Making the most of Ramadan!?


Last night I shared in my first Iftar meal this year. A small group of us joined a community of Muslims who we have got to know well, in their centre, not a Mosque, where they prayed and we ate. It was a most enjoyable evening with friends talking about our experiences of fasting – its pains and joys. And the meal – well, what can I say, lots of food, starting with a date and a cup of water. Lots of stories, and then they asked us about Easter – what does it mean for you? How do you celebrate it – food – of course! I could talk about breaking my fast on Easter as I re-engage with my addictions – tea, coffee, alcohol and cheese – making Easter day such a special day in so many ways. At one point before the meal one of our friends recited the Adhan – the call to prayer, before inviting us to say a prayer of blessing for the food. And then we ate – for us just another meal but for our Muslim friends it was so much more, and carried real significance. Having eaten, they went in small groups into the next room to pray.

It truly was a special evening as we, people of faith, shared our experiences. For the Christians it provided an opportunity to recount the events of Holy Week, as we were asked questions about the significance of these events for us. For me it was a reminder of just how important the celebration of Easter is for Christians, that Christianity stands or fall on the resurrection of Jesus. But, also, how difficult it is to talk with people whose world view is so alien to our understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Building Relationships of Years
This group has been meeting for a few years and at some point in the each meeting we’ve had the opportunity to share the ‘Good News’ – they have heard it often, but always come back to ask for more. And what brings them back to ask the questions is the relationship that has been built over years. We ended the evening by asking when we should meet again – next month, and then they suggested, ‘It’s near your festival of Pentecost – why don’t you tell us about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit?’ ‘It would be a privilege’. And indeed, it will.

Ramadan is a wonderful opportunity to get alongside our Muslim neighbours, to make friends with them and grow in our understanding of them, which will give opportunity for them to ask us about our faith. They will ask the questions about our faith, when the relationships are established, when they have confidence in us, and they trust us, which inevitably takes time. Ramadan is a time of heighten spirituality, when talking about faith is natural, when questions become a way into lives and worldviews, that are so different to ours. ‘What’s it like fasting?’ ‘How does it feel?’ Even ‘why do you fast and what difference does it make?’ And many other questions.

Let’s make friends with our Muslim neighbours and opportunities to share the good news in the Easter story will inevitably come, quite naturally – Ramadan gives us wonderful opportunities.
Phil Rawlings

Love – in the poems of Hafiz


Ḵᵛāja Šams-al-Din Moḥammad Širāzi (b. Shiraz ca. 715/1315; d. Shiraz ca. 792/1390) is one of the greatest poets of Persia with perhaps a more profound effect on Persian life and culture in general than any other, not excepting such great figures as Ferdowsi, Saʿdi, and Rumi. Hafiz had memorized the whole Qur’an, which can be seen in his poetry. investigation

In this article, we briefly pay attention to some aspects of love in Hafiz’s ‘Divan’, from the perspective of truth and permissibility, and their relationship with human and divine love.

Hafiz’s poetry is still relevant centuries after it was written; perhaps this is because of his focus on the concept of love.  we can say with courage that this Muslim poet’s worldview was love, though undoubtedly, he is not the first person to deal with the concept of love. Indeed, it is narrated in a hadith from the Prophet of Islam that: ‘One who falls in love and stays chaste and hides his love and then dies. He is a martyr.’ (Rūzbehān,1987, p142)

In Hafiz’s poetry however, love oscillates between virtual (human) love and divine love.

For example, here, the Sufi poet mentions an earthly concept of love: “If that Turkish One of Shiraz would take this heart in hand, for that One’s Hinduish mole l’d barter Bokhara, Samarkand.”(Smith, 2016, Gazals No: 8) In this poem, he talks about his love for a woman, and that for this love he is willing to donate two of the most important cities of his time.

Elsewhere he looks at love from a divine perspective: ‘From that one manifestation in the mirror of your face’s beauty, all this various imagination that is a mirror of mind’s design, fails’. (Smith, 2016, Gazals No: 179)

In this poem, Hafiz says that as soon as ‘God’s beauty was reflected in the mirror of the human heart, everyone creates an image of it in his mind’. From these images, various thoughts about religions emerge. It is as if Hafiz accepts that differences in religions are natural and should be tolerated by human beings.

Regarding Hafiz, it can be said that although he has dealt with human love, in fact, his attention to human love is for him to show us the love of God. An ascetic may consider human love as a trap from the devil; unable to imagine how avoiding human love actually distances them from the loving God. In one of his poems, Hafiz speaks of a kind of pure mysticism, but he narrates it using love, beauty and manifestation.

He says: ‘In Eternity beyond time, Your radiant beauty, glorification struck; then love revealed itself and with its fire all of the creation struck’ (Smith, 2016, Gazals No: 186).

He shows that love is an advantage that distinguishes humanity from the rest of the universe. From this perspective, the beauty of God comes from His manifestation. It is from this beauty that love is found in the world. The relationship between love and beauty in this poem by Hafiz connects the human aspect of beauty with the divine aspect of love.

