Sunday, February 5, 2012

May God bless your hand

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. (Isaiah 40:31)

In northern Iraq, 300 miles from Baghdad and 60 miles from Mosul, the informal headquarters for what's left of Al Qaeda, the city of Erbil feels safe.

Christians are a small minority here, many displaced by the overwhelming violence from Baghdad or other parts of the country. The Mennonite Central Committee Iraq office also moved here from Baghdad.

Much of MCC's work here is about accompanying the church. One of its largest partners is the Chaldean Catholic Church. Archbishop Bashar says one of his priorities is creating a climate where Iraqi Christians know they can stay, where they can find jobs and make a better life for their children. Building institutions that are are effective in transferring mission and values can make a difference in this community.

One MCC partner is the Kids House pre-school, a Global Family project. Five years ago, MCC helped by purchasing temporary tents which are still in operation. The sisters who run this school were effusive with their gratitude for MCC's ongoing help - children greeted us with singing and gave us flowers as we arrived. Here, children, many of them displaced, are loved and well cared for. The sisters invited us for a sumptuous lunch and it was clear the sisters and MCC staff regularly pray for each other.

Another partner is the Mar Qardakh School which provides an International Baccalaureate program for 48 students grades one to four. Deb Fine (she and her husband Jim are the MCC Iraq staff) works here several days each week. The school models teamwork, dialogue and peace making in the classroom. The headmaster said this school will help develop critical thinking for a new generation of Iraqi leaders.

I talked to Father Fadi at St. Peters Seminary of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Father Fadi said people are still leaving Erbil and Christians are becoming a smaller and smaller minority. He said he has nine brothers and sisters, all of whom but one have left the country. His despair was tinged with hope: "We are doing something for today, no one knows what will happen tomorrow, but with hope for the next 100 years," he told me.

Abdul Sipar Yundis, leader of an association of 140 NGOs in the Kurdistan region said work before 2000 was focused on crisis but now the focus is more on human rights and advocacy. His goal is to help bring real change in Iraq by developing a stronger civil society. He is one of four persons who will be in Washington D.C. this week, through MCC funding, to share an alternative voice with U.S policy makers. "The best support the U.S. can provide is to support civil society, not the Iraqi government," he said.

Another MCC partner is the Al Alamal Association which works on health and development projects, conflict transformation skills and enhances dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups. "We work to help people participate in developing their communities," said Ala Ali, one of the Al Alamal board members.

Daryl Byler, MCC representative, told me that almost everyone in this region has had a family member killed in the last number of years. The best thing he thinks MCC can do is walk alongside people and let them know they are not alone.

Ysallim idak (May God bless your hand). In this war-torn country, I pray that MCC and its staff will continue to enable God's blessing to people in this region.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Christ at the checkpoint

Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6)

I sat in the quiet of St. Anne's Basilica in in the old city of Jerusalem and remembered the story about Jesus in John 5. It was here, outside by the pools of Bethesda, that Jesus healed the paralyzed man.

"Do you want to be made well," Jesus asked the man? The man was incredulous. Of course, he wanted to be made well. He'd been waiting by the side of the pool for years but no one had been willing to help him in.

"Then stand up, take your mat and walk," Jesus told the man. And immediately the man was made well.

In this land where Jesus once walked, the geopolitical issues are complex. Caught in a web of conflict and violence, both the Jews and Palestinians think this land is theirs. Some Jews, fearful of the rest of the world and supported by American Christians, treat unjustly Palestinians who have also lived in this land for many centuries. And some Palestinians respond in kind.

And these dynamics spill over throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Dr. Jad Isaac told a group of MCCers gathered at Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) on Friday morning that "the liberation of Palestine will not happen until we liberate the United States and that is the role of the churches." He said he doesn't want a Palestinian state, he wants the end of the occupation, to be able to move around freely. In the West Bank, Christians once accounted for 5% of the population and now that is 1% and still declining.

At the Wi'Am Conflict Resolution Center, Palestinian Christian Zoughby Zoughby told us that, while there is growing frustration in the Palestinian community, there is also a growing interest in nonviolent civil disobedience. " And he proclaimed, "the grave is empty and the resurrection is our hope."

At the Bethlehem Bible College, we heard about an upcoming conference, "Christ at the Checkpoint," designed to help evangelicals to look with new eyes at the sources of conflict in the Middle East. "We see change in churches in the United States," Bishara Awad told us. The college hopes to gather people from all over the world to look at the reconciliation work of the church in Palestine/Israel.

Earlier this week, my group of North Americans entering Israel from the Jordan border were pulled ahead of the line in front of a large group of Palestinians who clearly had been waiting at the border for some time. As I traveled the country the next few days and heard how daily living is made more and more difficult for Palestinians, as I traveled the checkpoints and saw the enormity of the gerrymandered wall created by a fearful Jewish state, it is difficult for me to find the guarded optimism I heard from Palestinian Christians like Dr. Jad and Zoughby and Bishara.

But as I sit in St. Anne's Basilica, I am confronted by Jesus' words and recognize that he is speaking to all who are doubtful and discouraged - "Stand up, take your mat and walk!"

The God of Abraham is still present in this land. Has been and always will be. For Christians, for Jews and for Muslims. What is my role and that of Christians in the United States to help extend God's love to all people who live here?