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Commentary: Peace remains elusive in Middle East

Delegation members Linda Bales (left) and the Rev. Brenda Girton Mitchell visit with Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan. A UMNS photo courtesy of Linda Bales.

A UMNS Commentary
By Linda Bales*
May 25, 2007

How ironic it is to be in the Middle East, the birthplace of three major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The irony is this is a place where everyone greets one another with the word for peace, but this land is anything but peaceful.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are finding themselves more and more isolated from the other, which is resulting in further instability in the region. Violence is increasing, and Palestinians lack adequate access to services such as education and health care. The number of displaced persons in the region is growing with Palestinians and Iraqis fleeing their respective homelands in search for security. Many are settling in Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations.

This alarming situation was studied by a delegation of women from U.S. churches on a two-week pilgrimage sponsored by the National Council of Churches of Christ. The 16 women arrived here in Amman, Jordan, on May 10, the first all-women delegation from the NCC to visit the region.

The Rev. Thelma Chambers Young, an NCC vice president, approached the council in 2006 to request such a pilgrimage be organized, knowing that far too often women's voices are marginalized and not recognized for their courageous efforts to promote peace. 

Our pilgrimage began in Jordan, a nation significantly impacted by tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Representatives from nine faith groups met with Jordanian religious leaders, women who are making a difference in Jordanian society, Iraqi women and girls, and Palestinian refugees. The Jordanian portion of the trip was coordinated by the Middle East Council of Churches.

Ninety-five percent of Jordan's 6 million people are Sunni Muslims. Christians are a minority in this desert land where Jesus was baptized. Visiting the Jordan River provided a chance for delegation members to symbolically reaffirm their own baptism by dipping their feet into this holy water.

"It was a moving experience for me," said Sandra Pyke Anthony, a representative from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. "I was where Jesus was when he was baptized by John the Baptist, and I felt humbled." 
Jordan is now home to 1.8 million Palestinian refugees, representing 23 percent of the total number of Palestinian refugees in the world. Approximately 290,000 live in camps in Jordan where they are provided housing, health care and education. The refugees have been embraced by the Jordanian population and the majority given full rights.   

The country also is home to approximately 700,000 Iraqi refugees, due to the Iraq war.  The "guests," as Iraqi refugees are called, are permitted to access government services for a total of six months; however, like the Gaza refugees, they are refused work permits.

Hearing about this overwhelming upheaval and migration of Iraqi people due to the unjust actions of my own country brought deep sadness to my heart.  The United States - the "home of the free and the brave," has now become the oppressor. I felt ashamed and felt like crying out, "No more!" Where are the peacemakers in our day?

The good work of the Middle East Council of Churches is a blessing of hope to this region. Wafa Goussous, who directs the council's ministry with refugees, has a story of courage and conviction. After starting with the council, immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, she journeyed to the border to meet with Iraqi guests and was faced with the suffering experienced by those who had fled.

"Children were crying and were refusing to go into the tents, which were their temporary home," she recalled. "Going into the tents reminded them of the war, the bombs and the loss of people they loved."

Wafa said she, too, cried and cried and cried. People told her she'd "get over it" in time.  She hasn't. And she continues speaking out on behalf of the thousands of people who are uprooted and living in a foreign land. About 50 percent of the Iraqi guests come to the camps with nothing. The council operates programs in five different areas providing education, health care and other social services.

Additional signs of hope were witnessed by the delegation during a dialogue with six leading Jordanian women, one of whom was on the staff of the Ahliyyah School for Girls. She described herself as a lifelong learner, one committed to social change through trusting in the human spirit. Her family had to leave Palestine after 1948 and moved to Lebanon and then later to Jordan.

She is a Christian but also, in one sense, a Muslim; the whole world is her world, and all are connected in spirit. She still hopes that Israel will soon give her some sign of welcome - some sign of reconciliation.

During our time in Jordan, the word "coexistence" was mentioned frequently. Peaceful coexistence is a hope for many Jordanians, including Prince Hassan Bin Talal, uncle of King Abdullah II. We had the privilege of meeting with the prince - a brilliant intellect committed to peace and filled with compassion for the poor and marginalized.

"We must stop focusing on war and military security and begin investing in peace," said Hassan during the hour-long meeting. We left our meeting feeling gratitude knowing such a visionary resided in a land mired in challenges created by others' wars and conflicts. 

*Bales is an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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