In one of his most famous poems, Hafiz says that love can seem easy in the beginning, but it can create some problems later: ‘Hey Winebringer, circulate, offer the cup this way; for love at first seemed easy, now problems come to stay’.(Smith, 2016, Gazals No: 1)

In this poem, it is as if the poet wants to forget the hardships caused by love with the help of wine. But if the same butler represents a person who connects him with the world of mysticism, does not asking for wine from him mean that he seeks help from a butler or liaison with the world of mysticism to ward off the hardships of love? So, if his love is also mystical, it seems that the poet seeks treatment from someone who has been involved in his falling into love problems. The gazal really represents a romantic world that has its own complexities.

In this article, we have briefly showed how the concept of love in Hafiz’s poetry moves between human and divine love, and we also showed that this movement is more towards divine love in his poetry.

F Yasini

List of References

 Zarrinkoob, Abdolhossein. )1985). “Az Kuche-ye Rendan”. Tehran. p179 -189.

Khorramshahi, B. (2000).”Discourses on the culture-inspiring aspects of the Holy Qur’an”. Tehran. p101.

Smith, Paul. (2016). “Divan of Hafiz”, Gazals No: 85 (Love will hear your heart cry out and will come to you, if like Hafiz your heart knows the Koran completely, fourteen versions as well).

Baqlī Šīrāzī, Rūzbehān. (1987) “Le Jasmin des Fidèles d’amour (Ketāb ʿabhar al-ʿāšeqīn)”, published with two introductions and a translation of the first chapter by Henry Corbin and Moḥammad Moʿīn . Tehran and Paris. p142.

What’s That Flag?

Photo by K Knight. A lamp post in the north of England.

What have UK Christians got in common with UEFA and the International Olympic Committee? The Palestinian flag is increasingly visible in Britain today: whether on the football pitch, in news coverage of public protests, or simply in the possession of a local neighbour. Why is this? And how might it also affect you?

The complex issues of identity and religion, influence and ignorance are as old as the hills, yet they repeatedly find fresh expression in a new audience and context. Living online has become an international phenomenon by necessity during Covid lockdowns – overcoming some divisions but exacerbating others.

Recent mosque sermons, easily available on social media, have addressed the subject of Palestine, as violent events in Jerusalem escalated across the region. In Islam, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site, believed to be the location of the Muslim Prophet’s Night Journey of Qur’an 17:1. One popular preacher, with hundreds of thousands of viewers, urged all Muslims around the world to support their brothers in defending the mosque from Israeli forces and from “illegal evacuation of the Palestinians”. Citing the 178 injured and 88 hospitalised worshippers when the mosque was stormed on the final Friday prayers of Ramadan 2021, listeners heard of the rubber bullets, tear gas and bomb shells used and were invited to pray that Allah “will teach the enemies of Islam a lesson”.

A contrasting Eid message from Cambridge, which to date has reached an audience of nearly 180,000, also implored a response, but “not [of] vengefulness, not of exclusion against another exclusion.” It highlighted the terrible financial inequalities in the world; teaching, “the Sunnah position is that the poor come first; give, give, give”. Recalling the pleasure of his personal visit to Al-Aqsa, the preacher revelled in “the glory of that place that comes as a crown to the city”; and looked forward to a day when the Holy Land would be free – “Jew, Christian, Muslim, equal – able to live wherever they wish, no discrimination”.

The connection, for our Muslim neighbours, with the people and the place is clear and present. They then have to consider how to respond to the calls to support and give; perhaps by waving a Palestinian flag. At first, this might appear an unfamiliar response to UK Christians, but is it?

I wonder how many people in the UK would be able to locate Israel on a map; yet British society’s awareness is nurtured through annual traditions such as nativity plays, and for Christians, it is the setting of most of the Bible. There are Zionist theological positions which foster Christian support for the current Jewish citizens of Israel; and historic atrocities which inspire Christian sympathy for the Jews. To what extent would your life be perceived by some to be flying an Israeli flag?  Christian support for Palestinians is also evident, for example in the liturgy of Christian Aid’s ‘World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel vigil’ or organisations like Sebeel – Kairos; often these differing Christian perspectives reflect a level of association with evangelicalism.

So ‘What’s that flag’ mean to you? Does the sight of someone with a Palestinian flag attract or alienate you? Is your reaction a gospel bridge or barrier? God directed Samuel to look beyond the outward appearance, to the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Jesus the anointed Messiah is calling people into His spiritual Kingdom; into His family from every tongue, tribe and nation.  Do your actions raise a banner which says to others ‘Thy Kingdom come’?

Good news for “the righteous”?


We are very used to thinking of Jesus as the friend of sinners. He famously ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and others of bad reputation. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is the righteous-in-the-eyes-of the world man who misses out while the sinner is made right with God. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the irresponsible son who gets the hug and the party; the dutiful, never-a-foot-wrong son finds himself outside and grumbling. And didn’t Jesus say he had come not for the righteous but to call sinners to repentance?

