Interview. Liberation Theologists in Palestine challenge the ‘Exodus’ narrative. ‘We live here, we are the descendants of the first Christians after Jesus, and this land doesn’t belong to us? It was something that didn’t make sense. God couldn’t possibly be so treacherous.’

Christians in Palestine celebrate Christmas with ‘permits upon permits’

The advent of Christmas is putting the spotlight on the Palestinian Christian community and its political and social organizations, as well as its religious ones. In Shuaffat Street, in the Arabic (eastern) area of Jerusalem, these are busy days for the Sabeel Ecumenical Center, one of the most progressive representatives of Christian civil society, an offshoot of Palestinian Liberation Theology.

We talked with the director of Sabeel, Omar Karami, about the organization and its support for the rights of Palestinians under occupation.

How much does the Liberation Theology in Palestine have in common with the Liberation Theology movement that arose within the Catholic Church some 40 years ago, and which saw strong development in Latin America?

The connection between the two movements was not established right away: it came after the birth of Sabeel, thanks to the efforts of Father Naim Ateek, who was our inspiration. Sabeel had its beginning during the first Palestinian Intifada (1987), as an expression of Christian activism. At that time, I was very young, and like others my age, I was demanding freedom for the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. Yasser Arafat—I will never forget this—called us “the lions of the Intifada.” In those days, they were asking us many questions, including religious questions.

As Christians, we felt strongly disadvantaged by the fact that the leaders of the various churches were not Palestinians, they were foreigners, and they told us that the Holy Scriptures were saying that our land, Palestine, was not really ours, but belonged to another people—the Jews—by the will of God. That was not convincing to us, we were dismayed. How could that be, we asked ourselves: we live here, we are the descendants of the first Christians after Jesus, and this land doesn’t belong to us? It was something that didn’t make sense. God couldn’t possibly be so treacherous. 

Then, Father Ateek began to read the Old and the New Testament to us in a totally different way: he did it from a Palestinian perspective. And we discovered in the sacred texts and in the teaching of Christ the reasons for our eagerness for freedom, for the emancipation of our people. During those days, Sabeel opened its doors as an ecumenical center for dialogue with everyone, but rooted in the principle of justice for oppressed peoples.

When did the contacts with the exponents of Liberation Theology in Latin America take place?

I don’t remember exactly. We’re talking about 30 years ago. But we did begin a profound dialogue with the organizations in Latin America, where there are actually communities of Palestinian Christians. We found many similarities, and at the same time some important differences. They were very focused on social justice and the fight against poverty, on the fight against the dictatorial regimes of the time. As for us, on the other hand, although we were likewise sensitive to social issues, we were more focused—as we still are today—on the relationship of a people with their land, on the connection with the roots of one’s identity. 

Sometimes, during our conversations on religious subjects, some exponents of South American Liberation Theology were putting a lot of focus on the book of Exodus [the second book of the Bible, which tells the story of the Jews in Egypt, their slavery and liberation thanks to Moses and their long wandering through the Sinai desert]. We didn’t like that, because that kind of discourse seemed to be aimed at stressing that the land of Palestine didn’t belong to us even if we lived there.

Sabeel is an ecumenical center. Its initiatives have a marked religious content, and, as you yourself stressed earlier, they are based on the teaching of Christ. However, they also have a political significance. Sabeel is trying to speak to all those who live in this land, but which solution to the conflict do you support? Two states for two peoples? Or a single state for the whole of historic Palestine, for both Palestinians and Jews?

You journalists have this one flaw: you simplify everything. In the minds of the Palestinians, there are four possible solutions, not just two. The first, on the basis of an anti-colonial reading of Zionism, calls on the Israelis to stand down and give the land back to its indigenous population. The second, which is of an Islamist nature, calls for full sovereignty for the Muslim population and gives the Israelis the freedom to choose whether or not to remain in one state under Palestinian authority. The third is that of a single state for the two peoples. And finally, there is the solution with two states, Israel and Palestine, which Sabeel still considers the most realistic one. Because a single state for Palestinians and Jews seems impossible if we look at the reality on the ground and we take into account the will of the two peoples.

In just a few hours, it will be Christmas. How will the Palestinian Christians celebrate it?

The commercial aspects of Christmas are prevalent here as well. But Christian Palestinians are in the same situation as other Palestinians, as the Muslim population, and have to deal with the reality [of the occupation]. Well, if we bear in mind the great difficulties that the Christians of Gaza have to face during these days of celebration in order to reach Jerusalem and Bethlehem [because of Israeli restrictions on movement], we believe that it is deeply unfair that the descendants of the first Christians, with strong ties to their land—the land where the words of Christ were spoken—are forced to ask for permits upon permits [from the Israeli authorities] to visit their sacred places in the Holy Land, while Christians coming from abroad can do so without any issue. It seems dehumanizing to us. In our view, Christmas means being on the side of the oppressed, feeding the hungry and offering love without compromise. But that’s not just for one day every year: for us, Christmas should be every single day.

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