Archbishop of Canterbury’s false start in Holy Land

Justin Welby

Long-suffering Gaza and Bethlehem communities ignored – “no effort to go to the heart of the issues”

By Stuart Littlewood

Before he left for the Holy Land I telephoned Justin Welby’s office for details of his first visit as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, only to be told none were available in advance. So I emailed a list of questions….

  • Will the archbishop visit Gaza and if so whom will he meet (e.g. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh)?
  • When Archbishop Rowan Williams was eventually allowed [by the Israelis] into Gaza in 2010 (after initially being refused) he was limited to a measly hour or so for a hurried visit to Ahli hospital. How much time will Archbishop Welby be allowed?
  • Whom will he meet in the West Bank?
  • Will he be spending as much time with members of the Islamic faith as Jewish leaders?
  • Will he inspect the apartheid wall that imprisons Bethlehem and wait for hours at the checkpoint with the Palestinian workers?
  • Will he talk with survivors of the 40-day siege of the Church of the Nativity?
  • Will he be thoroughly briefed on the situation by the Latin Patriarch, Kairos and other Christian churches?
  • Will he talk with Palestinian students whose education is disrupted or destroyed by the Israelis?

When there was no reply and it became obvious he wasn’t going to Gaza I sent a second email:

It seems that the archbishop will not be visiting Gaza in spite of the desperate plight of the Christian community and their Muslim brothers and sisters. Was he prevented by the Israelis from including Gaza on his itinerary?

The previous archbishop, I believe, had a charity interest at the Ahli hospital. Does Archbishop Justin not have similar interests in this part of the Holy Land? Indeed, would you please list his charity involvement in the Palestine arena?

Again, not even the courtesy of a reply.

The archbishop announced that he sought “to serve all the people of this region, without exception”, so I telephoned Lambeth Palace again yesterday to see how far he had gone towards achieving that aim. His press officer was very defensive and said, in effect, that details of the trip were up on the website and there was nothing to add. In such a short visit there had not been enough time to go to Gaza. He would not be drawn on whether the archbishop had been denied permission by the Israelis. Nor would he comment about the promise to serve all the people of the region “without exception” while apparently making a very important exception of the Christian communities in Gaza and Bethlehem, surely the most oppressed of all.

When is the next trip? Couldn’t say.

Is another trip being planned? Couldn’t say.

“People expected more”

Press releases on the archbishop’s website tell of woolly words and mutual admiration at inter-church level, and little else of substance. Fortunately the Guardian printed a pretty blunt observation of its own. “Palestinian Christians have expressed disappointment that the archbishop of Canterbury did not visit their beleaguered communities to offer solidarity on his first trip to the Holy Land since taking office.”

Welby’s three-day schedule had not included Bethlehem and its surrounding villages, where Christian families have suffered severe economic hardship as a result of the separation wall, and many have left the Holy Land.

“Palestinian Christians would have expected a close interest from one of the most important Christian figures in the world,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official. “Christianity was born in Palestine, and the followers of Jesus Christ are suffering. These people expected something more.”

Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician and an Anglican, said the archbishop should have “reached out to Palestinian Christians. He should meet people and talk to them to see the impact of occupation and confiscation [of land].”

The Guardian also told of the struggle Christian families in the village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, are having in their campaign against Israel’s seizure of Palestinian land to make way for the hated separation wall, which threatens to divide people from their lands and livelihoods and cut off the monks of the Cremisan monastery from the nearby convent and local community.

That obscene wall, by the way, was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice nine years ago and ordered to be dismantled.

The head of the Catholic church in England, the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, had roundly criticized Israeli land appropriation and the UK government had also taken up the case, said the Guardian. “Christians in Palestine don’t even know [Welby] is here,” remarked one Beit Jala campaigner. “He has made no effort to go to the heart of the issues concerning Christians here.”

A friend who has made many trips to the area, retired surgeon David Halpin, wrote a letter to the archbishop ahead of his visit, in which he said:

In Gaza I met Father Manuel Musallam, a remarkable man, who led the Roman Catholic congregation and an excellent school which educated mostly Muslim children without distinction and with love. I saw the mutual respect and affection between Muslim and Christian and learned from the former that Jesus – Issa [in Arabic] – was regarded as one of the six prophets.

In Jerusalem, which is under the complete control of the Israeli “state”, and in Bethlehem which is imprisoned by the same entity, I saw Christians and Christian leaders hemmed round and greatly oppressed.

In the “secular” states of Syria and Iraq I know very well that Christian churches and their adherents were protected, contrary to propaganda, as indeed too were the synagogues.

International order is unwinding fast; division is one of the tools used by psychopathic leaders like Obama, Cameron, Hollande and Netanyahu.

A very important sign would be made if you, Archbishop Welby, were to prolong your trip to the hinge of humanity by visiting Gaza and Syria.

“Help mankind reach upwards”

Receiving no reply, Halpin wrote again that the archbishop’s visit “was even more disappointing to millions of us than we had imagined.

He found time to go to Vad Yashem, but a mile away he could have knelt at Deir Yassin… The terror arising from that barbarism was a strong catalyst for the violent ethnic cleansing (euphemism) of two-thirds of the Palestinian Arab population, 20 per cent of whom were Christian, incidentally.

I took note of this quote – “The archbishop emphasized his very clear emotions and feeling that the state of Israel is a legitimate state… and has a right to exist in security and peace within internationally agreed boundaries. However, the same right applied to all people in the region without exception.”

I have no doubt that Archbishop Welby recognizes the absolute necessity for adherence to international law by all parties. In particular, and with Vad Yashem fresh in his soul, he would bow to the Principles of Nuremberg and the following Charter of the UN. Those have been trampled completely by a multitude of psychopaths – Johnson, Reagan, Begin, Peres, Sharon, Netanyahu, Bush Snr and Junior, Pinochet, Straw, Blair, to name just a few. None has been indicted, found guilty and imprisoned until their deaths like Hess. But Welby’s job is to pick up the papers out of the dirt and the blood and to help mankind reach upwards.

The “state” of Israel is not a state. It was founded on terrorism and massive clearance of the native population. That continues in the West Bank with the constant aggressive expansion of the illicit settlements, with the Judaization of East Jerusalem and with the inhuman plan to corral 40,000 Bedouin into towns in the Negev – like dogs on chains. So, given the political ideology that drove it into existence and the lawlessness then and since, it is truthful and accurate to say “the Zionist entity”.

So far, Archbishop Welby has inspired no one. Without expressions and solid actions showing principle and moral courage, the Church of England will wither further as the weeping of women and children grows louder in other lands.

Dire situation in the Holy Land should be a priority for Welby

I’d add that Welby must waste no time getting to grips with the tragedy that has been allowed to overtake the Holy Land if he is to command respect outside the splendour of his Lambeth Palace residence.

We’re not forgetting that he recently refused to endorse the courageous and very necessary work of the EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which provides a protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitors and reports human rights abuses and supports Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace). That’s a black mark he has yet to expunge. One positive snippet of information to come out of his ill-planned expedition was that on his way to Ramallah he passed through the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint and spoke with human rights observers with the EAPPI. Did he suddenly see the light?

On his next trip the archbishop should please take enough time to do the Holy Land, its people and the dire situation justice. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – on the Anglican agenda more important than this.

Welby told Christian leaders in Jerusalem that he believes in blunt speaking. Let us see if he now stands up in the House of Lords and, along with the 25 other bishops on the bench, roundly condemns the illegal Israeli occupation, and berates those unprincipled politicians who tolerate and perpetuate its devastating effect on human life and hopes for dignity and freedom.

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