Among our Muslim communities, there are plenty of sinners. I am talking about the people who know they are lost, outside the pale, the backslidden, the hopelessly behind in what they believe God expects of them. Failed Muslims make a significant proportion of our prison population. Others stay out of trouble, but for various reasons are known as “not good Muslims.” In a sense, it should be relatively easy to take the good news to them, though it is not as easy as you might expect. However, I am interested in the other end of the spectrum, those seen as righteous.

When speaking of those sinner passages, modern translations often put the word sinner in quotes acknowledging they dubbed sinners by other people rather than by the scripture. Of course, it is quite legitimate to describe them as sinners and to also insist that all the so-called righteous were sinners too. In our zeal to reflect this emphasis of Jesus, we can refuse to recognise “the righteous” as anything but sinners by another name.

The reality is not so simple, neither in the scriptures nor the world today. According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Whatever he may have been prior to taking the baptism of John, he started following Jesus as a man who was seeking to live a life pleasing to God (John 1:37, 40). Jesus welcomed Nathanael as a true Israelite and a man of integrity (John 1:47). 

Jesus called disreputable tax collectors like Matthew Levi and accepted the hospitality of Zacchaeus, but he also welcomed the respectable and the earnest. These were people who were seeking something more from God, alert to what God might do in their time, not necessarily driven by a sense of personal moral bankruptcy.

The Gospels speak of other people who were seeking to know God better, looking for the Kingdom. Anna and Simeon are two examples. In Acts, Ananias seems to have been a pillar of Jewish respectability (Acts 22:12). Cornelius and Lydia were devout God-fearers (Acts 10:2; 16:14). Within our Muslim communities there are people zealous for God and for right living. Sure, there are some who are consumed with making other people behave, like the stereotypical Pharisees, but there are also many with hungry hearts whose desire is to be acceptable to God. I have met some of them.

Ahmad was a former imam who had switched to part-time college chaplain and part-time bitcoin dealer. “It is harder,” he told me, “to practise Islam in Pakistan than in the UK.” I was puzzled. Surely in Pakistan there was a mosque on every corner, a loud call to prayer five times a day, the sound of the Qur’an piped through radios, and a universal expectation that he keep the fast in Ramadan? Surely no one batted an eyelid if you were diligent in your religious duties? 

“What I mean is,” he continued, “There is so much corruption and dishonesty. It is hard to live an honest life.” For Ahmad, Islam was not about being a Muslim rather than a Christian; it was about living for God.

In New Testament times, Jesus was good news for “sinners” and he was also good news for at least some “righteous”. I think we are pretty good at showing sinners how Jesus is good news; how about showing sincere Muslims that Jesus is good news for them too? Is the only way to first prove them to be sinners?

Imam N sought out a new teacher a couple of years ago. He was not content with the narrow tradition he was in. There had to be more. He found someone online. One day he sent me a link to a TV programme in which his new teacher was being interviewed on a Christian channel where he was explaining why reading the Psalms was so valuable for Muslims. Imam N is on a journey, prompted at least in part by what he has seen in the lives of Christians who befriended him.

Imam A has been an observant Muslim all his life, but from a young age he started seeking. What he was looking for was a spiritual master, someone nearer to God than he himself was, who could direct him and intercede for him. It is not that he saw himself as a hopeless sinner, but rather that he knew that he fell short. I think what he is looking for will be found most fully in Jesus. When Crispus the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth turned to Christ, he was not leaving a life of godlessness (Acts 18:8).

Mr S is a devout man, often moved to tears as he performs the required prayers whether at home or in the mosque. But he is always eager to respond when an invitation is given to a Christian event. He has often come to church on Sunday when an appropriate opportunity has been given him. 

But someone will say, you are not comparing like with like. Jewish people in the first century were steeped in the scriptures and looking for the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yes, they certainly had many advantages. My Muslim friends meditate on the example of Abraham and Moses, but the version they have is from the Qur’an. Some are fascinated by the picture of Jesus painted by the Qur’an. Deeply inadequate and flawed though that image is, for some it has been enough to get them started on a path that leads to the real Jesus.

These people are out there among our neighbours, our work colleagues, our clients and our students. Will we recognise them? Are we equipped to engage with them in ways that are helpful to them? And will they recognise in us the presence of Christ?

Ted Bearup

Diversity: The Variegated Grace of God


I have been asked to post this article written for the Nazarene Theological College ‘Link’ magazine:

Recently I heard a canon of Manchester Cathedral comment that his experience of the Church in Manchester was of congregations of multi-racial and multi-cultural membership. Someone observed that this is probably an urban phenomenon, and would not be the case across the whole country.

The comment set off a train of thought in my mind. In 1981, when I arrived in Manchester as pastor of the Carmoor Road Church of the Nazarene, I found a small-but-not-too-small congregation that included people from many parts of the world as well as all over the UK. I discovered this diversity was unusual in the city, finding only one or two churches in our very mixed part of the city that reflected that mixture in any way. Indeed, African Christian students would often come to our church after first visiting churches (consisting of a handful of people) of their own denomination (where their churches numbered hundreds of members), reporting that they had been politely told that they ‘might be more comfortable somewhere else with people of their own kind’. They were often in shock at what they found in their Mother Church.

