Gaza and Israel and the Church on the frontline
Mission partner Joel Kelling reports on the church in action and reasons for hope
As conflict rages in Gaza and in Israel, the church is present and continues to show the love of God in the region.
by Joel Kelling, 24 October 2023
In the midst of all that is unfolding in Israel and in Gaza, the church is present. Indeed, Arabs are named amongst those present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and there have been Arabic followers of Jesus across the Middle East ever since that time. They belong to a wide variety of denominations – from Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, to Armenian Evangelical and Lutheran.
The continued presence and work of Christians in the Middle East matters hugely to me, and it is a great privilege that I am able to work alongside and for the church here as it exemplifies the love of Christ through acts of loving kindness, and a passionate desire for peace with justice for all.
The size and impact of the local Church in the Middle East
Even though things like conflict, immigration and relative birth rates have contributed to a decline in the Christian population throughout the region over the past century, the impact of the church strongly outweighs its numbers in society.
Despite the shrinking presence of congregations (in the mid 1940s, Christians comprised 20 per cent of the population of what is now the State of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, however today it is less than two per cent), the church as an expression of the body of Christ is remarkably unified in the region. The Middle East Council of Churches includes the Catholic Church and the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, who regularly pray together and do advocacy for the Christian presence and for peacebuilding in the Holy Land.
Anglicans have been active in the region since the mid 1800s. They represent a small number of the total Christian community, however they continue to contribute to the development of society wherever they are and they exercise an outsized practical impact on the communities they live in.
A complex context
To say that the church context in the region is a complex one, is something of an understatement. The Diocese of Jerusalem (which is part of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East) covers five jurisdictions – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. These are all places with different governments, cultures and demographic compositions. Across these lands, the church has about 30 parishes and an even greater number of institutions. As Muslim and Jewish populations make up the majority of people, the work of the Diocese has to be sensitive to how we show the love of Christ in ways that are appropriate for the context. Often, this is outworked through a presence of diakonia (service amongst others) – helping neighbours, refugees and those in need, and doing things like working to provide education and relieve suffering.
Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza
One amazing example of Christian care for those in need is the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. In addition to being founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1882, it has been directly run by the Diocese since 1982.
The hospital, which is supported through donations and is not-for-profit, regularly provides a free community clinic, surgery, emergency services and psycho-social support for children and caregivers who have been traumatised by war.
On Wednesday, 4 October, just a few days before the current conflict started, the Anglican Archbishop, Hosam Naoum, visited the hospital along with the Bishop of Norwich to meet with Suhaila Tarazi, the hospital’s indefatigable Director, and her amazing staff. They were shown the new facilities about to open – including a Chemotherapy Centre (only the second of its kind in Gaza, and co-funded with the Lutheran Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem) and a Children’s Rehabilitation Centre developed in coordination with the Princess Basma Centre. (The Princess Basma Centre is yet another Anglican facility. It’s located on the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and provides support for children with disabilities and their families from East Jerusalem and across the West Bank. It is led by another remarkable woman, Violette Mubarak.)
Sadly, as many of you will have seen in the news, the Al-Ahli hospital was hit by a devastating blast on 17 October.
Suhaila’s tireless work for Al-Ahli in the face of the hardships of the blockade are an inspiration, but there will be much work needed to repair and restore the hospital when this becomes possible. In the meantime, despite the damage, the hospital has continued to function as best it can, despite a shortage of fuel to power generators and depleted medical supplies.
Shelter for people stranded in the West Bank
As a result of the attack by Hamas on Israelis on 7 October and the subsequent war, hundreds of Gazan Palestinians were stranded in the West Bank, unable to return home. Some of these were people who were in the West Bank to receive medical treatment that is unavailable in Gaza, and others were day labourers in Israel who immediately lost their jobs and right to work in Israel following the attacks.
The Reverend Fadi Diab, the Anglican priest in Ramallah, is working together with the Lutheran church and others to provide temporary shelter, food and clothing to people who have been displaced in this way.
Elsewhere in the Holy Land, Christ Church School in Nazareth in Galilee serves Muslims and Christians, teaching students tri-lingually – in Arabic, English and Hebrew – and in Ramallah in the West Bank, the Technological and Vocational Training Center supports 100 per cent of its students into employment directly from graduation. This is a hugely significant achievement in a society where there is high unemployment.
Support for people living with disabilities
Across the Jordan River, the Rev’d Jamil Khader serves as director of the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, the only residential facility for deaf and deaf-blind children in Jordan.
It is a compassionate ministry that helps prepare both children and families for greater integration into society, through education, vocational training and the provision of hearing tests and hearing aids.
Throughout the history of the Institute they have worked in outreach into the refugee camps and communities of Jordan, serving Palestinian refugees for many years, and now, in cooperation with other disability charities, working inside Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps with Syrian refugees.
Peacebuilding through the church
Across the Diocese, the church works to build understanding and reconciliation between people of different faiths and backgrounds. This can be through education, healthcare or rehabilitation, or in supporting and encouraging conversation.
Organisations such as Kids 4 Peace (founded by the previous Archbishop, Suheil Dawani) and Jerusalem Peacebuilders, encourage leaders and young people to work together to bring understanding, fellowship, and friendship between Jews, Christians and Muslims of Palestinian and Israeli backgrounds, despite the great challenges in doing so.
A community of faith
The church is not only an organisation of institutions, it is a community of faith – of parishes filled with living stones, built on the foundation of Christ. Its continued existence is a present witness to the persistence of faith in spite of hardship (1 Peter 2.4–7; Ephesians 2:19–22).
These that I’ve shared are just a few of the stories and ministries of the church in the region. You can find out more through the Diocesan website (www.j-diocese.org) or on social media.
Archbishop of Canterbury’ s visit to Jerusalem
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently visited Jerusalem and spoke during his Sunday morning sermon about the Diocese being ‘a church of love, mercy and forgiveness, [a church that] refuses hate, refuses to withdraw from the world, seeks to be a blessing to all, loving amidst chaos, cruelty and darkness, anxious yet persevering, angry and yet seeking reconciliation, confused and yet ploughing steadfastly onwards, divided and yet loving one another.’ He went on to say, ‘This is the church being the church, and the world around can do no more than wonder at the beauty of such a church.’ (22 October 2023)
Where do we fit as Christians in this conflict?
At this time, it is important that we, as people of faith, do not give up hope.
When we see people suffering because of the actions of a violent few, it can be hard to see what difference we can make. For me, prayer must be a cause of action and love, rather than only words. It might feel impossible to make a difference to the conflict in the Holy Land (even from where I sit just across the Jordan River), but we can make a difference where we are.
In reaching out into our own communities and showing the love and care of Jesus to those we meet – and by going out of our way to do so – even as the conflict has exposed ugly actions and emotions in our own communities, we can show gentleness and respect. As we perceive the image of God made in our neighbour and ourselves, we can pursue the path of peace and reconciliation.
We, the church, can be salt and light.
Joel and Fiona Kelling need your support to continue their work. You can donate to support them here.
Joel Kelling has been present in the Diocese of Jerusalem since 2015. He was initially a volunteer for the then Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, the now Archbishop Hosam Naoum. Since 2017, Joel has been a CMS mission partner working for the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East as its administrator. He is also the regional facilitator for the Anglican Alliance, which works alongside the church to help connect, equip and inspire its action, particularly in development, relief and advocacy. Joel is currently based in Amman, Jordan, with his wife, Fiona, and their two children.
This article was first published by Tearfund, republished here with thanks.