Jerusalem Archbishop puts Israel in the dock

Atallah Hanna: ‘The occupation must go, and resistance is a right. Israel is the occupier and you can’t blame anyone else but the occupier.

by Stephanie Pride As the bombs continue to fall on Gaza and the death toll mounts, support for the besieged Palestinians is spreading throughout all sections of society, not least among faith-based groups in Scotland. Following the visit of Archbishop Theodosis of Sebastia from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, also known by his own name, Atallah Hanna, the Church of Scotland has come as close as it ever has to joining the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In the week of his visit (14-21 July), which was jointly hosted by the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other groups, church leaders held private talks with the outspoken cleric and “commended” to their congregation a document calling for people to join the movement.

In contrast to the “even-handed” approach taken by the BBC, which portrays both sides as aggressors and vital lifelines to the people of Gaza as no more than conduits for weapons, a joint statement by the Church and Archbishop Hanna laid the blame quite squarely with the actions of the state of Israel.

As reported by the Morning Star, the joint statement also suggested a strengthening of the Church’s position since last year’s resolution which said the Kirk “should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory”.

The recently-installed minister of Dunblane Cathedral, Rev Colin Renwick, has long campaigned for an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. Having recently returned from a visit to Gaza, before the current massacre, he said: “I found more concentrated misery there than anywhere else in the world. But it’s so wonderful there’s a strong, courageous committed community [of peaceful resistance].”

As a much-admired church leader, Archbishop Hanna, who is charged with the care of nearly 180,000 Palestinian Christians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had a similar message of peaceful resistance to the occupation, but firmly rejected the suggestion that the military actions of Hamas were “playing into” Israeli hands, or were partly “to blame” for the current escalation of violence perpetrated by the Israeli army.

Speaking through an Arabic interpreter, he said: “Hamas is a group of people who have mixed opinions. Some prefer the armed struggle, some the peaceful. But the important thing we have to focus on is that the occupation must go, and resistance is a right. Israel is the occupier and you can’t blame anyone else but the occupier.”

While stopping short of endorsing violent resistance, he continued: “[The Palestinians] can’t be oppressed and do nothing… Gaza is the biggest prison in the world. We ask Israel to lift the blockade so people can breathe fresh air. I remember the story of the French queen who said ‘Let them eat biscuits!’ [cake]. Well, Gaza doesn’t have bread, biscuits, fresh water or most of the main necessities people need to survive…And now many Palestinians are fasting for Ramadan. When it’s time to eat, they may not find food or a glass of water to drink.”

Asked his views on a single- or two-state solution, the Archbishop said he wanted a united secular state of Christians, Muslims and Jews, in which no faith group had the upper hand, far less religious extremists of any sort. And he passionately believed in the right of all Palestinians to return to their homeland.

A young Muslim woman in the audience said she had always feared speaking out as she might be seen as “supporting terrorists”. But she continued: “If we want justice and peace, we have to be united with Christians and Jews without being afraid. Christians are also being discriminated against. Britain created this situation, and I’d like to see Britain do more to end it.” She then added, quite unexpectedly and to loud applause: “If Britain does not, I’ll be voting Yes!”

Archbishop Hanna is one of the authors of the Kairos Palestine Declaration, which articulates the Palestinian Christians’ call for justice for all Palestinians and for international solidarity “in order to accelerate the achievement of justice, peace and reconciliation”. He is also on record as criticising “Israeli attempts to present this conflict as a Jewish-Moslem religious conflict”, noting Israel is increasingly “irritated by the growing Christian voices raised on the Palestinian issue”. Long may they continue to be raised, along with those of other faiths and none.

• Archbishop Atallah Hanna also spoke at public meetings in Dundee and Glasgow, and at last Saturday’s national demonstration called by the Scottish PSC in Glasgow. Rev Colin Renwick was the chaplain of Jordanhill School in Glasgow for 17 years prior to his appointment in Dunblane.

• The author offered to write a version of this piece for a national newspaper several days before the protest in Glasgow but was told it was unlikely to contain “anything new”. To the best of my knowledge, the only national newspaper that has reported on the Archbishop’s visit in any depth has been the Morning Star.

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