Frankly Speaking: Are Palestinian Christians facing extinction?

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Updated 29 January 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Are Palestinian Christians facing extinction?

  • Palestinian pastor describes Israel’s Gaza war as “a genocide,” slams Western governments for failing to protect Palestinians
  • Rev. Munther Isaac insists Christians seek no special treatment, says he does not want to see Israel destroyed or Jews leave

DUBAI: Israel’s brutal war in Gaza is threatening to end the existence of Palestinian Christians in both the enclave and the occupied West Bank, Rev. Munther Isaac of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has said.

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News weekly show, the Palestinian pastor did not mince words while speaking on topics ranging from the Church’s position on the conflict to whether the West has begun turning on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It is a genocide. Israel told the world what it is doing, what it wants to do, and facts speak for themselves,” he said.

“How was the killing of thousands of children self-defense? How is that related to Oct. 7? How was the displacement of close to 2 million people self-defense?”




Rev. Munther Isaac of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem spoke with Katie Jensen on Frankly Speaking. (Arab News photo)

Militants led by the Palestinian group Hamas killed around 1,300 people, mostly civilians, in an unprecedented attack on southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7 last year. Another 250 people were taken hostage, according to Israel.

The events triggered Israel’s retaliatory assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and reduced vast swathes of the enclave to rubble.

“It became clear to us, especially as Palestinians, in the very first few weeks of the war, even days, that this is an attempt to end life in Gaza as we know it,” Isaac said.

The war has had a ripple effect beyond Gaza, with the tens of thousands of Christians who live in the West Bank also suffering, Isaac added.




Palestinian Christians march in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Oct. 23, 2023, in solidarity with the people of Gaza amid Israeli aggression. (AFP)

“Here in the West Bank, many Palestinian Christian families have already left out of fear. They look at what was happening in Gaza and they think, ‘could this happen to us one day?’”

Isaac said it is “impossible to thrive as a community in the midst of conflict, oppression and occupation.

“Life here was so difficult before Oct. 7; it’s even more difficult now. Many have lost their jobs because there is no tourism. Jerusalem is completely blocked now, isolated from us.”




Rev. Munther Isaac of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem spoke with Katie Jensen on Frankly Speaking. He said Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to genocide and are completely unrelated to the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack. (Arab News photo)

Isaac’s community were already a minority dealing with their own challenges even prior to Oct. 7, with just around 1,000 Christians residing in Gaza.

Though Israel often touts itself as a protector of Christians in the Middle East, the bombing campaigns in Gaza have laid waste to homes and churches of Palestinian Christians there.

“There is this illusion that Israel treats Christians favorably or in a special way. And if anything, this war made sure that this is not true,” Isaac told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

The bombing of Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church on Oct. 19 claimed the lives of at least 18 Palestinian civilians who were sheltering in the church. Two months later, Israeli snipers reportedly shot and killed a mother and daughter as they left the sole Catholic Church in Gaza.




This picture taken on January 5, 2024, shows Gaza City's Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (AFP)

“Everyone who sees what happened in Gaza realizes that everybody is a target. Churches were not safe. Christians took refuge in the churches thinking that they were safe, but evidently, they were wrong,” Isaac said.

Though the already-small Gazan Christian community has been struck a particularly severe blow with the deaths of many of its members, Isaac made it clear that he did not seek any special treatment for Palestine’s Christians.

“I don’t think we want to be treated in a special way,” he said. “We want an end to the war. We want an end to the occupation.

“We want to contribute in a reality in which there are equal rights to all citizens. We want to feel as equals to everyone else in this land, Muslims and Jews.”




Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church that was damaged in a strike on Gaza City on October 20, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Moving on to South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Isaac reiterated that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to genocide and are completely unrelated to the Oct. 7 attack.

He expressed shock over “the fact that Western countries that boast all the time about human rights and international law are willing to turn such a blind eye to something like this.”

He praised South Africa’s initiation of the proceedings against Israel, which began at the end of December last year.

The ICJ handed down its ruling on Jan. 26, ordering Israel to “prevent genocide and desist from killing, injuring, destroying life and preventing births,” enable the provision of humanitarian services, and submit regular reports to the court.

