As this is written, we are observing with anguish the violence in the Middle East. The military forces of Israel are in confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. Cities in northern Israel are hit by rockets fired by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Throughout Lebanon cities are under aerial bombardment by Israeli military airplanes. In Lebanon and Israel the dead and wounded are civilians, women and men and children.
When the Middle East spiraled into a new cycle of violence in early July, I was in Amman, Jordan, participating in a conference hosted by Prince Hassan of Jordan (the brother of the late King Hussein, and uncle of the present King Abdullah). The theme of the conference was “Promoting Political Participation as an Alternative to Extremism.” My role was to represent the World Conference of Religions for Peace. The other participants were diplomats and representatives of foundations and institutions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
It was my task to draw attention to the “religious factor” in social and political life. Just the simple fact that the world’s population is approximately six billion and approximately five billion are members of religious communities suggests that the religious communities and religious values are unavoidably a serious factor, and either contribute to extremism or offer alternatives to extremism.
The violence in the Middle East is an urgent and alarming reality, with no just resolution in sight. It is not right that the citizens of Israel, both Jewish and Palestinian, are under threat of bombardment and terrorist attacks. It is not right that the people of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority are under threat of air strikes. When violence is directed against Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah, the innocent suffer. When violence is directed against militants and extremists by Israel, the innocent suffer.
It is obvious that offering political solutions or strategies is usually not in the competence of churches and religious communities. It is in our competence, however, to insist on the value of human life, on the importance of mercy and compassion, on the urgent need to see the “other” as a fellow human being. In other words, it is the task of churches and religious communities to confront hatred and prejudice, to offer insistently the insight that the suffering of the “other” is not something to rejoice over, but something to grieve over.
And perhaps this is the spiritual strategy which will be the beginning of the road leading away from the cycle of violence, whether in the Middle East, or the Balkans, or Africa, or anywhere in situations of fear, suspicion, and conflict. Only the recognition of our common humanity can show us the way to the recognition of the presence of the living God among us.
With regard to the Middle East there is another issue which is of concern to Christians, and should be of concern to all. The story of the past fifty years has been the story of a declining Christian population in the region, due to emigration. In the confrontations between Israel and the Arab populations and states, there is less and less space for Christians, since more and more of the space is occupied by Muslims and Jews. The Christian presence in the Holy Land, therefore, is likely to become a custodianship of holy sites, rather than the presence of living Christian communities.
While this can appear to be a matter of concern for Christians only, it is in reality something which affects the future of the Middle East region and its people, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim. If the Christian population continues to dwindle, it will mean that the Jewish and Muslim communities will eventually be left as the only religious communities in Israel and the Arab States, respectively. This is not promising for the creation and maintenance of societies in which alternatives to extremism are promoted. Two religious communities are likely to be in confrontation, while three communities have a greater possibility of interaction.
We pray that all those who look to Abraham as their father—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will offer the world a sign that their common spiritual origin is not a cause for conflict, but an invitation to recognize in each other and in every human being the image and likeness of God.
Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky