What Did We Learn? A reflection on our visit to the Middle East

By Rev. Steven D. Martin, President

During the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, the time Christians almost universally call "Holy Week," a delegation made of seven persons, three Christians and four Muslims, traveled to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories on a journey of solidarity visits and fact-finding.

We had many preconceived notions about what we would find. Anyone who has visited this region will tell you that one rarely finds the expected.

Christianity is disappearing from the Middle East, for sure. In the years since the creation of the state of Israel, Christians who once comprised 30% or more of the region are now only 1.7%, Why? Some media sources would tell you they have left because of pressure from Islamist groups To be sure, the Christian population of Hebron is nearly zero, in part because of the desire of groups to make it a completely Muslim area. But this is not the case in other parts of historic Palestine. Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Birzeit have been strongly Christian towns. It surprises many visitors to find church services full of worshipers, singing and praying in Arabic, greeting each other with "Alhamdullilah," "Isha'allah," and others typically associated with Muslim faith not because Christianity has been compromised, but because these are simply Arabic words that express religious sentiment. The heritage of Christianity is everywhere, fully integrated into Palestinian culture. But the people have, for the most part, entered the Palestinian Diaspora.

Muslim and Christian Leaders Travel to the Middle East to Advocate for Christian Minorities in the Arab World

Led by non-profit Clergy Beyond Borders

For Immediate Release: April 9, 2014

For more information contact: clergybeyondborders@gmail.com. Nazir Harb (nnharb@gmail.com), (206) 962-1821 (for Arabic language or English) Rabbi Gerry Serotta, (301) 908-6155. Website: ClergyBeyondBorders.org

While traveling the delegation may be reached directly by phone (865-300-6848 or 202-744-9464), Skype (vitalvisuals) or by email (smartin@vitalvisions.org)

WASHINGTON: A group of leading U.S. Muslim leaders will travel with Christian advisors to promote a vision and a reality that would ensure that Christians remain in the Middle East. Imam Yahya Hendi, President of Clergy Beyond Borders (CBB) emphasized his conviction that “Christians contribute to the beauty and variety of ancient civilizations. We support their presence, not simply as a minority, but as citizens enjoying full equality under the law, and therefore in a position to continue to contribute to regional peace, justice, and stability.”

With the Christian festivals of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter as a dramatic context, the delegation will issue a comprehensive call for full inclusion of Christian communities in the religious and civic life of Muslim-majority lands. Members will meet with government officials, church leaders, and Christian organizations in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine and will be in the region from April 13-21.

Two Families, One Journey (part 2)

I am sixteen years old and a Muslim. Yes, I pray, fast, go to the mosque, and dress modestly, but I have also celebrated Christmas for two years.

Elisabeth and I met in December of 2011. Initially, my father had announced a road trip down to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to meet up with one of his dear friends and celebrate Christmas. Being Muslim, this experience was going to be delightful, and we kids didn’t know what to think! Kids being kids, we asked if this still mysterious family had any kids our ages, and were practically at the edges of our seats waiting for the extremely long car ride to come to a relaxing and long awaited halt.

We checked into our prepaid hotel room, already feeling the love and affection this family was radiating, but all we could do was imagine, imagine how they look, act and behave.

Finally, the time had come to meet them! Not every member of their family had come to the hotel to welcome us, but surely three came, Elisabeth, Matthew, and Steve Martin. We talked about phone apps and sports, learning that we had very similar interests. We were both in band, marched instruments, played sports, and had religious figures in our lives. We said our goodbyes and hoped to see each other bright and early the next day, after all, it was going to be Christmas Eve, an event the six of us had not yet experienced.

One Christian, one Muslim, two different parts of America, and yet we had so much in common.

Two Families, One Journey (part 1)

I am sixteen years old, and I am a Christian.

About three years ago, my father came to my brothers and me with an unusual request. He sat down with the four of us and asked if we would be willing to share our Christmas holiday with a family of Muslims who, not only had we never met, but had never formally celebrated Christmas before. I try to be a person who is open to all things, but, admittedly, I was a little hesitant in my agreement. This is my family tradition. What will change? What if I don’t like them? What if they don’t like me? A dozen questions came into my mind. I had never even met a Muslim before. I am embarrassed to say so, but the world I live in is one that stereotypes, and as a result, a part of me feared the alien family that soon came to be some of my best friends.

Nevertheless, Christmas approached quickly in the year of 2011, and I became more excited for the Hendi family’s arrival than I expected. I carefully planned my outfits for the week and drilled my father on all of the must-know facts about the Muslim religion that was so foreign to me. I anxiously awaited their arrival, not knowing what to expect. My dad could not answer all of my questions, because I do not think he knew what he was getting into either. Soon enough, they arrived at their hotel and I went to say hello. They came to our house for the first time a day later.

Our time together was not awkward for very long. Their family has three girls and a boy, and my family has the opposite, so it was perfect for me. Although I had trouble remembering all of the Hendi Family’s names, I knew that I really liked having them around. They were kind, they were funny, they were generous, and we got along without even having to try. We shared many laughs and tears in our short time together.

Inheritance

Vital Visions announces a new program opportunity for your church or university. "Inheritance: Wounds in the hearts, minds, and landscape of the Holy Land" is a traveling photo exhibit that provides the perfect opportunity for a discussion of conflict, peace, and justice. Vital Visions President Steven D. Martin brings photographs and stories about his time in Israeli and Palestinian cities and will bring a message of how deep wounds, not religious differences, create the context for the challenges of this part of the Middle East.