Despite ruling in South Africa’s favor on many accounts, the judgement stopped short of ordering an immediate ceasefire — and many are skeptical that the ruling will be enforceable or anything more than symbolic.




Members of the South African legal team talks to journalists at Tambo International Airport in Ekurhuleni, South Africa, on January 14, 2024, upon their return from The Netherlands, where they represented their country in a two-day hearing against Isreal at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. (AFP)

However, for Isaac, it is important that “Israel realize that there are countries (and) leaders willing to stand firm and take courageous positions. Israel has been doing what it’s been doing because no one ever held Israel accountable.”

He said: “I was pleased just with the idea that all the crimes of Israel have been displayed in front of the whole world to see.

“I am very pleased that it’s a country like South Africa that led the efforts, because they have the moral credibility and authority to speak about such issues. A country that endured colonization and apartheid has the credibility to speak against colonization and apartheid, and a genocide.”

During his Christmas sermon last year, an emotional plea titled “Christ in the Rubble,” Isaac delivered a scathing condemnation of what he viewed as hypocrisy, double standards and silence practiced by both Western nations and the church.

“In the shadow of the empire they turn the colonizer into the victim and the colonized into the oppressor,” he said.

 

 

In his now-viral sermon, Isaac slammed what he saw as the hypocrisy of Western states, saying: “To our European friends, I never, ever want to hear you lecture us on human rights or international law again. And I mean this.”

While Palestinians have witnessed the world’s support, from the ICJ ruling to mass protests and outpourings of solidarity across the world, others were not so keen to criticize Israel for its actions. The US, UK and Germany, among others, opposed the judgment.

With more and more civilians dying as a result of its bombardment and military operations in Gaza, there are signs that even Israel’s strongest allies are beginning to distance themselves. Isaac, though, sees any signs of support from major Western powers so far as empty words.

“For months now, we’ve heard that America has put some red lines to Israel as to what it can do and what it cannot do. And all these red lines have been crossed,” he said.

For Isaac, “anything America says about the war comes to us as empty words. Until we see it, we will (not) believe it. And to be honest, this has been the most important element that empowered Israel and enabled Israel to commit such war crimes, because no one is holding them accountable. You can say whatever you want in press conferences, but it’s what facts on the ground are that matters to us.”




Jewish Americans march in midtown Manhattan, New York City, on December 28, 2023, against the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza amid Israeli bombardment. (Getty Images via AFP)

Deploring what he called Christian-majority countries’ failure to support Palestinian rights, he said: “It’s very disappointing, and disheartening, to be honest, especially when you combine that with public statements from many of these countries about their concern about the Christian presence in the Middle East.

“Yet all they do is support policies that endanger our presence. It’s so hypocritical and it’s so dismissive of our plights, our opinions, and our perspectives. They never talk to us.”

“They don’t look at us Palestinians as equals, whether we are Christians or Muslims. This is the heart of the issue,” he said.

“They have other plans. They have political ambitions. They have political alliances, and that is what they care about the most (at) the expense of our presence, our reality on the ground.”

 

 

In addition to calling out the silence or double standards of governments, Isaac criticized the stance of churches, many of whom as institutions remain silent even if congregants express their support.

“Church leaders are not speaking for their people. I think the people clearly realize there is severe injustice, and they’re very concerned about what is happening in Gaza. Yet church leaders are paralyzed to speak and to challenge Israel for what it’s doing.”

He was asked if religious position really matters in a largely secular world, where politics and upcoming elections clearly have the upper hand.

“I hope it does, and the question is, which religious position matters,” he said. “Let us not forget that Israel uses the Bible to justify what it’s doing.

“Many Christians support Israel for theological beliefs and certainly many, not just Jewish groups, use religion to justify exclusivity and fundamentalism and the denial of the rights of the other.”




Pro-Palestinian supporters wearing masks picturing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), as well as US and British leaders march by the Houses of Parliament in London during a demonstration on Jan. 6, 2024, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. (AFP)

Isaac did not shy away from calling on faith leaders to take a strong stance on Gaza, saying “it’s time that the voices that believe in inclusivity, in peace, in justice and equality make their voices heard, and not in a diplomatic nice way.