We wanted to reach out to our community. Given the significant proportion of our community that was West Indian, we wondered if we should focus reaching out to that ‘homogeneous people group’. We decided, however, to affirm our multi-racial and multi-cultural make-up as our strength: we would witness to the variegated image of God by our variety. The church did not grow rapidly, but it grew to accept diversity as normal.

The Manchester church was my introduction to the joy of worshipping and learning with the diversity of God’s people. My whole life of service since has been in multi-cultural settings, teaching in three Nazarene educational institutions all serving diverse nations, and returning to be a part of that Manchester congregation. It has become so much the norm that I feel a sense of shock when I find myself in a single-culture setting—which can happen by travelling only a few miles from my church.
What has happened in nearly 40 years? On one hand, church membership as a whole has continued to decline in Britain at an alarming rate. On the other hand, immigration over the past twenty years—under the generous and highly criticized policies of the government of the day—has brought a significant number of active Christians into the cities. An unexpected result has been the breath of new life these committed believers have brought to the often-dying local churches they have joined. Many have embraced the newcomers, and such churches are growing. It is a matter for thanksgiving and praise to God that diversity has become the norm across Manchester!

This is not a commentary on immigration policy, but an observation from its impact. And there are lessons to be learned from the debate over immigration that grips so much of the West right now. How do we respond to ‘the Other’ on our own territory? The tabloids, as well as prominent politicians, tell us to be afraid, to reject, and expel the Other—the ones not like us, whom we deem a threat to our own existence. What do we do when we discover that so many, even among those deemed ‘illegal’ and arriving via leaky boats, are brothers and sisters in Christ?

I have come to the conviction (that is not too strong a word) that God intends us to be all mixed together. The sin of Babel was the human attempt to be one homogeneous unit—one language, huddling together in one place. The work of the Spirit in Acts 2 brought languages and people together into one new whole. In fact, the whole biblical story of is one of migration—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all migrants who settle in foreign lands; Jesus was a (likely undocumented) migrant to Egypt as a child.

Image result for nebula
The New Testament text that comes to my mind on this point, however, is 1 Peter 4:10, where the church is urged to be ‘good stewards of the manifold grace of God’. That word ‘manifold’ can be translated ‘variegated’, ‘diverse’, ‘pluriform’, or ‘many-coloured’. It is the same word used of Joseph’s famous coat, in Genesis 37. Peter’s focus is on the grace-gifts God gives which we are to give to each other. To me, when I look at the Sunday gathering in my own church (the same I came to those years ago), it describes the image of God, the imago Dei. Our tendency is to read Genesis 1:26 as speaking in the singular, of an individual image: ‘I’ am created in the image of God. But the fact is, the image is ‘male and female’, and can only seen fully in the whole of humankind and our manifold colours. ‘I’ am incomplete on my own, a partial picture of how God created us; ‘we’ fill out the picture, each adding our part. As the Godhead is triune, and diverse, so is His creation.

This translates into my everyday life as curiosity. When I meet someone different than me, or different than I have met before, rather than fearing the unknown I am curious to learn how this person expands my understanding and experience of the image of God in the human. In the past few years this curiosity has extended towards Muslims of many sorts. The experience has added more colour and texture to my sense of what God has done, confirmed my expectation that God loves them too, and expanded my wonder at the grace of God in Christ.

The Holiness Movement, of which I am an heir, stressed the meaning of holiness as separation—separation from sin, and, in its sectarian phase, separation from the world. At times it fell into a rather Pharisaic emphasis on keeping pure by avoiding any contact with the impure. A grave danger of the holiness-as-separation view is that it leads easily to other kinds of separateness, including racial and national, until churches become excluding rather than welcoming of strangers. When diversity is deemed a bad thing, as we are seeing in much of our world today, God’s grace becomes diminished to an unattractive narrow, monochrome, homogeneous spirituality of fear and reaction. But, when we catch a glimpse of the riotous diversity of sacred life springing from the creative Word, we can do nothing less than cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy’!

When it gets local…


We woke to headlines of people dead in a terrorist attack. The sort of headline we read all the time. Where was it this time? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? We have become accustomed to such news, coming from parts of the world where such bloodshed has become so common we hardly notice any more.

But this was Manchester, with 22 dead and scores injured from a suicide bomb. This was London, seven dead and dozens injured by van and knife attacks. Terror has come close to home, and it comes as a shock.

Just a couple hours before the Manchester attack I attended an exhibition called ‘Jesus Doors Easter Stations’, artwork depicting—on doors—the last days of Jesus’ life. One picture stood out to me from the others—a depiction of the women who stood by the cross. Their grief reminded me of the faces of mothers of bombing victims shown on the news night after night. Their grief came immediately to mind learning the news in Manchester. Once again, mothers grieve.

