An Open Letter To United Methodists Considering Divestment

Editor’s Note: The United Methodist Church General Conference met in Portland, Ore. May 10 – 20. Among the topics for discussion were resolutions relating to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, including resolutions on divestment. In the end, they rejected four BDS resolutions.

It’s Time For Justice in the Palestinian Territories

A few weeks ago, construction workers excavating for a new shopping mall in the Gaza strip uncovered the remnants of a third-century Byzantine Christian church. Rather than call archeologists, the workers simply pushed the relics to the side and kept digging. Church leaders from the Holy Land protested to both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but their concerns were ignored. The Christian leaders also complained to the international media, but they were ignored there, too. Like with many Palestinians, being ignored is just too normal.

The United Methodist Church has prided itself on advocating for human rights and giving voice to the voiceless. Sadly, many claiming to speak for Palestinian Christians are not permitted to speak about Palestinian human rights abuses against Palestinians. The greatest fear for a Palestinian is to be labeled a collaborator with the Jews, and those who seek to speak truthfully about their suffering are often given that label. I hope you will listen with open ears and hearts to the suffering of Palestinians.

It’s Time for Freedom of Religion in Palestinian Territories

It is currently illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity in the Palestinian Territories. In fact, it is illegal to leave Islam for atheism or any other religion. This is rooted in that the Palestinian Basic Laws are based on Islamic law. Article 4 of the Basic Laws said:

  1. Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect for the sanctity of all other divine religions shall be maintained.
  2. The principles of Islamic Sharia law shall be a principle source of legislation.
  3. Arabic shall be the official language.

It is clear in Sharia that conversion from Islam is apostasy and the punishment is severe.

Respect for other religions is not the same as being permitted to change religion. As with many places in the Middle East, the rights permitted by law do not prevent intimidation and treats from radical Islamists. St. Charbel Monastery was set on fire by Islamic extremists in September 2015. Christian leaders in Bethlehem complained when the fire was blamed on an electrical malfunction.

Even churches are suffering under the intimidation of radical Muslims within the Palestinian Territories. One young Christian evangelist was recently told by a pastor to stop passing out Bibles in front of the church because the church leaders had begun receiving threats. In some cases, pastors discourage Muslims from attending regular church services due to threats from relatives and concerns of violence.

All Palestinian citizens are identified by their religion in the national computer database. To simply change religion requires permission by both religious and secular authorities. It is not difficult to imagine the risk associated with publically changing religion.

It’s Time for Freedom of Speech in the Palestinian Territories

Often ignored by the disproportionate focus on Israel by foreign media, Palestinian journalists have been interrogated and even imprisoned for documenting corruption or publically criticizing the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. According to a report by Human Rights Watch,

Security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have arbitrarily detained scores of West Bank journalists since 2009, and in some cases abused them during interrogation in a manner that amounted to torture. Like other Palestinian victims of abuse by the PA’s security services, these journalists confront a virtual wall of impunity when they try to hold their abusers accountable, leaving the victims feeling vulnerable to further harassment and abuse. The combination of abuse and impunity has, according to some journalists, produced an intended “chilling effect” on free expression and led to increasing self-censorship.

It is not just journalists that are targets. Blogger Waleed al-Husseini spent almost a year in a Palestinian prison for advocating atheism and criticizing Islam. In an article he wrote for the Daily Beast, al-Husseini described his experience:

The 10 months I spent in Palestinian prison were the worse of my life. I faced constant pressure to retract my statements. I was told they had removed my blog and that I must apologize for publishing it. Even once I was freed, I was told I should never again use the Internet, nor meet with the media.

For months after my release, I was harassed by the security services, who further interrogated me and detained me without cause. I received letters from people saying they wanted to kill me.

Even a Facebook post can be enough of a “crime” to warrant spending a year in a Palestinian jail. Mahdouh Hamareh and Anas Said Awad were imprisoned for a year for negatively depicting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook. According to Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, “A PA court in Bethlehem found Hamareh guilty of a photo ‘harming his excellency the president, disseminating lies, libel and slander and publishing material that spreads seeds of hatred.’”

It’s Time to Reject Racism in the Palestinian Territories

Palestinian leadership, including Abbas, has publically stated that a future Palestinian state will be free of Jews and Israelis. This is in stark contrast to Israel, where Arabs, Druze, Arameans and Circassians currently make up 20 percent of the population.

The commitment of the international community is the establishment of “two states for two peoples.” This commitment is based on the understanding that long-term peace will come about when the Palestinians are given sovereignty and authority to be self-governing over agreed-upon boarders. Sadly, one state will have a vibrant minority community and the other state will be a racist state free of Jews.

Unfortunately, rhetoric used by the Palestinian leadership feeds into the collective memory of the Jewish people and the trauma of the Holocaust. Even now, every visitor to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, is confronted by the images of Nazi propaganda declaring Germany to be “judenfrei” (free of Jews). With such similar statements coming from Palestinian leadership, it is no wonder that Israelis are distrustful of the Palestinian commitment to peace.

As Christians and people of good will, we should be disturbed about the absence of basic freedoms for our brothers and sisters. We should be concerned that the spread of the gospel is being suppressed in the Palestinians Territories. We should be advocates for transparency that comes through the work of journalists and others who expose “deeds done in darkness.” We should be committed to rejecting racism in all its forms.

Ultimately, as Christians, we cannot advocate on the basis of justice for a state that promises to be unjust. As a brother in Christ, I hope and pray that this General Conference will not turn back from its rich tradition of advocating for human rights when it comes to addressing the complexities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, May 10, 2016, and reposted with permission.

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Luke Moon is the Deputy Director of the Philos Project. Prior to that, Luke served as business manager for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and, before that, as a missionary with Youth with a Mission for 12 years. Luke has lived, worked, and taught in over 45 countries, and has advocated on a number of human rights issues along the way. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from the University of the Nations and an MA in Global Politics from Regent University. Luke is also an ordained Southern Baptist minister.