Weighing the Anglican response in the Mideast

Palestinians sift through the rubble of their destroyed home. Photo: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan
Palestinians sift through the rubble of their destroyed home. Photo: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan
Published August 13, 2014

As talks to extend the uneasy ceasefire between Israeli forces and Hamas continue in Egypt, the Associated Press reported Wednesday that an unexploded bomb in Gaza killed five people, including three Palestinian police engineers who were trying to disarm it, a Palestinian translator and an Italian photojournalist.

With the mounting death toll – 1, 922 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 67 Israelis, mostly soldiers – Canadian Anglicans, like so many others, may be asking themselves what can and should be done to address the ongoing strife. The Anglican Journal asked some Canadian Anglicans if they think the church should be involved in the issue, and if so, how?

General Synod tried to address the question of involvement in the decades-long Middle East conflict when it passed a resolution on Israel and Palestine in 2013. Dean Douglas Stoute of St. James Cathedral in Toronto spoke during the debate on the resolution, cautioning the church not to follow the United Church of Canada’s decision to boycott products created in the occupied territories. “I thought [it] showed a lack of sensitivity to the complexity of what’s happening,” he said.

What was eventually included was not a boycott, but a commitment to “educate the church about the impact of illegal settlements on the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis; about imported products identified as produced in or related to the illegal settlements and misleadingly labeled as produced in Israel; about the complexities of economic advocacy measures.”

The resolution also encouraged Canadian Anglicans “to explore and challenge theologies and beliefs, such as Christian Zionism, that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, as well as theories and beliefs that deny the right of Israel to exist; and to and strengthen relationships with Canadian Jews and Muslims, to resolutely oppose anti-Semitism, anti-Arab sentiments and Islamophobia.”

But even as passed, the resolution troubled some Canadian Anglicans. Peter Malcolm of Victoria, B.C. wrote to the Journal to express his concern that it had an “anti-Semitic” tone, though he was glad it had not called for a boycott. “If I had been a United Church member, I would not be now,” he said. The church, he added, should not be choosing sides.

Canon John Organ, a Canadian who is serving as chaplain to Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem, listed theological, historical and political reasons for Anglicans to be involved and engaged with what happens in the region. From a theological point of view, Organ argued that, “as Christians, we really don’t have an option with regards to being involved in the Holy Land because our Lord was incarnated here. The particular matters, Nazareth matters, Bethlehem matters, Jerusalem matters, this Holy Land matters.”

Historically, Organ noted that the Anglican Church took root primarily among Arab Christians in the region. “For Arab Anglicans, this is their world, their community, their history, their story, their suffering, so we’re involved anyway whether we like it or not.”

Strengthening the Christian presence is important politically, he pointed out, because Christians have an important role as a moderating influence in the conflict. Christians, he said, “try very hard to be a bridge between the two communities, between the Israelis and the Muslim Palestinians…The presence of indigenous Christians here keeps it from a complete polarization.”

Laurette Glasgow, General Synod’s special advisor for government relations in Ottawa and a veteran Canadian diplomat, said she thinks that the resolution was important “because it is about learning and not making assumptions or making a caricature of the conflicts that are there.”

Glasgow added, “I can’t speak for what every Anglican should do because the whole approach of Anglicanism is to walk with people and share their journey.” Glasgow said, for her, engagement is closely tied to the Canadian church’s commitment to the diocese of Jerusalem. That means taking the “lead from [the diocese] in terms of what is helpful to them at any given time.”

That was a point where the differing opinions seemed to converge. “I prefer to work through the church in Jerusalem rather than make these broad, sweeping statements,” said Stoute. “I’m asking for sensitivity and deference to the church in Israel to let them be the spokespeople, let people know that we are supporting them, but not giving them solutions because that’s arrogant.”

Malcolm said he and his wife are very happy to support Christian organizations in the region that are devoted to helping anyone in need, regardless of creed and race. “We all have political views, that’s just the nature of the beast, but our intent should be to make as comfortable or as possible the lives of those that are there…I think we as Christians have a responsibility, and I believe that the Anglican Church is carrying it out.

That, said Organ, is what the Anglican health care and education ministries are all about. “The diocese is very careful in fact not to be political about any of it… And from that perspective, it is worthy of us as Canadian Anglicans, as Anglicans from the Communion to be involved in the mission of the diocese, to care for the wider community, those in need.”

Support from Anglicans throughout the Communion is essential for ministries, he added, because the Christian population – once 20 to 25 percent in the region – is now down to about five percent. Christians account for two percent of the population in Jerusalem and Anglicans comprise only a small segment of that. “But our presence and our impact is way above what our number would represent,” said Organ.

Anglicans wanting to educate themselves should visit the Holy Land, Organ recommended, but in Canada, he suggested that Canadian Anglicans might look for opportunities to get to know Palestinian Canadians. The Israeli narrative is more familiar in the West, he said, but what Canadians know of the Palestinians may not show them in their best light. “In spite of what you see, in spite of Hamas, and in spite of what’s going on in the wider Middle East … they are not a violent people. Of course, there are extremists, but the majority of Palestinian people are extremely hospitable and loving.”

Organ recommended consulting with people in the diocese of Jerusalem before making statements or taking actions regarding the conflict. “There’s a saying here. ‘If you are here for a week, you can write a book. If you are here for a month, you can write an article, and if you are here longer, you are not so conclusive about anything,” he said. “It is extremely complicated and complex, and there is layer after layer, so I think you need to have the local indigenous input to be able to speak for the situation, and you do need to check in with them when making statements about them.”

Glasgow, who visited the diocese of Jerusalem and many of its ministries in June, passed on a frequent request from people who she met, including at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. “Yes, we could fundraise. Yes, we can provide the kind of equipment and medication and financial support,” she said, “but the most important thing for them was for our presence to be felt by them, that they were not alone, that they’ve not been abandoned, that we’re supporting them in prayer as well as a sense of partnership, companionship and travelling with them.”






  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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