Seeking World Peace in Difficult Times
Swedenborgian Church of North America is Represented in the
National Council of Church’s Peace Pilgrimage to the Middle East

by Rev. Richard L.  Tafel

Reprinted from the November 2017 Messenger

 

Early in September, 2017, nine delegates representing the leadership of the National Council of Churches in Christ (NCCC/USA) engaged in a peace pilgrimage to the Middle East with six goals:

  • To bear witness to peace in the region
  • To express solidarity with Middle East Christians
  • To engage in interreligious dialogue for peace and justice
  • To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation (occupied Palestinian territories)
  • To build and strengthen relationships with regional partners
  • To carry out fact-finding, observe the current situation, and explore opportunities for advocacy

Delegates on the trip represented the Friends, the United Methodists, the Baptist Alliance, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Armenian Church of North America, and the associate general secretary and the general secretaries of the National Council of Churches. I joined, representing the Swedenborgian Church of North America and as a convener of the NCC Muslim-Christian Dialogues.

The leadership team for the trip first stopped in Lebanon to meet with the Middle East Council of Churches. The entire group then met in Cairo, Egypt. Over September 8–16, we engaged in twenty-eight meetings with leaders throughout the Middle East.

 

Egypt

In Egypt, we met with Christian Protestant leaders. They wanted to share with us the state of persecution that they felt. Many shared their relief that the current president of Egypt had taken over the nation in a military coup. They felt that had the preceding president (whose power base was with the Muslim Brotherhood) stayed in power that they would have become refugees like Christians in Syria and Libya. As in any group of church leaders, a variety of opinions were shared, but we had a great discussion. I found the support for the current president as eye opening.

 

Coptic Church

After our meeting with a variety of Christian leaders, we then met with Bishop Thomas, a leader of the Coptic Church of Egypt, who serves St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Cairo. On December 11, 2016, a suicide bomber ran into the sanctuary and blew up twenty-nine worshipers, all but one woman, as he entered the women’s side of the church. Our visit was meant to show solidarity with his church. We worshiped there and had a good meeting. He then showed us the damage in the sanctuary from the large ball bearings the attacker had in his bag that shot throughout the church and blew off the wooden ceiling. Of all our visits in the Middle East, this one was the most powerful. The power came in the Bishop’s telling us that those hurt in the blast announced their forgiveness of the attacker, and that all Christians in Egypt must be ready for martyrdom and not hate their fellow countrymen.

 

President of Egypt

This meeting was followed by a formal meeting with the president of Egypt. Our visit made its way to the front page of every newspaper and the top of every evening news program on TV. We expected a fifteen-minute meeting, but it turned into a two-hour discussion. The president spoke of the importance of freedom as a principle from God. I was struck by how much his view of freedom of the person resonated with Swedenborgian theology. He concluded by saying that the last time God revealed himself was through Mohammed (which Swedenborgians would not agree with.)

We also visited with our US embassy and held a “town hall” meeting with community leaders. Each speaker rose and yelled his opinion into the microphone, lecturing the room. At first, I thought they must be angry but came to understand that this was simply the cultural style. There was much talking with little listening, but the ability to express ideas somewhat freely was cherished by participants. Many of our meetings took place on September 11, and we had a bodyguard with a hidden machine gun traveling with us to protect us just in case.

The big takeaway for me in Egypt was the complicated nature of the church and their president and the rise of extreme forms of Islam that threaten civil society and the church. Just a week ago, a Coptic priest was stabbed in Egypt, and the church leaders report that the police and ambulance were slow to come to help. The priest died. The churches of Egypt need our prayers.

 

Jordan

Amman, Jordan, was our next stop, a city originally known as Philadelphia—one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation. We headed east across Jordan toward Israel. We paused at Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw Israel, but never made it there. The Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, was our next stop, and we joined with a Swedish Lutheran team that took us for a walk through holy sites of the river. It was awesome to stand and look at Israel from this vantage point.

 

Jerusalem

After stepping into the Jordan River, we made our way to the Holy City of Jerusalem. We were exhausted as we found our rooms in the lovely Notre Dame Center overlooking the Holy City. Our time in Jerusalem was packed with meetings. We traveled through the occupied section of East Jerusalem to Ramallah to meet with Christian leaders at the PLO headquarters. Speakers in this meeting complained of a gradual crushing of the Palestinians through the occupation, which marked its fiftieth anniversary. Christian leaders there asked for the NCC to speak out more for the plight of Palestinians.

