Bethlehem Pastors Arrive in DC, Urge Lawmakers To Embrace Cease-Fire, Peace Plan - Word&Way

Bethlehem Pastors Arrive in DC, Urge Lawmakers To Embrace Cease-Fire, Peace Plan

WASHINGTON (RNS) — A trio of Christian leaders are visiting the U.S. capital carrying a letter signed by churches in Bethlehem, the city in the occupied West Bank long heralded by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, urging President Joe Biden and congressional lawmakers to push for a permanent cease fire in Gaza and work to establish lasting peace in the region.

The leaders — which include two prominent ministers and a young Palestinian Christian activist — arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday morning in hopes of brokering a meeting to present Biden and other political leaders with the letter.

A Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli hostages drives by at the Gaza Strip crossing into Egypt in Rafah on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

“God has placed political leaders in a position of power so that they can bring justice, support those who suffer, and be instruments of God’s peace,” the letter reads. “We want a constant and comprehensive ceasefire. Enough death. Enough destruction. This is a moral obligation. There must be other ways. This is our call and prayer this Christmas.”

The letter was signed by representatives from Bethlehem’s major Christian communities, listing churches affiliated with Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian, Catholic, and Lutheran traditions.

The letter noted that Advent, a liturgical season when Christians prepare spiritually for Christmas, begins next week. But the signatories pointed out that Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, which draw thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world to the city annually, have been largely canceled this year to express solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

“This should have been a time of joy and hope. This year, it is a season of death and despair,” the letter reads. “This year, Christmas prayers are the only moment of hope in the middle of this human catastrophe caused by the war. There will be no manifestation of joy for the children. This year, Christmas celebrations are cancelled in Bethlehem.”

Speaking on the phone Monday morning, the Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, said he traveled to the U.S. to present policymakers with the letter because he considers stopping the war a religious mandate.

“I truly believe that God is in solidarity with those who are victims of injustice and oppression, and thus the church should have the same position,” said Isaac, who also serves as academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College. “God is under the rubble.”

Isaac lamented the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel, which left around 1,200 dead and hundreds kidnapped. But he also expressed outrage at the subsequent assault of Gaza by Israel, which has resulted in more than 13,000 deaths in the region and displaced most of the area’s roughly 2 million residents, sparking an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

“We want (lawmakers) to hear a different perspective,” he said. “We want to think that there must be other ways. Killing children like this can never bring peace.”

The visit from Isaac and his companions — which include the Rev. Jack Sara, who serves as president of Bethlehem Bible College and as the General Secretary of the Middle East and North Africa Evangelical Alliance for the World Evangelical Alliance — comes amid an ongoing multi-day cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. On Monday, officials announced the pause in hostilities would be extended for two more days, allowing additional aid to enter Gaza and for the release of more hostages held by Hamas as well as Palestinians imprisoned by the Israeli government.

But Isaac stressed that a short-term pause would not be enough to achieve the greater goal of a lasting peace.

“This cannot be a 4 or 5-day cease-fire and then go back to the same destruction,” he said. “All we want for Christmas is a constant and comprehensive cease-fire and an end to this war.”

Christmas decorations in Bethlehem in the West Bank in Jan. 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

Christmas decorations in Bethlehem in the West Bank in Jan. 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

The pastor expressed deep concern for his fellow Palestinians, railing against Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories — including Bethlehem in the West Bank. He voiced gratitude for some of his religious partners in the U.S. and other prominent Christian voices who have been among those calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

But Isaac said that overall, he and others in Bethlehem have been “very disappointed” in the response of many Christians to the war.

“Western churches have, sadly, continued to weaponize the Bible,” he said. “The narrative of some Christians and churches is completely dehumanizing to Palestinians — labeling all Palestinians as Hamas or terrorists, or not getting the whole history.”

Isaac also noted that Gaza is home to a small Christian community that is among the oldest in the world. The fighting has destroyed or damaged churches, including an Israeli airstrike on the campus of the Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza City that killed more than a dozen people taking shelter there.

“We have Christians in Gaza who are literally fighting for their lives,” Isaac said. “Right now we’re concerned that this long and continuous Christian presence might come to an end.”