“I’m tired, to be honest, of faith leaders just calling for peace and praying for peace,” he said.

“We need to call things out by their name. There is a system of apartheid in our country. It is time to speak to uphold these principles.”

As a religious figure, what is Isaac’s position on the right of Jews to be able to live in peace, particularly given that Jerusalem is a shared holy site for the three Abrahamic faiths?

“Everybody has the right to live in peace everywhere,” he said. “When Western Christian leaders press us on this, I say Jews should have the right and freedom to live in peace everywhere, in the United States, in Europe, even in Arab countries.

“We should be in a position where Jews don’t feel threatened anywhere.”

Elaborating on the point, he said: “It seems that the whole world is determined to make sure Jews are safe, but not in their land, in our land. And then they blame us for it as if we are antisemites, whereas antisemitism is what drove Jews from Europe to begin with, to come to our land.”




Israeli soldiers restrain Jewish settlers after they stormed the Palestinian West Bank village of Dayr Sharaf, located about seven kilometers from the Jewish Einav settlement following the death of an Israeli man on November 2, 2023. (AFP)

Isaac said he does not “want to see Israel destroyed or Jews leave,” adding that he desired a future in which his children “will have Israeli friends.

“It’s not just to end the conflict, but to live in a reality in which we are friends and neighbors with the Israelis,” he said.

While safety and equality for all is a priority, Isaac said Palestinians’ right to exist should not be negated.

“The world was okay with Israel shifting more and more and more to the right, openly saying there will never be a Palestinian state, openly saying only Jews have a right to the land, and then electing openly racist leaders, continuing with the building of settlements for all these years, making sure there can never be a Palestinian state, and then blaming the Palestinians for it,” he said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me. So, unless we as an international community, as faith leaders, unite and call for this idea of justice and equal rights, it will not happen.”

 

 


Kuwait names Ahmad Abdullah al-Ahmad al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency says

Updated 6 sec ago
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Kuwait names Ahmad Abdullah al-Ahmad al-Sabah as prime minister, state news agency says


Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

Updated 16 min 52 sec ago
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Netanyahu rival Lapid says Israel lost ‘deterrence’ against Iran

  • Opposition leader: ‘Jewish terrorist violence’ against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank ‘out of control’
  • ‘If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us’

JERUSALEM: Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of leading to a “total loss of Israeli deterrence” in the wake of an unprecedented Iranian attack.
In a scathing criticism posted on X, former premier Lapid also said that under Netanyahu, “Jewish terrorist violence” against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank was “out of control.”
Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a coalition with far-right parties, has brought “heaps of destruction from Beeri to Kiryat Shmona,” Lapid said, calling for early elections.
Beeri, a kibbutz community near the Gaza border, came under attack when Hamas militants stormed the area on October 7, triggering the ongoing war, while the northern town of Kiryat Shmona has suffered during months of cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Lapid’s remarks came two days after Iran — which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah — launched more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.
Israel, the United States and other allies intercepted nearly all launches in the late Saturday aerial attack — the first direct Iranian military action against arch foe Israel.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has weighed Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, but the prime minister has not made any public comments.
In the West Bank, where violence has soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars over the weekend, killing at least two people, after an Israeli teen was “murdered in a suspected terrorist attack,” according to the Israeli military.
Pointing to surging “terrorist” settler attacks, Lapid said: “If we don’t move this government, it will bring destruction upon us.”
The government, which includes hard-line settlers, has prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Netanyahu has faced in recent months mass protests over the fate of hostages held in Gaza and pressure from a resurgent anti-government movement.
The prime minister’s Likud party responded to Lapid in a statement stressing Netanyahu’s part in “the global campaign” to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which Tehran denies it is seeking.


UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

Updated 19 min 16 sec ago
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UK government reveals talks with Sudanese paramilitary group

  • Meetings held between Foreign Office, Rapid Support Forces in bid to end fighting, increase aid supply
  • News criticized by some experts as RSF accused of crimes against humanity

London: The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has revealed that it has held talks with Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has been accused of committing ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The Guardian reported on Monday that a freedom of information request to the FCDO revealed that the UK government had opened diplomatic channels with the RSF, including a meeting on March 6.

