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Why US Christians launched a solidarity campaign for their Palestinian brothers and sisters

JERUSALEM: The images and stories of suffering from Gaza and the West Bank since violence erupted in the occupied territories on October 7 have deeply shocked George and Sara Salloum, a Christian couple from North Carolina, and moved them to action.

George is a Palestinian-American whose family immigrated to the United States before he was born. Guided by their Christian faith, he and his wife Sara have long-standing ties to the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian refugee community.

“We have been following the situation in Palestine for years and have lived among Palestinians who were displaced to Jordan,” Sara told Arab News.

“During our first visit to the West Bank, we were deeply shocked by everything we saw and heard there. The most painful thing was the realization that the Church in Palestine felt overlooked and abandoned by the universal Church and especially by the American Church.”

As George and Sara followed reports of death and destruction in Gaza as a result of Israel’s military retaliation for the October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, they were shocked at how few Christians in the United States were willing to acknowledge or share their grief.

“Nobody understood the situation in Palestine or even wanted to acknowledge it,” George told Arab News. “We felt isolated, even though as Christians we knew that our fellow Christians in Palestine were being oppressed.”

When the Salloums heard about a Bethlehem Bible College conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” they decided to travel to the birthplace of Jesus and attend, even though, says George, “many friends and relatives were very concerned about us and our safety.”

Nevertheless, George and Sara were determined to go and used the opportunity to encourage Christian friends to see things from the Palestinian perspective.

“Many evangelicals in America have lost their focus on the gospel,” George told conference attendees. “They have strayed so far from the message of our Lord that we are ashamed of what is done and said in the name of Christ.”

“We feel that we need to challenge the far-right evangelical Christians who unconditionally support Zionism. Most are surprised when they learn that the Israeli occupation forces oppress Palestinian Christians.

“We have a mailing list of nearly 700 friends and churches from many denominations with whom we communicate regularly. We try to educate them about their brothers and sisters in Christ who are living under oppression.”

Three weeks before traveling to Bethlehem for the conference from May 22 to 25, the couple invited their friends and the wider church community to write messages of solidarity for their fellow Christians.

“Write words of encouragement to the Church in Palestine and the people of Gaza and we will deliver them personally,” Sara said. For the sake of authenticity, the Salloums insisted that the correspondence be handwritten and not in the form of SMS, WhatsApp or email messages.

Sara didn’t know what to expect. “I thought we would get maybe one or two cards or letters,” she told Arab News. Instead, the couple was overwhelmed by the support they received.

Each day, the mail arrived with stacks of handwritten notes. As they packed their bags for the trip, they had over 100 personal messages of support and words of comfort and healing in their hands.

INPAY

• 50,000 Estimated number of Christian Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

• 1,300 Estimated number of Christian Palestinians living in Gaza before the war.

Source: US Department of State, 2022

During the conference, the letters from the Carolinas, New York, California and other U.S. states were displayed at the entrance to Bethlehem Bible College. Photos of the messages were sent to churches in Gaza, which responded with gratitude.

One of the notes, written by a well-wisher named Rebecca, read: “Greetings from New York. I am sorry for the destruction, death and loss you and your community have suffered. Please know that many of us are here praying for your protection and sustenance and of course for a ceasefire.”

A letter from “your brothers in the USA” said: “We send our love and prayers to the churches in Palestine.”

Another featured stylized calligraphy of the word “Salaam” (Arabic for “peace”) in the shape of a flag. Below was written: “Dear brothers and sisters, I cannot imagine the suffering and isolation you are feeling.

“Take heart and know that you are not forgotten. I mourn as you mourn, but one day we will rejoice together.”

Another page said: “Although we are geographically far apart, we are one with Christ and you are in our prayers. We grieve over the situation in your beloved homeland where you are suffering in ways we cannot imagine.”

In Arabic, another wrote: “I send you hope.”

“My family and I pray for lasting peace and an end to violence throughout Gaza,” the person added.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2022 International Religious Freedom Report, an estimated 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank and Jerusalem and 1,300 in the Gaza Strip.

The Salloums attended a conference at Bethlehem Bible College in May. (Supplied)

However, the number of Christians living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem has been steadily declining for many years, endangering the survival of church communities in the cradle of Christianity.

The families cite the lack of economic prospects under Israeli occupation as the main reason for emigration.

Like their Muslim Palestinian counterparts, Christians in the West Bank face restrictions on their freedom of movement, military checks and raids, land expropriations, home demolitions and settler violence, as well as limited access to water, electricity and health services.

In Gaza, they have endured long air strikes and the hardships of a 15-year blockade. Since October 7, they have lost loved ones, homes, businesses and jobs to Israeli bombings.

A 2020 survey of 995 Christian Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 59 percent of respondents considering emigrating cited economic reasons as the main reason for their decision to emigrate.

Three percent of Palestinian Christians surveyed said the Israeli army destroyed their homes and 14 percent said their land was confiscated. In contrast, only three percent cited religious reasons as their main motivation for moving abroad.

Although Muslim Palestinians also want to emigrate, Christians are able to do so in far greater numbers due to their relative prosperity.

At the end of the four-day conference in Bethlehem, which included a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem, George and Sara decided to return with other members of their community to help raise awareness of the plight of Christian Palestinians.

“In October, we take people from our church to the Middle East,” George said. “We try to reduce fear and educate the American church on the damage it is doing, often in the name of and with the support of the American church.”

“What will become of the Middle East if the Church of Jesus Christ disappears from Palestine?”

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