hamas launched a barrage of rockets into Israel.
According to The Associated Press, Hamas “stormed from the blockaded Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli towns, killing dozens and abducting others in an unprecedented surprise attack….” Israel then retaliated by launching airstrikes on Gaza. According to BBC News, thousands of people had been killed and injured in the weekslong war.
The criticisms in A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians are not unwarranted, based on U.S. sentiment toward Israel.
Pew Research Center reported in May 2022 that, based on survey findings, “Americans continue to express more positive feelings toward the Israeli people than toward the Palestinian people.”
The survey also found that 86% of White Evangelical Protestants had a favorable view of the Israeli people but just 37% had a favorable view of the Palestinian people.
And while 70% of White Evangelicals say “God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people,” only 36% of Black Protestants, 31% of White non-evangelical Protestants, and 25% of Catholics agree.
Al Jazeera produced a video feature in December 2022 revealing some Palestinian Christians’ views of U.S. Evangelical support of Israel. According to the video, some U.S. Christians aren’t even aware that fellow believers live in Gaza and the West Bank.
Black Church Leaders Speak Out
Black religious organizations have also issued statements condemning the raging Middle East violence.
On October 19, the Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) lamented the “terror attack in Israel that’s left scores of civilians dead” and in which “all people, all faiths, and all sides have suffered.”
“What’s unfolded in Israel and Gaza these last two weeks has been a tragic, devastating, and heartbreaking humanitarian crisis,” reads the statement by Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the CNBC, which represents 30,000 historically Black congregations.
While not explicitly calling for a ceasefire, Richardson adds, “Our duty is to advocate for a non-violence [sic], for understanding, and for a forum in which every voice is heard.”
The National African American Clergy Network, which shares members with the CNBC, took a similar stance in its own October 17 statement condemning Hamas and calling for the protection of “innocent Palestinian civilians.”
In addition to lamenting the “devastation in Israel and Gaza [that] has unfolded unimaginable pain and loss,” the clergy network letter acknowledges the “deeply entrenched histories and longstanding tensions that have fueled this conflict.”
“Regarding the sacredness of all lives and acknowledging our ethical and spiritual responsibilities, we beseech all involved to seek peaceful coexistence, steering away from the path of destruction and despair,” the letter concludes. “Our earnest prayer is that wisdom, compassion, and understanding may guide the leaders and individuals involved in this conflict so they may navigate the path that leads toward lasting peace, healing, and reconciliation in Israel and Gaza.”
The National African American Clergy Network letter was spearheaded by Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Dr. Otis Moss Jr., and Dr. T. DeWitt Smith Jr. Its three dozen signatories included leaders of Christian churches, nonprofits, and other ally organizations.
Justin Giboney, president of the AND Campaign, also signed onto the statement. Giboney has warned Christians against taking a simplistic view of the Mideast conflict. He has also said that attempts at using “bothsidesism” to discourage sympathy for Palestinian civilians are “sinful.”
Church and Christian Hospital Bombed
The Palestinian Christians’ “Call for Repentance” letter came a day after the Israeli military bombed the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City. Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City has been one of the few places of refuge for Arab Christians and Muslims seeking shelter amid the onslaught. Al Jazeera reported that a “large number” of people were killed in the attack, citing Hamas leadership.
It has been reported that 400-500 Christians and Muslims displaced from their homes by Israel’s bombardment over the past two weeks had been sheltering at Saint Porphyrius Church. The Greek Orthodox church was built in 425 C.E. and restored in the 12th century.
Christian victims who survived the church bombing questioned what they had done to warrant the attack, with one man declaring that “by God, we are tired.”
According to the Agence France-Presse (AFP), Israeli Defense Forces confirmed the incident and said the matter was under review.
While Israel has claimed responsibility for the casualties at Saint Porphyrius Church, it has denied being responsible for an attack on the Anglican-Baptist Al Ahli Arab Hospital north of the Gaza Strip.
According to The Guardian: “Palestinian officials blamed an Israeli airstrike for the explosion that Gaza’s health ministry said on Wednesday [October 18] had killed 471 Palestinians and wounded 314 others. Israel has said the blast was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, which has denied blame.” The U.S. has agreed with Israel’s conclusions about the source of the strike.
Declining to outright blame Israel, Archbishop Hosam Naoum decried the attack as a “crime against humanity” in an October 18 press conference, according to the Episcopal News Service.
The archbishop told reporters that groups of Palestinians seeking safety at the hospital had been gathered “in the courtyard singing songs calling for peace” sometime before the area was hit. The exact number of those killed or injured remains unknown.
“We stand as churches united together in condemning this dreadful and devastating massacre,” Naoum said, flanked by leaders of other Christian denominations in the Holy Land. “We regard this as a crime against humanity, and we call upon all sides that this war must come to an end.”
Naoum also revealed during the press conference, livestreamed on Facebook, that the Christian hospital had received warnings from Israel three days in a row right before the alleged “failed rocket launch.”