Mourning women, by Ali Hutchison (

The response to the attack in Manchester has been noted by quiet defiance, and marches for unity. The very next evening tens of thousands of people gathered in Albert Square in front of the Town Hall, for a vigil. We stood with about 100 leaders of all religions before the immense crowd; there was cheering for the first-responders; there was absolute silence in honour of the dead and injured, and great ripples of applause spread across the square in agreement with words of determination and hope; and at the end, there was chanting of ‘Manchester’. Over the next week vigils were held around the city; St Ann’s Square has become the repository of floral tributes and private pilgrimages. This proudly diverse city exhibits a quiet determination to deny terrorism its goal of creating division.

The Manchester response continued over the following week, as public events went ahead—40,000 running in the Manchester Run; 50,000 attending the tribute concert ‘One Love Manchester’. Yes, there was increased police presence; no, there were no troops on the streets.

One common feature of world media reporting has long been the absence of coverage of the reactions of the Muslim communities to such outrages. The question is often asked by commentators with an agenda, ‘Where is the Muslim response?’ The response is usually there, but unreported. In this case, mosques held vigils, inviting non-Muslims to attend; a peace-march of hundreds of Muslims from dozens of mosques walked down the main streets of the city.

Of course, it is also true that the bomber was born in Manchester. The arrests across the city are evidence that there are many who do not share the sense of unity and good will that has been on display these past weeks, are disaffected from British society, and nurture a simmering hatred. And there are many who are ready to blame every Muslim for the actions of the few, and nurture their own hatred.


In the midst of this, the unanswered question is, why are young people from our own communities willing and ready to kill young people—teenaged girls, and their brothers and parents—and themselves? And, what can be done to prevent this happening?
The second London terrorist incident in three months has made this question, and the security of the nation, come to the fore in the election campaign. Politicians and political commentators respond with the same sorts of answers we hear each time. We seem no nearer a solution to the problem of terror on our streets.

In my blog written last August I suggested that the answers will have to come from the communities. And that the faith communities will need to take the lead. The community in which I live has a nearly equal Christian and Muslim population. We live on the same streets, and get along with each other; but church communities tend to keep to themselves, and mosque communities tend to keep to themselves. However, over the past couple of years they have been reaching out to each other, finding ways of meeting each other to get to know each other. In this current crisis moment, the relationships of these years has meant we are able to work together to stand against the forces of division.

Even so, we have hard questions to work through together. This is a crisis of Islam, in its struggle to come to terms with pluralism and tolerance in a world that cannot be returned to the 7th Century. This is a challenge to Christianity, to face the racism, prejudice, and privilege with which we have kept Muslims at arms’ length in our society; and to grasp the extent to which so much of the conflict in the Middle East is the fruit of colonialism.

Community, by Ali Hutchison

The challenge for our communities is to nurture our young people to meet people of other faiths and races, to see the best in each other, and to find common ground in building a caring and secure society.


It is a sad commentary on human nature that we seem only to take notice of dangers when they become local. The grief we share over the innocent loss of young lives in Manchester and London should make us more compassionate for those in war zones for whom this is almost a daily occurrence. From this moment on, when we waken to news from Kabul, or Baghdad, Mosul or Peshawar, let us also weep; and let us also stand determined to work against hatred and division.

Acts of Terror, Crimes of Hate


Almost every day breaks to news of another act of violence under the headline of ‘terrorism’. The murder of a French priest in the midst of celebrating Mass raises the level of anxiety in Europe to another level. In the UK the police have sent an email to churches with advice on security during services.

These incidents are not directly related to the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK, but are part of a flurry of events that are changing the UK, and Europe, in ways we cannot yet grasp.

The divisive Referendum campaign ended with a narrow margin of the population voting in favour of leaving the EU. However narrow the vote, the decision has been made and the will of the majority is ‘Brexit’.

Hot on the heals of this event, the long-awaited Chilcot Report was presented, with its damning critique of the way the nation was led into the Iraq War, and the ongoing violence which has seen over 250,00 deaths, civilians and military, on all sides. Virtually at the very time the report was being read, Daesh suicide bombers unleashed death in Istanbul and Baghdad, with indiscriminate slaughter of whole families whose only crime was enjoying their preparations to celebrate Eid. Similar carnage was visited on Nice during French national celebrations. The list of terrorist targets now extends to Germany, too.

Closer to home, the fruit of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the referendum campaign is a 40% increase in hate-crimes in the UK. Racists have been emboldened to confront people on public transport, on the streets, and with graffiti on the walls of their homes and work-places, telling them to ‘go back where they came from’—even second and third generation citizens.

Political leaders at all levels are clearly at a loss as to how to address these crises, and seem to have lost credibility with their own constituencies.


Thus, we face a two-sided crisis: on the one hand there is fear created by acts of extreme violence that are intended to create just such an atmosphere of fear (the reason we call it ‘terrorism’); on the other hand there are the low-level acts of violence in verbal abuse and vandalism directed towards immigrant and non-white communities.