We then met at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where Rabbi Hartman shared profound insights. One thing he suggested was that Israelis no longer believe in peace, they only believe in security from attackers. At our next meeting, with the Israeli government, Israel’s representatives echoed those sentiments and complained that the NCC was too critical of Israel, but not critical enough of Hamas (a Palestinian political faction) that has been tied to terrorism and is the governing organization of Gaza.

We then had a lovely lunch with the Patriarchs of the Christian Churches. Their biggest concern was two-fold: they felt Israeli was moving to become a Jewish nation where they would not be welcomed and they spoke about their concerns for the chipping away of church-owned real estate in the Old City by the Israelis.

That evening, we met with eight NGOs who told us about their work in Israel. The most startling was a former Israeli soldier who is part of a group called, “Breaking Silence,” and he told us of unethical behavior he and other Israeli soldiers were asked to engage in against innocent Palestinians.

Though late in the day, we finally did get to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the suggested location where Jesus was crucified and buried. The experience, which I imagined as a holy one, was fascinating but felt more commercial as hundreds of tourists vied to touch the stones. The holy sites of Jesus started being marked and protected around the third century, which is how these sites are identified today, but when you are there, you do question what happened there, though knowing that our Lord lived and grew up in the area was exciting enough.

 

Bethlehem and Hebron

We left Jerusalem very late after our dinner to make our way to Bethlehem, which is in the occupied Palestinian section. Our host there was the Lutheran Christmas Church. Early the next day we traveled to Hebron to visit the largest Palestinian City. Hebron is the location of the tomb of Abraham and Isaac, and sadly like most of the holy sites, a place of massacres and murders through the years.

Hebron itself was a ghost town. The streets are patrolled with check points. There was a deep sadness there—a place nicknamed ghost town. Six hundred Israeli settlers, mostly fundamentalists, had built modern settlements overlooking the ancient city. They literally threw their trash down onto the streets of Hebron which has a net over the street to catch the trash. After touring and meeting community leaders, we made our way up a hill to a Palestinian meeting space where we met Irra Essa, a Palestinian civil rights advocate. He had just come out of the jail for PLO prisoners. He told us of his struggle to use nonviolent action to attain equality for Palestinians. As he spoke, we heard explosions as the four hundred military police fired stun guns into a protest.

Back in Bethlehem, we met up with Rev. Mitra Raheb, a leading Christian Palestinian, who gave as a geopolitical view of what was going on. He asked us for “Ps”: Prayers, Peace Building, Policy, Pilgrimage. That evening we met with Christian leaders of the Bethlehem area. They told us of frustration with the occupation by Israel but also fear of radicalized Muslims in the area.

A Christian mayor of a town near Bethlehem told us that the world sits on the chair of Palestine. If the chair is stable the world will be stable. If the chair isn’t stable, there will be no peace in the world. As we left Bethlehem, we passed beautiful graffiti murals on the walls dividing Israel and Palestine.

In every location, I shared that I represent the Swedenborgian Church. Most hearers assumed that meant I was Swedish Lutheran, and one monk stood up at an event to tell me his own outreach to the Lutherans. No one that I met had heard of our church. I developed a lovely bond with my travelers, and we did have in-depth theological discussions on our long bus rides and dinners, and they were quite curious to learn more about our faith. One colleague confided a dramatic spiritual experience she had had on the trip, saying, “I knew that you, as a Swedenborgian, would understand mystical transcendence.” Also, my role as convener of the Muslim-Christian dialogue meant a lot to those we met, particularly Muslim leaders. We were asking them to look out for Christians as we were promising to do the same back in the United States for Muslims.

I think we all left the trip a bit humbled by a situation that feels like it is getting worse by the day and will lead to a crisis. However, I did feel we were spiritual diplomats tapping into the most powerful force in the world: the love and power of the Lord. It was an honor to represent our church in this capacity. Let’s hope the Lord guides all of us and our Swedenborgian Church to the leadership role we can play in crafting peace in the world as the New Jerusalem continues to unfold.

You can view a video of the visit at https://tinyurl.com/yd6rxqeh.

 

Rev. Rich Tafel a convener of the NCC Muslim Christian Dialogue. He is the minister of the Swedenborgian National Church in Washington DC.