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March 11, 2014 3:38 pm

Plight of Palestinians in Syria Ignored at First Night of Christian Conference

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Hanna Amira addresses the audience at Christ at the Checkpoint. Photo: Dexter Van Zile.

Bethlehem – Pity the Palestinians starving to death in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the Assad regime is stopping aid workers from bringing food, fuel, and medical supplies into the camp – and, as a result, people are starving.

More than 200 people have died inside the camp since the Assad regime imposed a siege on Yarmouk last June. According to the Jerusalem Post, Amnesty International accused the regime of using starvation as a weapon of war in its fight against Sunni rebels in Syria.

To make matters worse, the Palestinian Authority just squandered an excellent opportunity to draw attention to the plight of the 17,000 to 20,000 Palestinians suffering in the Yarmouk camp.

The opportunity came on Monday night’s opening of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, currently taking place at the Jacir International – a five-star hotel in Bethlehem. This conference, organized by Bethlehem Bible College, has attracted more than 500 Evangelical Protestants from around the world, mostly from North America and Europe.

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If a Palestinian leader such as President Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah had made a plea at the conference for the people dying in Yarmouk, it probably would have gained traction and made a media splash. It would also have raised awareness about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria, who are suffering on a horrific scale.

But during the first night of the conference, when Palestinian political leaders addressed attendees, no one said a word about what was happening to Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Not a word.

Instead, Palestinian leaders, including Hanna Amira, the Head of the Presidential Committee for Church affairs for the Palestinian Authority, and Vera Baboun, the first woman to serve as may of Bethlehem, spoke in harsh terms about Israel.

Speaking through a translator, Amira offered the audience a predictable speech about how the conflict is all Israel’s fault and how the Palestinian Authority will never abandon the national rights of its people. PA leaders will not accept any solution that does not entail a return to the pre-1967 borders and does not include Jerusalem as the new state’s capitol, he said.

“I hope next year to meet you in Jerusalem, the eternal capitol of our people and our state,” he said.

Before Amira took the podium, Munir Kakish, head of the Council of Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land, asked that the Palestinian Authority recognize the rights of Evangelicals.

“As a religious group, we are still unable to practice our basic civil rights to issue marriage certificates, register our church properties in the name of the church, or even open bank accounts to manage our churches’ financial affairs,” he said.

Kakish’s plea confirmed complaints made by Reverend Steven Khoury from Bethlehem’s First Baptist Church in the Algemeiner – two years ago.

The problem is a holdover from the Ottoman Empire. Because Evangelical Protestants were not present in the Middle East during the rein of the Ottoman Turks, they do not enjoy the rights accorded to them under the millet system, vestiges of which are still present in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Because First Baptist Church falls into this category of unrecognized churches, its marriage certificates are not recognized by the Palestinian Authority and as a result children born to parents who belong to the church are considered illegitimate. Reverend Geoff Tunnicliffe from the World Evangelical alliance also raised the issue during his brief introductory speech.

“We would request again official recognition of our churches here,” he said to applause, adding that he will be making the same request to Israeli officials next week.

A Distorted Narrative

Prior to the conference, Reverend Alex Awad, a pastor of a church in East Jerusalem and Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College, briefed attendees about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of the Palestinians. The narrative he offered was largely similar to the one offered by Palestinian political leaders at the opening of the conference, with a lot more family anecdotes.

The story he told was one of the Palestinians suffering the consequences of Europe’s inability to treat its Jewish population justly. The European powers supported Israel’s creation in Palestine, he said, because of guilt over the Holocaust.

“Anti-Semitism is a European thing,” he said. “It’s not a Palestinian thing. Anti-Semitism never originated in this land.”

During his presentation, Awad omitted some crucial aspects of history. For example, he made no reference to the 1929 riots in Hebron that killed approximately 60 Jews and ended thousands of years of Jewish presence in that city.

He also made no mention of the failure of the Camp David negotiations during which the Israelis made a legitimate peace offer, which Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat flatly rejected – without even making a counteroffer.

When asked about this after his presentation, Awad said he had visited with Arafat four times and that during his last meeting with Arafat, he asked him about why he did not take what was offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“Arafat laughed in my face,” Awad said.

Awad reported that Arafat said that Barak’s offer had two problems with it. First, Barak offered Palestinians one piece of land in Israel in exchange for 10 pieces of territory in the West Bank, which would not be part of the Palestinian state.

“Do they think I didn’t know math?” Awad reported Arafat said.

Awad also relayed another one of Arafat’s complaints about Barak’s offer, this one related to the Al Aqsa Mosque on top of the Temple Mount. According to Arafat’s story (as relayed by Awad), Barak insisted that Israel maintain control of the land underneath the mosque and the sky over it. When Arafat asked what happened if a crazy person burned down the mosque, Barak did not give him any assurances that Palestinians would have any control over the future of the mosque itself.

Awad also reported that Arafat claimed to have called all the leaders in the Middle East, including Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in 2000 and no one encouraged him to take the offer.

When asked about the Clinton Parameters, which Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia pressured Arafat to accept, Awad said he was unfamiliar with them.

“I need to read more about them,” he said. “I need to learn more about them.”

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

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