We at MCSCI wish to make explicit our rejection of the rhetoric of division that is fuelling abuse and hatred across the country, and call on political leaders of all parties to take seriously their responsibility for the whole of their communities when speaking publicly.

At the same time we would encourage leaders of faith communities—church and mosque and synagogue—to reach out to the others in their communities to give common voice against fear and against violence. We would specifically encourage Christian community leaders to make the effort to affirm to other faith groups their value to the community, and the readiness to stand with them against hate crime directed against them.

In the light of the inability of political leaders to find a way forward in these fraught times, it seems the answers to the great issues of our day must come from within the very communities that are most affected by these events, if they are to be found at all. Religion is blamed for much of the ills; whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, it is therefore people of faith who must lead the way out of the cycle of violence and hatred.

The way to lead is to reach out, and not to give in to fear.

The Walls that Divide

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.

I have been living in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem (or, Quds). The first day I was here the landlords invited me for coffee. They built their house here over 30 years ago, with room enough for a growing family. About ten years ago a mosque was built only 50 yards away. Speakers on the minaret broadcast prayers to the neighbourhood, and on Fridays that includes the sermon as well. I asked my landlord what the sermon was about. He grimaced, indicating he doesn’t listen. We have coffee just about every week; every week he comments on the loudness of the prayers. Eventually he told me that the sermons often have anti-Christian and anti-Jewish content. The Christians in the community feel the volume is so loud purposely to annoy them.

I have been trying to understand what it is like to be a member of a minority faith in relation to the majority faith. Here Christians are a double minority—both among Jews and among Muslims. While Muslims are the majority in the Palestinian context (with 1% of these being Christian), they in turn are the minority in the Israeli context (about 30%, and a Christian population of 1.5%). By comparison, the Muslim population of the UK is reported to be about 4%. What one feels keenly as a small minority is the barriers that communities raise between each other.

I began my reflections on Israel/Palestine in this Blog by speaking of the mental maps that people bring with them to Israel/Palestine, and how those maps affect what they see. In this, my last blog from Jerusalem, I consider the walls that are built by the various communities.

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.

The ‘separation wall’

The most obvious wall here, impossible to ignore, is the barrier built by the Israelis between Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Second Intifada. The very terminology used for this wall is an example of how everything is contended: for Israelis, it is a ‘separation’ wall, using the same term used for the central median on dual carriageways, or ‘security’ wall; for Palestinians it is the ‘apartheid’ wall. At checkpoints large signs in red lettering warn Israeli citizens that it is against the law to go beyond the wall/fence. Palestinians seeking to enter Israel face mountains of bureaucracy to gain entry papers, then stringent searches at the checkpoints. This physical barrier separates the communities, and prevents people from mixing or meeting one another in every day settings.

But there are other walls, or barriers, that are not as visible or easily detectable, and which are just as impermeable. There are the barriers of race, tribe, language. But overall is the barrier of religion and sect. These barriers appear on both sides of the wall. Jews, Muslims, and Christians create barriers between each other—and amongst themselves. This is not a phenomenon unique to this land, of course—but it is, perhaps, keenly visible in ways not always observable in the West to the majority populations —and the examples here are illustrative of the sharp divisions that shape the conflict in Syria and Iraq today. The ‘sound’ barrier in my neighbourhood separates my Christian landlord from his Muslim neighbours.
In a conversation with a Palestinian Christian teacher I was told that schools are still using textbooks introduced when Hamas was in the Palestinian Authority government, and that these included anti-Christian material.

Church building, with banner in front reading 'And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers'

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. The population is 65% Muslim, 35% Christian. I am told there are good relations between the two groups. On my recent visit my host received many warm greetings from Muslims as we walked along the street. He told me, though, that they simply do not talk about religion. That is how they get along. The sign posted in front of the Church of the Annunciation, however, seems a rather blatant antagonism: ‘And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers’ (Qur’an 3:85; see photo).
Traveling through Jordan and Lebanon I have found similar barriers of religion. My hosts regularly identified the village or the neighbourhood we came through as ‘Christian’ or ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shia’, or ‘Druze’. As conflicts continue, there seems to be an increasing clarity of demarcation between these identifiers. The religious identification inhibits social mixing—not simply in every day discourse, but in the choices of where to live and go to school.
This discussion focuses on religion as a major barrier placed between communities. This is a reflection of the extent to which religion has become the focal point of identity in today’s world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not primarily religious, but political and even nationalist. The same may be seen in other conflicts. But since 9/11 everything is viewed through the lens of religion. This is the world in which we now live, and while the solutions to conflict must address the political, nationalist—and economic—sources, they cannot ignore the role of religion.

It is easy to spot the barriers of others and to overlook those we ourselves erect—it is easier to see the speck of dust in the other’s eye than the plank in our own. It seems particularly difficult for a majority group to empathise with minority groups—rather than to be irritated with them for not being ‘like us’; for not assimilating to the majority. In our conflicted world, the great barrier between communities is fear. We see the Other, the one not like us, the immigrant and refugee, the person of a different colour or nationality or faith, as a threat to our routine lives and to our security. This fearful Other tends, in the West, to be Muslim. Out of fear we erect further barriers—silence, hostility, discrimination, ignorance.