The FCDO told the newspaper that the talks were aimed at increasing humanitarian aid flow and access in Sudan, as well as ending the fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The RSF has been engaged in a civil war in Sudan for the past year, and has been accused of crimes against humanity by the US, including massacres, mass rape, looting and ethnic cleansing. The UN said the RSF’s activities in Geneina in West Darfur have left 15,000 people dead.

The war has claimed the lives of many thousands of Sudanese civilians, with around 8 million displaced by the fighting.

The UK’s willingness to meet with the RSF has drawn condemnation for what some say is a policy that could normalize a paramilitary group accused of crimes against humanity.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, co-director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at Cambridge University, told The Guardian that although talking to potentially unsavory groups is perceived as necessary in some diplomatic circles, “talking to the guys with the guns has been part of the perpetuation of violence and authoritarianism in Sudan for the last two, three decades.”

He added: “When (the RSF are) committing untold levels of targeted violence against ethnic groups, and women and children, at a scale that is absolutely horrific and was, even 20 years ago, (the UK is) putting a lot of moral credibility and decency on the line.”

Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the talks are justifiable as part of efforts to end the war and alleviate civilian suffering.

“How is aid going to get into western Sudan unless you engage with the Rapid Support Forces? They control 95 percent of Darfur,” he added.

“This is the dirty reality of the war. It shouldn’t negate engaging with civilians, but it has to be part of trying to ensure that there is a solution, both to ending the war in the near term, and then providing assistance for civilians.”

However, Maddy Crowther, co-director of the Waging Peace human rights group, described the talks as “a terrible move,” saying negotiating with the RSF could prove futile.

“These talks also assume that the RSF are good-faith actors,” she said. “Chatting to the RSF has never resulted in the outcomes that the UK says it wants to achieve in Sudan. I have no sense of why that would change at the moment.”

She added that “for the Sudanese, it will be experienced as a real slap in the face,” and that the diaspora will interpret the news as a “complete abuse of trust that people have placed in the UK and other powers to negotiate or advocate on their behalf.”

An FCDO spokesperson told The Guardian: “The UK continues to pursue all diplomatic avenues to end the violence — to prevent further atrocities from occurring, to press both parties into a permanent ceasefire, to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, to protect civilians, and to commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process.

“The SAF and RSF have dragged Sudan into an unjustified war, with an utter disregard for the Sudanese people. We will do all we can to ensure that they are both held accountable.”


Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

Updated 57 min 37 sec ago
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Israel presses on in Gaza as death toll reaches 33,797

  • Fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge
  • On Monday death toll in Gaza reached 33,797 during more than six months of war

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel struck war-battered Gaza overnight, Hamas and witnesses said Monday, as world leaders urged de-escalation awaiting Israel’s reaction to Iran’s unprecedented attack that heightened fears of wider conflict.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that at least 33,797 people have been killed in the territory during more than six months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The toll includes at least 68 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 76,465 people have been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.
World powers have urged restraint after Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel late Saturday, though the Israeli military has said nearly all were intercepted.
The Israeli military said it would not be distracted from its war against Tehran-backed Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the Palestinian armed group’s October 7 attack.
“Even while under attack from Iran, we have not lost sight... of our critical mission in Gaza to rescue our hostages from the hands of Iran’s proxy Hamas,” military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said late Sunday.
As mediators eye a deal to halt the fighting, fears persisted over Israeli plans to send ground troops into Rafah, a far-southern city where the majority of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have taken refuge.
“Hamas is still holding our hostages in Gaza,” Hagari said of the roughly 130 people, including 34 presumed dead, who Israel says remain in the hands of Palestinian militants since the Hamas attack.
“We also have hostages in Rafah, and we will do everything we can to bring them back home,” the military spokesman told a briefing.
The army said it was calling up “two reserve brigades for operational activities,” about a week after withdrawing most ground troops from Gaza.
The Hamas government media office said Israeli aircraft and tanks launched “dozens” of strikes overnight on central Gaza, reporting several casualties.
Witnesses told AFP that strikes hit the Nuseirat refugee camp, with clashes also reported in other areas of central and northern Gaza.
Hamas’s attack that sparked the fighting resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday following the Iranian attack, where Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the region was “on the brink” of war.
“Neither the region nor the world can afford more war,” the UN chief said.
“Now is the time to defuse and de-escalate.”
More than six months of war have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Rumours of a reopened Israeli checkpoint on the coastal road from the territory’s south to Gaza City sent thousands of Palestinians heading north on Sunday, despite Israel denying it was open.
Attempting the journey back to northern Gaza, displaced resident Basma Salman said, “even if it (my house) was destroyed, I want to go there. I couldn’t stay in the south.”
“It’s overcrowded. We couldn’t even take a fresh breath of air there. It was completely terrible.”
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, civil defense teams said they had retrieved at least 18 bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Responding late Saturday to the latest truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas said it insists on “a permanent ceasefire” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency called this a “rejection” of the proposal, accusing Hamas of “continuing to exploit the tension with Iran.”
But the United States said mediation efforts continue.
“We’re not considering diplomacy dead there,” said the National Security Council’s Kirby.
“There’s a new deal on the table... It is a good deal” that would see some hostages released, fighting halted and more humanitarian relief into Gaza, he said.


Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

Updated 15 April 2024
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Top Syrian officer faces war crimes charges in Swedish court

  • Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence

Stockholm: The highest-ranking Syrian military official to be tried in Europe on Monday appeared before a Stockholm court accused of war crimes during Syria’s civil war.
Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65 who lives in Sweden, is accused of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and could get a life jail sentence.
The war between President Bashar Assad’s regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
It has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.
Wearing a dark blue shirt, jeans and sneakers, Hamo listened carefully and took notes as prosecutor Karolina Wieslander read out the charges.
Wieslander said Hamo had contributed — through “advice and action” — to the Syrian army’s warfare, which “systematically included attacks carried out in violation of the principles of distinction, caution and proportionality.”
“The warfare was thus indiscriminate,” Wieslander told the court.
The charges concern the period of January 1 to July 20, 2012. The trial is expected to last until late May.
The prosecutor said the Syrian army’s “widespread air and ground attacks” caused damage “at a scale that was disproportionate in view of the concrete and immediate general military advantages that could be expected to be achieved.”
In his role as brigadier general and head of an armament division, Hamo allegedly helped coordinate and supply of arms to units.
Hamo’s lawyer, Mari Kilman, told the court her client denied criminal responsibility.
“In any case he has not had the intent toward the main charge, that indiscriminate warfare would be carried out by others,” Kilman said.
Kilman said the officer could not be held liable for the actions “as he had acted in a military context and had to follow orders.”
Hamo also denied all individual charges and argued that Syrian law should be applied.
Several plaintiffs are to testify at the trial, including Syrians from cities that were attacked and a British photographer who was injured during one strike.
“The attacks in and around Homs and Hama in 2012 resulted in widespread civilian harm and an immense destruction of civilian properties,” Aida Samani, senior legal adviser at rights group Civil Rights Defenders, told AFP.
“The same conduct has been repeated systematically by the Syrian army in other cities across Syria with complete impunity.”
This trial will be the first in Europe “to address these types of indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army,” according to Samani, who added that it “will be the first opportunity for victims of the attacks to have their voices heard in an independent court.”
Hamo is the highest-ranking military official to go on trial in Europe, though other countries have tried to bring charges against more senior members.
In March, Swiss prosecutors charged Rifaat Assad, an uncle of President Bashar Assad, with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, it remains unlikely Rifaat Assad — who recently returned to Syria after 37 years in exile — will show up for the trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
Swiss law allows for trials in absentia under certain conditions.
In November, France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar Assad, accusing him of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over chemical attacks in 2013.
Three other international warrants were also issued for the arrests of Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, the de-facto chief of the army’s elite Fourth Division and two generals.
In January 2022, a German court sentenced former colonel Anwar Raslan to life jail for crimes against humanity. This was the first international trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria and was hailed by victims as a victory for justice.