London festival offers hope to Holy Land Christians

More than 20 UK-based Christian organisations gathered in central London last weekend for a festival supporting Christians in the Holy Land.

The Christian population in the Holy Land, which can trace its origins back to the time of Jesus, has declined dramatically in recent years, due to economic and security reasons. Each years thousands of Christians emigrate. Many more, particularly those in the Occupied territories,  are living in dire poverty with grave shortages of food and access to medical care.

MPs, peacemakers, singers and scripture scholars were among those speaking and performing;  Aid to the Church in Need, Olive Aid, the Jerusalem Eye Hospital and Bethlehem University all exhibited at the ‘Hope for the Holy Land’ festival at Holy Apostles church hall in Pimlico. British Palestinian singer and broadcaster Reem Kelani, received a standing ovation for her performance  of traditional Palestinian music.

John Pontifex from Aid to the Church in Need, and Richard Jones from Bible Lands spoke on the challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land, while Pat Gaffney from Pax Christi, veteran campaigner Bruce Kent, Colin Breed MP from the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Rev Nadim Nassar from the Awareness Foundation were  among those identifying paths to peace in the region.
The Rev Garth Hewitt, Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem, who runs the Amos Trust, said: "we are reaching a Kairos moment." 

On 11 December the Churches are bringing out a joint statement on the Holy Land: 'Just Peace for Palestine', he explained, saying that this was reminiscent of the  Kairos document which the Churches brought out before Apartheid ended in South Africa. 

Rejecting accusations of being anti-Semitic, he said: "The Palestinians are a Semitic race. We are campaigning for justice on behalf of both Semitic communities". Rev Hewitt said that in spite of the grueling occupation, and the Separation Wall , there are signs of hope that do not reach the headlines, including large numbers of people, among them many Israelis, who are taking part in non-violent peace-building work in the region.

Bruce Kent called for Churches in the west to be more assertive on the issue of justice for the Holy Land. He said: "Many of our church leaders are too bland. As it says in Scripture: 'You were neither hot nor cold and I vomited you out."   He called for an end to the British government  selling arms to Israel, and a boycott of goods from the illegal settlements. Bruce Kent also questioned the tourist industry:  "Would travel agents have taken tourists to Nazi Germany" he asked.

Sister Josephine Goggins from the Ecumenical Accompaniers, gave a talk on the plight of Palestinians whose home are being demolished to make room for illegal settlements. Not only are families being evicted from their homes, but they are being forced to pay for the cost of the demolition work.

Pat Gaffney from Pax Christi urged people to write to their MPs calling for the government to stop selling arms to Israel and ask why Israel has favoured trade status. She called for people to complain to supermarkets to who sold produce from the illegal settlements. She collected Christmas greetings to send the people of Bethlehem, called for people to support peace projects in the region and urged parishes to pray for peace. The Pax Christi website has more information about this and liturgies for peace.

The organizer of the event, Della Shenton of 5th Gospel Retreats, said that the many different organizations working with and for Christians of the Holy Land were delighted to have been brought together for the first time under one roof, and wanted in future to act together for justice and peace in the Holy Land.

She said: "Hope for the Holy Land was organised on the premise that hope for the region lies in the faiths working together for a just peace."

“Early next year we will explore the possibility of an alliance of UK Christian organisations working in and for the Holy Land which could have a united voice,” said another one of the organizers, Austen Ivereigh of Holy Apostles parish. “As the pace of settlement-building and house demolitions accelerates, it is every day becoming harder for Christians and other Palestinians to remain. The Gaza blockade and the wall corralling Bethlehem are creating a humanitarian crisis which our church leaders must speak out on more forcefully.”

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