Barriers prevent understanding, enhance suspicion, and perpetuate themselves when we hide behind them. If there is to be any hope of an end to the bloody conflicts of our time, it has to begin with the breaking down of the walls we place between ourselves, and with the necessary effort of trying to understand each other. When we do this, we are likely to discover our common humanity, our hopes and desires for a peaceful and secure life in which our families may thrive. From such ‘common ground’ we can then work at understanding how to live with our differences.
The great challenge of our time is to learn how to live together with our differences. MCSCI exists to advance this purpose.

More food for thought:

Return to Damascus Gate

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below

A small crowd gathered inside a taped-off section of walkway, in front of a gate in the city wall

Recent scenes at the Damascus Gate.

In my last post I introduced Jerusalem via the Damascus Gate of the Old City—the neighbourhood of my church. That week there had been two incidents at the Gate—a 16 year-old boy attacked police with a knife, and three West Bank men were shot dead when found with guns and bombs. The Damascus Gate continues to weigh heavily on my mind, as it has remained regularly in the news. In the past week there have been four more incidents. In two cases the attackers were shot dead; in the others a young woman and a young man were arrested.

In two weeks, six attacks, six dead, at the end of the very street where my church is located.

These, however, were only part of the almost daily incidents taking place in the West Bank. I call them incidents because they are hard to label. Some may involve armed men with clear intent to kill many people. Others seem opportunistic and random, such as driving cars into pedestrians. So many, however, are young people with common kitchen knives lashing out at highly armed police and soldiers.

The ministry of foreign affairs describes all of these as terrorist attacks, incited by radical Islamist groups. The army Chief of Staff, on the other hand, commented on the fact that half of what is now nearly 200 such attacks in the past five months have been by young people under the age of twenty. Teenagers. Security forces have had no advance intelligence about any of the attacks, few of them had links to terrorist groups or strong ideological motives.

Since September Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and 4 others. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed — 111 during attacks; 50 in clashes with Israeli forces (figures change daily).

The Damascus Gate seems to have become a focal point for young Palestinians. What is the reason for this wave of hopeless attacks by youngsters?

Where might we begin to try to answer? Do we start with the present as it is, or view it all in the context of its history? Recourse to history is fraught with difficulties. How far back do we go? The 1967 war in which Israel first occupied the West Bank of Jordan and Gaza? The creation of the state of Israel by UN vote in1947? The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637 CE? The Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom of 135 BCE? I have seen all of these appealed to as explanation or rationale for actions of the present. The past is a tangible component of the present in the Middle East. An inescapable aspect of the conflicts which rage across the region is the clash of competing narratives about the past—the competing maps.

But, for today, it is not the history I wish to note, but the present reality coming out of that history. That reality has two sides of consequence: one, the existence of the state of Israel, and, two, the ambiguous status of Palestine after nearly 50 years of Israeli administration as an occupying power. The first is, and must be, unequivocal; the second is, and must be, resolved.

The Israelis live with the constant fear of terrorism; Hamas presents a realistic threat of violence at any moment, and the recent attackers from the West Bank have been able to enter Israel and settlements ‘below the radar’.

The Palestinians, in turn, live under military occupation and governance, increasing building of permanent settlements in their territory, and regular destruction of their own houses with little warning (113 houses just last week).

Hope of a solution is exasperated by a total lack of contact between the two communities, apart from the efforts of a few groups seeking reconciliation, and the absence of sufficient political will on either side.

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below

Yossi Verter cartoon. From article

One thing that is inescapable to notice here is the security measures. There is the constant presence of police on the streets and street corners of the cities; outside of the cities there are army vehicles everywhere. There is the ‘security wall’, and control points; there is the continual military patrol of the borders, of the occupied territories, of the sea and the air; there is a huge network of prisons. The cost is enormous, and strains the national budget even with the vast subsidies from the US.

It has to be clear, terror is not acceptable, nor in any way to be condoned. But if the only response to the security dangers is more security, tighter controls, screwing down the lid on Palestinian society, it can be no surprise if, as with any pressure cooker when the lid is kept on too long, there is an explosion.

The question raised in my mind by the phenomenon of teenagers throwing themselves at police at the Damascus Gate is whether it can be labelled as terrorism in comparison to pipe bombs and missiles. These are children, no more than infants during the last Intifada.

Fifty years of occupation has been corrosive to Israel’s democratic ideals, and has undermined all Palestinian institutions of society and development. Both communities suffer in a death grip with little hope of resolution.

It would seem that desperation lies at the heart of the issue.

I know that virtually everything I have written here will likely be contested by someone. But the reality that sparked this post is the particularity of six people lying dead at Damascus Gate in the past two weeks, in my neighbourhood. Six grieving families, Muslim and Jew. And local teenagers are in prison for assaults that will pursue them and their families for the rest of their lives. And no resolution is in sight.

