The following is an excerpt from Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, Land, and the State of Israel edited by Gavin D’Costa and Faydra L. Shapiro.
Christian-Jewish Relations From A Christian Palestinian Perspective
A Catholic engagement in relationship with the Jewish people is rooted in a context. For many in the Church today that context is forged in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. What do Christian-Jewish relations look like from the perspective of a Catholic theologian who is a Palestinian Arab? How does that perspective impact how Catholic theology might see the Land of Israel and the State of Israel?
In order to understand the Catholic teaching on the Land and the State of Israel, we need to go back to the Western context of the relations between Catholics and Jews. After centuries of negative attitude of the Church toward the Jews, World War II and the horrible events of the Holocaust represent a turning point in this attitude of the Catholic Church to begin a serious and beneficial dialogue with the Jews. The reply of Pope Pius X to Theodor Herzl in 1904 is known to everyone. The second half of the twentieth century represented a new context in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, or the Jewish people, especially with the fourth paragraph of Nostra Aetate in the Second Vatican Council.
Is this the same context for the Christians of Palestine? Christian Palestinians did not see their relations with the Jews from a theological perspective, but from a political one. We reacted to the Jewish emigration to Palestine as Palestinians: we opposed the partition of Palestine in 1947 as an unjust plan; more than sixty thousand Christians were expelled from historic Palestine1 (the two thirds of the Christians, the same percentage as of all the Palestinians expelled from Palestine and becoming refugees); the Christian Palestinians joined the Palestinian National movement, like any other Palestinian. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was seen as a political one.
When it comes to the land, the land for the Palestinian Christians is the space where we are called to worship God and build his Kingdom. We were born here. We lived here for the last two thousand years. This is our homeland, the only homeland that we have. Do we need a theology to justify belonging to this land? We were and still are blessed by being witnesses of our faith here, in the land sanctified by God’s promises, and by the life, death, and of resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A Palestinian theology of the land comes as a reaction to a Western theology that denies us the right of belonging to the land and justifies the dispossession of our homeland with supposedly biblical arguments. A Christian Palestinian perspective is not primarily “theological”—it is a reflection on the attachment to this land, an attachment required and inspired by our faith.
Traditional Palestinian Readings of The Bible
Our connectedness to this land is a natural right. It is not an ideological or a theological question only. It is a matter of life and death.2
Allow me to tell you my story with the Bible, which is the story of all Christians in the Holy Land. I began reading the Bible at an early age, beginning with the New Testament. The Bible was always the Good News of our salvation. The story of the Bible was my story, the story of my land. God chose my land to reveal himself and to send the patriarchs, the prophets, and finally his son for all humanity. God sanctified our land with the events of salvation. Living around the holy places adds a spiritual value to our reading the Bible. The places it mentions are our towns and villages; the patriarchs and the prophets are our forefathers in faith. We are deeply acquainted with the geography of the land and the culture of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. It is our culture.
Our religious life gravitates around the holy places. Christian feasts are celebrated in the holy places where they took place: Christmas in Bethlehem, the Annunciation in Nazareth, and Easter in Jerusalem. Pilgrimages are organized to Jerusalem to participate in the procession of Palm Sunday, to walk the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday, to visit in August (preferably on foot) the tomb of Mary at the Mount of Olives, and to participate in the holy fire ceremony on Holy Saturday. Besides the “history of salvation,” there is also a “geography of salvation.” The Holy Land becomes the fifth Gospel:
This is a land where our Fathers in faith lived; a land where the voice of the prophets was heard speaking in the name of the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob; a land [where] the presence of Christ, most of all, blessed and sanctified all Christians and, we may say, all humankind. No one can forget that when God wanted to choose, as a human being, a home, a language, a family in this world, he took them from the East. . . . He became an infant in Bethlehem, a teenager and a worker in Nazareth, Master and Healer all over the region, Crucified and Risen from the tomb that still exists in the “Church of the Resurrection”, as it is called by the Christians in that land.3
Our roots go back to the first apostolic community, and we continue the Christian presence in a long and sometimes difficult history, so that when pilgrims visit the holy places, they find a Christian community, the living stones of the local church. We witnessed to our faith in this land, we endured the vicissitudes of history, and we intend to continue this presence into the future. This is where God wants us to be and where we can fulfill our vocation as Christians.
The “fifth Gospel” is both the land and the people living in it. When we encourage Christian pilgrims from all over the world to come to the Holy Land, we ask them to “come and see,” to meet the local community, the living witnesses of our faith, and then to return carrying a message of peace, love, and reconciliation.4
- George Kossaibi, “Demographic Characteristics of the Arab Palestine People,” in The Sociology of the Palestinian, ed. Khalil Nakhleh and Elia Zureik (London: Croom Helm, 1980), 18
- A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering, “Kairos Palestine Document,” World Council of Churches, 2.3.4 (December 11, 2009).
- Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Nobis in animo, March 25, 1974.
- See “Kairos Palestine Document,” 6.2.