Holy Land, unholy war

Holy Land Christians grapple with the Gaza conflict.

Father Alexios is responsible for the Greek Orthodox church in Gaza. His parish has 3,000 members. For the Orthodox Christmas, celebrated on January 7, Israel allowed many to travel to Bethlehem. Others stayed with relatives in Ramallah. None were anxious to return home. "There is no water, no electricity, no food, no medicine... No-one is safe here," Alexois explains in his gentle voice. Four Greek Orthodox parishoners in Gaza were killed in the IDF's "Operation Cast Lead," among them a 14-year-old girl. He says Israeli missiles do indeed hit their targets with precision, but the explosions are so huge that neighboring houses sustain damage. "Not a single window stays intact," says the Orthodox priest. "Only under God's protection is one safe," says Alexios, who has been living in the Holy Land as a monk and priest for the past 43 years, the last 18 in Gaza. He has experienced it all - the Israeli occupation, the intifada, the autonomy rule of the Palestinians, the Hamas coup d'etat. As a Greek citizen, Father Alexios could have left. Has he considered that possibility? His answer is almost indignant: "I'm the bishop, married to his church here! How could I ever leave my wife?!" Asked who he thinks is to blame for the present misery, he responds evasively. "The situation itself is to blame... God knows. It's all part of a big political game." Still, he sees a glimmer of hope. "He whose birth we celebrated yesterday is the Prince of Peace. Only he can bring peace to this world." MEANWHILE, in the Negev hub of Beersheba, Pastor Howard Bass leads a congregation that views the conflict from the other side of the fence. After Israel's military offensive began in late December, the city of over 100,000 has been repeatedly struck by Grad missiles made in China. Bass has a daughter in the Israeli army, and his oldest son Evan fought in the Gaza Strip. "Every country has the right to defend itself," insists Bass, who immigrated to Israel from the US. "Self-defense is a God-given right, a moral duty. A state must protect its citizens from criminals within and from attacks from without." Like other believers in the Land, Bass seeks to approach the conflict from a New Testament perspective. Ironically, he observes, although it isn't a Christian country, Israel has turned the other cheek for years. "Israel does not react immediately or on reflex," observes Bass. "It only hits back after a long period of restraint - and only when it has become a desperate necessity." Still, Bass and other believers seek contact with Christians "on the other side." "We aren't warmongers, but citizens of a sovereign state which has a duty to protect its citizens," he says. "We have an obligation toward our state, our fellow citizens, but also toward our enemies. We make it clear to them that we are not against them because we hate them, but because they must learn to stop doing this." The Palestinian Christians he talks to blame the conflict on "the occupation"; he considers it as basically an attack on the existence of Israel. To Christian peace activists who routinely criticize Israel, he points out that at least it's possible to be a pacifist here. "Where are the pacifists in Syria, Jordan, in Palestinian territories, in the Gaza Strip?" As a father of two Israeli soldiers, he also notes an agonizing quandary: "What a burden we are placing on the shoulders of our people when we claim it is a sin to kill, even in war, when they don't even want to kill." Bass is of the opinion that, in the end, it comes down to "getting to know the righteousness of God. We must align ourselves to the will of God." BACK toward Gaza, in the embattled Israeli town of Sderot, Dina Gelfand feels a unique spiritual duty toward residents traumatized by eight years of rocket barrages. Originally from Russia, she grew up in northern Israel and now leads a small Messianic kehilah (assembly) in Sderot. "It's very difficult to live here," the young woman explains. "The people here constantly feel the pressure, the fear, the sense of shock." The incessant rocket volleys have a huge psychological effect on the children. Teenagers become bed-wetters. "Without my faith, I couldn't stand it here." "Only God can protect us in this time!" insists Dina - and this is her message to her fellow citizens. At the same time, she also knows that "peace in one's heart is more important and, in the end, the condition for outward peace." "We pray for the people in Gaza," she adds. "We would love to have contact with Christians in Gaza. I wrote a letter, but haven't had an answer." Some months before, I had passed on her congregation's desire for contact to a leading Palestinian Christian in the Hamas-ruled Strip. Israelis are not allowed to travel there, but some Gazan Christians, after a thorough security check, have been allowed to visit Israel for religious holidays or emergencies. Dina's small flock is still waiting for an answer from the Palestinian Christians. Dina Gelfand is convinced that "what the army is doing is necessary! For years the people in Sderot had the feeling that the state had forgotten them. Now at last, after eight years, we have the feeling that there's an army that is doing something about it, that cares about us." "Hamas is not just a problem for Israel, but also for the Palestinians," she adds without a trace of hate. "Someone must create some order there, and if Israel doesn't, who will?" OVER in Bethlehem, Baptist pastor Naim Khoury lays the responsibility for the current conflict squarely on Hamas. "There is no justification for what Hamas is doing. They must stop their aggression, they must stop shooting missiles, so that people can live together in peace." Khoury also accuses Hamas leaders of not caring about their own Palestinian people. "The civilians are suffering. If Hamas stops shooting missiles, Israel will re-open the borders." Born in Jerusalem's Old City and still holding a Jordanian passport, Khoury is a bishop representing the Baptist church to Arab people in the Holy Land. He is also that rarest of figures here - a Palestinian Evangelical who believes in God's land covenant with Israel through Abraham. For this, and his evangelising of traditional Christians and Muslims, the Baptist minister has been shot and left for dead, while his church has been fire-bombed and vandalized more than 16 times. Bishop Khoury is absolutely sure that "we are living in the last days. What is happening is no joke. The Lord is coming back soon! Everybody should be getting prepared for that - Christians, Muslims and Jews. Everyone needs to know who the true Messiah is, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings."D Johannes Gerloff is Israel bureau chief for the Christian Media Association (KEP) in Germany