Strength and Hope in Perilous Times: An Interview with Mitri Raheb
On June 3rd Cornerstone Mag writer Chris Rice caught up with Rev. Mitri Raheb for an engaging conversation about his new book, the involvement of Americans Evangelicals with Palestinians, and how to maintain hope in the midst of desperate situations.
Chris: Please tell us your name and what you do.
Mitri: My name is Mitri Raheb and I am pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethehem and director of International Center of Bethlehem there.
C: You’ve just written a book entitled Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble. Could you just give us sort of a summary of what you go into in the book and what the book has meant to you.
M: Basically there are 18 true stories–personal stories–which I have experienced myself in the last three years living in Bethlehem under the Israeli occupation and the Intifadah and my reflections and experience as a Palestinian Christian and as a human being. Through these stories I’m trying to show what the occupation does to the life of ordinary people and at the same time how to get out of this mood of being overwhelmed with what happened into an action to bring hope in hopeless situations.
C: In many ways from reading your book it seems you’re trying to bridge the gap between what people may not understand about living under the occupation, just by virtue of us living in the West. How can we use these stories that you’ve told to build better relationships there with people in Palestine?
M: For me I choose this method of narrative theology or basically telling stories because I think its something everyone can relate to.
M: I mean there’s lots of theology and lots of thinking behind it, [but its presented in a way] that every person, every average american can understand. [So] they are short stories and they are perfect to be used in Bible classes or in other education groups, in house churches, [or small group settings] and discussed. So really with this book I try to give a tool to Christian churches to see our conflict from a new perspective and be able to discuss it in their different settings.
C: On a personal and informal level how can we begin to encourage American Christians and mainly from where I am, Evangelicals, to come and form relationships and come to the spiritual and emotional aid of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and even refugees here in America?
M: I really think the first thing every American should do is get some first hand information and education on the conflict because unfortunately my experience is that American people are very good-hearted people the problem is that they don’t know much about the situation. I mean even now they are spending days and weeks talking about Scott Peterson. You know who he is? [Scott and Laci Peterson murder trial in California]
M: and they just don’t know much about what’s happening in that corner of the world unless there’s suicide bombings or something and they just don’t know much about it so the first step is to get more information.
C: You talk in the book about Americans in the past who’ve come to help, but these days are there people emailing or calling with their support?
M: We have many Mainline American Christians-.–Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians who come and want to make a difference. Unfortunately many of the Evangelicals who come to the Holy Land come to support Israel. Every year around October at the Feast of the Tabernacle they come—four to five thousand Evangelical Christians— and they support Israel financially even in buying weapons, which I think has nothing to do with the Christian faith. Its become ideology. . . .
C: Mmm. (Sigh.) So what I’m hearing is that there’s not much encouragement coming from American Evangelicals, especially on a personal level. I guess why I’m asking is that I have a friend there who I email quite often, and he emails me back and just tells me how he’s doing. When he’s severely depressed he tells me. Sometimes I’ve actually called him just to let him know that I care. And what I keep hearing is that you feel so alone and lost as though the whole world isn’t even paying attention. But I guess what I’m asking is is there some way we can foster, and is your ministry doing this in some way, that one on one type of encouragement. I mean the giving and support is important and obviously the activism is so important on the political level, but on the personal level from those who want to offer that personal touch of support by saying “I know I care, my prayers are with you during this time.”
M: This is something very important that people in this country need from people there. It is very important that we continue connections and relationships. In our work at the Center we know that we often feel forsaken from the whole world, and yet we think that our role as Christians is not to sit there and weep like the woman on the Sunday morning in front of the Tomb. But we hear God telling us “Go and tell my brothers.” For us Christianity is all about transformation from being people who just cry into being people who hit the road to Proclaim even in the midst of this devastating situation.
C: I find your book very convicting, particularly when you talk about what you would do as an American. Its around pg. 83 when you describe trying to get out of Palestine [by airplane] at a particular time. Here in America its easy to feel your hands are tied by our government. Personally I’ve been tempted to stop signing online petitions or calling the White House. I don’t think my government cares to hear my opinion. And the fear is that you can’t make a difference anyway because they ignore all voices except what they want to hear, you know, even in the International community or the UN. Is this an irresponsible position?
M: I think change will come from the accumulation of several factors together. Petitions alone will not make a difference. But they are important because again they just let people know that there are people who care. Its important for us to know that there are people who care for the Palestinians and who care for justice in the Middle.East, because they are hearing the other side all the time. I mean they hear from the Pro-Israeli Lobby all the time. And I don’t think we should give the impression that everyone in the States are supporting their policies. Because that is not true. So that is why I think its important to raise your voice, sign the petitions and write your senators and congress persons and so forth. But this alone [is not enough}. Often a Church or a denomination will think that because it has drafted a resolution it has done something. It is important as an educational tool. But what I would say it is also important to bring relationships to people in Palestine and to, if possible, support a ministry in Palestine. [These are more concrete things.]
