“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered...”
1 Peter 1: 1
It is not advisable to borrow other people’s troubles, especially when it comes to politics. And yet, there is that word EXILES. People without a state. I was forced to think this over on a recent trip to the Holy Land. I visited Kafr Bir'im in northern Israel, four kilometres south of the Lebanese border. It’s green up there, quieter and cooler than most of Israel to the south. It’s peaceful but it wasn’t always this way. The green overgrowth of nature can’t hide the ruins and they are more recent than appearances might suggest.
Prior to the Israeli 1948 War of Independence, Kafr Bir'im was a bucolic and peaceful Christian village. The residents were evacuated by the Israeli Defence Forces during the war “for their own safety” and assured they could return home once the danger had passed. Instead, in 1953 the houses were blown up and made uninhabitable, so that the residents could never come back to claim what was theirs. This planned destruction was in direct defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court decision recognizing the former residents’ right to return.
It was convenient to the current powers that be, to simply remove the physical reminder that Palestinians had lived there. The hypocrisy is glaring of course, if you consider that the “right of return” in Israel applies to people who have never actually lived there, but not to people who did. It’s politically expedient, and it’s a form of state apartheid largely ignored as the world marches on with business as usual.
It’s sobering therefore to walk in the ruins. Today, the town is a national park. There are wayfaring signs, but none of them mention a word about Palestinians. One restored structure is trumpeted to be ancient synagogue in the rush to assure visitors of some kind of historic Jewish presence that seals current ownership. Typically, the Israeli Department of Antiquities looks for anything which could be construed as Jewish, but ignores inconvenient historical records, which are often bulldozed to negate the fact that they ever existed. One tour guide walking through the ruins of Kafr Bir'im, was telling his group nonchalantly that the fallen down structures they were seeing were from Roman times. He had no comment on the cross atop of the church structure, standing witness to the community that lived there not so long ago.
A local priest, Elias Chacour has written a book entitled “Blood Brothers” which details the sad fate of the former resident Christians, made homeless, and in effect, stateless. Their presence is unwanted because they are a living blemish to the widely circulated notion that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East”.
Being in Israel was food for thought. I spent a month being hosted and charmed by the ancient oriental culture and traditions. On my last week, I took a stroll in the bustling metropolis of West Jerusalem which was a study in contrast. After visiting so many Christian sites, it was a bit jarring to be tag teamed by the ubiquitious presence of Hasidic Jews sporting large black hats and coats, coupled with the multitude of Israeli youth wandering about with loaded uzi machine guns in perpetual defense of “the state”. Implied violence, a visible reminder that separates what is yours from what is mine.
The modern state of Israel is a testimony to what global money and power can accomplish. It is a physical iteration of the tirless and homogenizing forces of globalism, with a Burger King or MacDonalds on every block, and the most up to date American clothing outlets at your convenience. You could shop until you dropped, and everything was modern and clean, unlike the Arabic areas which are crowded, blocked from expansion despite birth rates, and neglected by municipal dollars. In Israel international conglomerates get equal time, and a US dollar buys a vote long before the concerns of locals will ever be heard. Love and filial obligations, history and culture have no bearing on these kind of “rights”, the kind of world that can be bought and created with money. It’s somewhat heartless, but the shopping is good. And it is reserved for just the “right” people. Should you forget, a large concrete wall zigzagging through the country, keeps the “wrong kind of people” out.
It made me feel for Palestinian Christians. They are the living stones whose own lineage connects with the first semitic Christians. They are truly people without a state. Despite this, they are Christians and not without hope. There is a mass held outside the doors of the Kafr Bir'im Church every Sunday, attended by the descendants of those who were forced from their homes. This simple mass underlines the identity of Christians as exiles, stateless. Which brings me to that famous chapter of Hebrews, written for pilgrims everywhere who feel unwelcome in the world as we know it.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”