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Why American Christians launched a solidarity campaign for their Palestinian co-religionists

JERUSALEM: George and Sara Salloum, a Christian couple from North Carolina, deeply affected by the images and stories of suffering from Gaza and the West Bank since violence erupted in the occupied territories on October 7, have been motivated to take action.

George is an American-Palestinian whose family immigrated to the United States before he was born. Driven by the 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 live among Palestinians who have been displaced to Jordan,” Sara told Arab News.

“On our first visit to the West Bank, we were heartbroken by everything we saw and heard. The most painful realization was the realization that the church in Palestine felt unnoticed and abandoned by the world church and especially by the American church.”

While following reports of death and destruction in Gaza in Israeli military retaliation for the October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, George and Sara were shocked at how few Christians in the US were willing to acknowledge or share their grief.

“No one understood or was willing to acknowledge the situation in Palestine,” George told Arab News. “We felt isolated, even as Christians, because we knew that fellow Christians in Palestine were being oppressed.”

When the Salloums learned of a conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint” organized by the Bethlehem Bible School, they decided to travel to the birthplace of Jesus to attend, even though, according to George, “many friends and relatives are very worried about us and our safety.”

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

“Many evangelicals in America have lost focus on the gospel,” George told conference attendees. “They have departed 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 far-right evangelical Christians who unquestionably support Zionism. Most are surprised to learn that the Israeli occupation forces are oppressing Palestinian Christians.

“We have a mailing list of nearly 700 friends and churches from many denominations that we communicate with regularly. We tried to teach them about their brothers and sisters in Christ who live under oppression.”

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

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

Sara didn’t know what to expect. “I thought we might get one or two postcards or letters,” she told Arab News. Instead, the couple were overwhelmed by the level of support they received.

Every day the mail arrived with stacks of handwritten notes. When they packed for their trip, they had more than 100 personalized messages of support and words of comfort and healing in their possession.

ANDNUMBERS

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

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

Source: US Department of State, 2022

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

One note, 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 there are many of us here praying for your protection and survival and of course for a ceasefire.”

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

Another included stylized calligraphy of the word salaam (peace in Arabic) in the shape of a flag. Below it was written: “Dear brothers and sisters, I cannot imagine the suffering and loneliness you feel.

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

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

In Arabic, another wrote: “Sending you hope.”

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

There are an estimated 50,000 Christian Palestinians living in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and 1,300 in Gaza, according to the US State Department’s 2022 International Religious Freedom Report.

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

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

The main reason given by the families who decided to emigrate is the lack of economic opportunities under the Israeli occupation.

Like other Muslim Palestinians, Christians in the West Bank face movement restrictions, military checkpoints and raids, land seizures, home demolitions, settler violence, and limited water, electricity, and health services.

In Gaza, they have long endured airstrikes and the hardships of 15 years under the blockade. Since October 7, they have lost loved ones, homes, businesses and jobs under the Israeli bombardment.

A 2020 survey of 995 Christian Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, conducted by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that 59 percent of respondents considering emigration cited economic reasons as the main driving factor their decision to leave.

Three percent of Palestinian Christians surveyed said the Israeli army had destroyed their homes, and 14 percent had their land confiscated. In contrast, only 3 percent cited religious concerns as the main motive for moving abroad.

While Muslim Palestinians also want to emigrate, Christians do so in much greater numbers due to their relative wealth.

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

“In October, we bring people from our church to the Middle East,” George said. “We are trying to dispel fear and help the American church understand the harm that is being done, often in the name and with the support of the American church.

“What will happen to the Middle East if the church of Jesus Christ disappears from Palestine?”

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