This is but a small example of the cycle of violence and response, violence and response, taking place in much more deadly fashion just across the border in Syria and across the Middle East. In each case we in the West are participants. Bombs and missiles rain from the skies from Western air forces to add to those on the ground.

And while armed men vie for power, another generation of children is born into the normalcy of bloodshed.

Jerusalem: roadblocks, mental maps and the “Third Intifada”

An red ambulance being searched by soldiers in green uniform, behind concrete barriers

Photo of a street with a car passing and a neo-Romanesque square church tower in the background

St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem.
Photo by Ron AlmogCC-BY

If you walk out the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, and go straight up Nablus Road (Derek Shechem in Hebrew)—past the Garden Tomb and the École Biblique on the right, the bus station, former US consulate and the British Council on the left, but not as far as St George’s Anglican Cathedral—within about 4 minutes you will come to the Jerusalem Church of the Nazarene.

Over the years I have brought groups of students to Israel for study trips. I speak to them about the ‘mental maps’ we bring with us to Israel, and how those maps determine what we see. Readers who have been to Israel on pilgrimage may recognise certain of the places mentioned above, but not others. Most likely not the Church of the Nazarene.

For most Christians the mental map is that of the time of Christ. Those who come on pilgrimage, or as part of studies, tend to look at the experience with that biblical map in mind as the focus is on the places where Jesus walked, or where Old Testament events took place. Orthodox believers move from church to church. It is possible to spend two weeks in Israel and live altogether in the past. For others the present reality will come as a shock—sprawling cities, traffic jams, and fast-food jostle alongside holy places crowded with the thousands of pilgrims all seeking the connection with the ancient stories and events.

In the interest of disclosure, I should declare the influences on my mental map of Israel.

An red ambulance being searched by soldiers in green uniform, behind concrete barriers

A Red Crescent Ambulance being searched at a checkpoint into Jerusalem.
Photo by JustinMcIntosh, CC-BY.

The first time I visited the Nazarene church on Nablus Road was in 1988 in the early days of the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. As I was leaving the Israeli security forces were just setting up a road-block on what was then the main road into Jerusalem from the north. The soldiers were calmly leafing through papers found in one of the cars. Traffic was backed up as far as could be seen. It was not clear to me then, nor is it even now, what purpose the roadblock served.

In 2004, I was living in the Old City during an earlier sabbatical, this time in the midst of the second Intifada. I was wakened one morning by the explosion of the Number 19 bus, packed with young people on their way to the university. Some of them may have been among the students—typical students—I watched getting on the buses to go home each evening. I could not understand then, nor do I now, what purpose the targeting of young people, Jew and Arab, served.

The first Intifada was characterised by youth throwing stones at soldiers with guns; the second by the emergence of Hamas, suicide bombings, and the Separation Wall.

Photo of a street market with city walls in the background

Old Jerusalem Street, with the Damascus Gate in background. Photo by James Emery. CC-BY.

It is 2016, and I am back in East Jerusalem, this time in pastoral support of the church. Last week a Palestinian youth attacked a Jewish youth outside the Damascus Gate—just 4 minutes’ walk from the church—with a knife, causing light injuries. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this was the 33rd attack in Jerusalem alone in the past four months, in a phenomenon that the Israeli authorities are struggling to come to terms with. The incidents are most often knifings, and the attackers include young teenaged girls—not the normal terrorist suspects. They are clearly not coordinated or instigated by the ‘professionals’. But all are labelled ‘terrorists’.

This is being called the third Intifada.

Plaza with steps down to small gate in large city wall

The Damascus Gate in Jerusalem

This week three young men from the West Bank attacked security forces when stopped at the same point outside the Damascus Gate. One border police woman was killed. The three men were killed. They were found to have guns, knives, and pipe-bombs. This is feared to be the introduction of a new level of violence.

These events frame my experience of the Israel/Palestine. They have re-written my mental maps over the years. In the coming weeks I shall post observations on life in Jerusalem, and Christian/Muslim/Jewish relations from the perspective of life in Jerusalem, and three decades of engagement with the Church here. The emphasis will be on observation, and does not propose to have answers to the problems, but rather to seek understanding.

The challenge of life here is that one has to learn what mental maps the people one meets are travelling by. There are Israeli and Palestinian maps, for instance, that give different names to the same places and draw lines in different places. For many Europeans, particularly on the political left, the Palestinian map takes priority, and no legitimacy is given to other maps. For many Christians, usually evangelical and particularly Dispensationalist in eschatology, the Zionist map takes priority and there is no place for Palestinians in The Land.

These are maps that mark the political fault-line that exists in Israel/Palestine as well, and there are variations and fault-lines on each side. There are no simple solutions, and even discussing the problems is like walking through a minefield. Yet, many of the issues facing Israel and the Palestinians today are tied in with the complexities of the Middle East as a whole; and, with the challenges which the refugee crisis brings to the West. As such, the reflections on the situation here are not just about another place. They are part and parcel of the interconnectedness of East and West, Muslim and Christian, and Jew.