By Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
It is late evening on Thursday, October 19, 2023. I am sitting in our living room following the news about Israel’s war on Gaza. For the last 12 days I have been following the news, switching between Aljazeera, CNN, BBC, RT, and others to try to understand what is happening and how the world is reacting. Yet, my real concern has been about the people in Gaza; people I know, people I came to love. The first thing I have been doing once I wake up in the morning is to check my messages and social media to see if our staff, faculty, and teachers in Gaza are still alive. There is Rana Batrawi, the director of our training center in Gaza, trapped with her family in Tal al-Hawa in Gaza city, one of Gaza’s affluent neighborhoods that was severely bombarded by the Israel military who ordered the inhabitants to evacuate. “But where to?” Rana would ask. Then there are the other teachers, accomplished photographers, designers, and musicians teaching the 120 students at our Gaza center.
Suddenly, I receive a message from a friend in Gaza that an Israeli airstrike has hit the campus of the Greek Orthodox Church in the old city of Gaza, and that at least one child is killed in the attack. Israel did not spare hospitals, cultural centers, housing units, or mosques in its war, and now it hit one of the oldest churches in Palestine. Many thoughts started crossing my mind, many images of the members of the Gazan Christian community that I came to know during my many visits to Gaza during the last five years. I called a friend, a Palestinian Christian journalist in Gaza that took refuge with his wife, three daughters, and in-laws at the Roman Catholic Church. I knew that his brother has taken refuge with his family at the Greek-Orthodox Church. I called him and he answered immediately telling me: “Pastor, they have bombed the assembly hall of the Greek-Orthodox Church. We do not know yet the exact number of casualties.” “Is your brother safe?’, I asked. “Yes, thank God; he was staying with his family on the other side of the compound,” he answered.
Suddenly, we heard someone shouting and crying aloud. “What’s the matter, sister?” my friend asked. “The assembly hall of the Greek-Orthodox Church is totally destroyed; they believe all 40 people who were staying there are killed.” She added, “if they bombed the Greek-Orthodox Church, then nothing will deter them for bombing our church here. We are next!” My friend gave his mobile to the sister, saying, “here is Rev. Mitri Raheb, talk to him.” “I can’t talk, this is terrifying, I can’t believe what is happening,” she said. Then she took the phone, she was still crying. At that moment, I wished that he did not ask her to talk with me. This was one of the few moments in my entire life when I was speechless; I did not know what to say, what to tell her. Every word will be out of place. Yet, I had to say something. The only words that came to mind were: “We pray for you all.” I thought that these words would calm a sister who dedicated her life for Christ and for a life in prayer. To my surprise, she shouted while crying “We don’t need prayers!” and handed the mobile back to my friend. Her words are still ringing in my ears.
“We do not need prayers.” I was meditating on her words for hours. Why would a sister say something like this. We all appreciate hearing friends telling us that they keep us in their thoughts and prayers. During these last days, I received hundreds of emails from friends who wanted to reach out to tell us that they are thinking of us now, and that they are praying for our safety. I appreciate all these messages. So, why was the sister annoyed when I told her that we are praying for them in Gaza. I am sure that at that critical moment my words sounded like a clichéd, “cheap” answer that does not correspond to the gravity of the situation. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I started understanding her answer. In this context of a war crime, committed against the civilian population in Gaza, what is needed is more than prayer; what is needed is advocacy, what is needed is political action, what is needed is for people to go on the streets demanding an end to this aggression. She knew that without an immediate ceasefire, without swift access to food, water, and medicine, and without a just and lasting peace, neither she nor her community would survive this war. Yet, her words were not just about fearing for her life and for the people in Gaza. Her words, in that moment, had something prophetic in them. “Stop praying for Gaza, while allowing your government to sanction war. Stop thinking you are doing the people in Gaza a favor by praying without working vehemently for justice.” Her prophetic words reminded me of the words of the prophet Amos:
“I hate, I despise your feast days,
And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.
Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs,
For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.
But let justice run down like water,
And righteousness like a mighty stream.
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb is the Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.