Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

O Broken Town of Bethlehem

Mitri Raheb


December 16, 2002

Christmas Lutheran Church was surrounded by Israeli tanks. My wife, Najwa; my daughters, Tala and Dana; my mother, Wadia; and I were at the parsonage. Israeli soldiers went from house to house, searching for Palestinian gunmen. When would it be our turn?

We heard the soldiers breaking the doors at our neighbors. They had already killed an older neighbor woman and her 36-year-old son, a former pupil of our Lutheran school. At 1:45 p.m. the soldiers entered our compound and started by breaking the door to our youth room.

I had to decide my next move: Should I stay inside until they reached our home, which probably would traumatize my family? Or should I go out and ask them to leave the church compound, which might risk my life? I decided to take the latter risk.

I went out, telling the soldiers that I am the pastor and would like to talk to the commander. When I reached my office, 15 soldiers pointed their guns at me. I started talking to them in Hebrew and then in English. At first, they thought I was a foreigner.

Once I started talking in Arabic—on the phone with our bishop, to explain the situation—their attitude changed dramatically, for the worse. One said, "Arabic is the most ugly language in the world."

I replied: "Then Hebrew must be as ugly as Arabic since both are from the Aramaic roots. We are cousins! Don't you know?"

Another soldier said: "We will let you pay the price because you have sided with the Arabs." I knew he was ignorant of our existence, like so many people in the world who assume that Arabs are Muslims only. He was bewildered when I told him that I am not only a Palestinian Christian but also an Arab Lutheran pastor.

Another soldier told me, while destroying a painting, "You have here a very beautiful facility." I said, "We love beauty. We have worked so very hard to make this a beautiful place."

A soldier started making fun of me: "You sound like a very wise person," he said. I answered, "The real wise person is one who can transform his enemy into a neighbor, and not his neighbor into an enemy."

The commander didn't like my answer. He shouted at me to shut up and ordered his soldiers not to talk to me.

This experience shows the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our role as Christians in it. There always have been more than one people in the Holy Land. Now there are at least two: Palestinian and Israeli. It's impossible for either to have a monopoly over the whole land. It has to be shared between two peoples in two independent, yet interrelated states.

The vision for peace in the Holy Land can't be that of Babel—one people with one language (Gen. 11:1-9). It has to be that of a shared Jerusalem at Pentecost: Jews and Arabs viewed as equals and enabled by the Spirit to communicate with and understand each other, living in a city open to the adherents of all three monotheistic religions, as well as guests of all nations (Acts 2:1-18).

It is now time to think of transforming the enemy into a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Palestinians and Israelis need to discover the humanity of the other. Reconciliation is the possibility to move beyond the concept of "winning the war" and into "winning the enemy"--that is, to transform each other into a potential neighbor. Our role as Christians is to restore justice by ending the Israeli occupation and to work for peaceful coexistence of two people and three religions in two states.

‚—Mitri Raheb, Pastor
    Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem
(Excerpted from the July 2002 issue of The Lutheran [c] 2002 Augsburg Fortress.  Used by permission.

(More information on Rev. Raheb and Christmas Lutheran Church is at

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”