C: I must confess that if I were in your shoes I would probably give up traveling. As Americans we hate inconveniences. In your case inconvenience is a severe understatement. It probably ranges from inconvenience to outright abuse. But the things you describe would disarm me, which is I’m sure the intention. But how do you maintain a trust in the basic human decency of the Israeli Authorities when they’ve done you and your loved ones wrong so often.? How do you treat them with dignity and expect it from them?
M: Well I don’t really expect the Israeli military to deal with us in a humane way.
C: Well you talk to them and you don’t give up.
M: Right, I challenge them and try to get through to the human being in them because I think its very important and I think it’s the Israeli people who will play a very important role in changing our situation and their situation. And I think that the Israeli civil society is strong enough so that if they want to make a change they can make it. . . .
C: Mmm. Hmm.
M: and so we have to reach out to them, which is very important. But again I think that all of this would not be possible without the faith I’m in because from a human point of view bitterness and revenge and hatred would seem appropriate. But I think it’s a very destructive approach and it destroys us more than the Israelis. And again its very important that we keep holding to the human in them and in ourselves.
C: At the end of your chapter “Challenging yet Transforming the Enemy” (chapter 2, page twenty-five) you write:
“We discussed how to evaluate a situation and how to calculate risks. I thought that if they grow up in this region, they must learn how to deal with these issues while they are young. Who knows when they will need to quickly evaluate difficult situations and take calculated risks?”
To me that’s an amazing example of what must go on. You’re sort of describing what you must have experienced growing up under the occupation all the time. And having to say that to your daughters is an amazing thing to me. One thing that I experienced when I was there, and I certainly don’t want to just talk about me, but coming through the checkpoints in February of 2003 I witnessed my friend hand his passport—his identity, his everything—to the soldiers and cross to the other side to wait with us for a taxi, and that blew me away because I saw in that act that that was a brave thing to do. What was to keep them from just keeping that passport? And yet he did it out of a simple kindness. Facing those people that could be your enemies, assessing that risk and taking it. That boggles my mind. That’s amazing to me.
M: I think that this is something very important. These are devastating times and we must act in Truth rather than fear.
C: Now in the book you talk about a lot of hopeful things that are not even covered in the press, like the candle light ceremony. You talk about how because no shootings occurred and no one was killed this was not even covered. Do events like this that we aren’t aware of happen all the time?
M: Yes, actually. Most of the time. Good news is no news unfortunately. And as the old adage goes, “if it bleeds it leads.”
C: Thank you Rev. Raheb for talking with us.
M: You are very welcome.
We invite you to please visit the following websites associated with Mitri’s work and as you are able give your support:
See http://www.bethlehemmedia.net/diaries.htm for more personal everyday accounts from various Palestinians enduring life under Israeli occupation.
Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble
By Mitri Raheb
Fortress Press, 2004.
Book Review by Chris L. Rice
Many pundits are all too eager to share their opinions on the politics and violence in the Middle East. Has any other modern region of the world received as much attention as Israel and Palestine? And with each breaking news item many people feel helpless and discouraged that anything good will happen in the future. But wait, what of the people who have grown up and live there? Some wonder why they don’t just all give up and move away. Humanizing the struggle, and getting to the real stories behind the headlines and sound bytes, is a true beginning toward change. In Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, Mitri Raheb offers a glimpse into his everyday life as a pastor, husband and father in Bethlehem. Mitri says of his book, “Writing under siege overcomes the siege imposed on us, and publishing while the apartheid-like wall is being built enables me, in a sense, to transcend the wall.”
This collection of personal short stories give us a window not only into what its like to have grown up under the Israeli Occupation and the extenuating circumstances brought on by the Intifadah as they relate to everyday family life, but also into his very soul. Mitri demonstrates the gospel promises he espouses as an Evangelical Lutheran minister in the face of regularly hopeless situations. It should be noted that his work at the International Center of Bethlehem (also known as Center Dar al-Nadwa which means “house of worldwide encounter”) integrates people of all faiths and walks of life. The Center states on its website “we believe in the necessity of dialogue between cultures and encounter between people from different contexts. Since its opening, the Center has provided services for more than 20,000 people annually, both local and international.” The purpose of this book is to welcome us into the hopeful reality of life as pastor Raheb sees it. In the face of complete uncertainty this group of Christians continues to build and rebuild connections and community.