ASIA/ HOLY LAND - Father Neuhaus: amid Gaza rubble, Christians proclaim that Christ is risen

Saturday, 6 April 2024 middle east   local churches   area crisis   easter   wars  

UNICEF/Eyad El Baba

by Gianni Valente

Jerusalem (Fides News Agency) - In Palestine and Israel, in 6 months of war, «it is shameful that no one has been able to call the warmongers to account». Jesuits write this words in the statement released in the Easter days regarding the atrocities that are bloodying the Holy Land.
Father David Neuhaus, also a member of the Society of Jesus, bears witness to the faith of Gaza's Christians, who in the very midst of so much death and despair, at Easter time, proclaim that Christ has risen. In a interview with Fides News Agency, he calls out by name the many factors that again contribute to the shedding of innocent blood and pain in the land of Jesus.
An Israeli Jesuit and professor of Sacred Scripture, David Neuhaus was born in South Africa to German-Jewish parents who fled Germany in the 1930s. He was also in the past Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics and for the Pastoral Among Migrants.

What Easter is it, this year's Easter, for the Christians of the Holy Land?

DAVID NEUHAUS: Easter is not joyful this year. We cannot forget our brothers and sisters in Gaza, in the West Bank, inside Israel. There is too much suffering, death and destruction everywhere. However, among the most powerful images this Easter were those of the Christians in the Roman Catholic parish of the Holy Family in Gaza City. With steadfast resilience and radiant faith, they celebrated the liturgies of Holy Week and proclaimed Christ is Risen. It takes enormous courage to stand on the edge of a gaping tomb, surrounded by the ruins of almost six months of bombardments, unceasing military attacks and the reality of so much death, destruction and human despair, the shadow of famine and disease, and to cry out: “He is risen! His empty tomb is witness to the end of the reign of death.” It is from there that we too must strengthen our hope that the darkness will give way to life, that death will be vanquished, that justice and peace will come.
The "military solution" undertaken by Israel was presented as a compulsory choice to "root out Hamas" after the massacre carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7. Now, can what is happening in the Gaza Strip still be justified on that grounds?

NEUHAUS: The ferocity of Israel’s response to October 7 is certainly partly a reaction of extreme pain and fear. Many Israelis believe that they are in a struggle for their own survival, comparing this attack to the worst attacks the Jewish people have known in their history, including the Shoah committed by the Nazis. However, some Israelis and many in the international community are also realizing that the Israeli political leadership, particularly Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters, now have a vested interest in war. Netanyahu and his inner circle know that when the guns fall silent they will have to face the people in the quest for seeking out those responsible for the failures that led to Israel being so unprepared for what happened. However, the slogan “destroy Hamas”, repeated so often by the Israeli political and military establishment since October 7 was never clear, not even in the beginning. Hamas is a vast social, political, welfare movement that also includes a military wing. But perhaps more than anything else Hamas is an ideology born out of the despair, anger and frustration that the Palestinian cry for freedom, equality and justice has gone unheard for decades. Since 1917, the Jewish voice has not only been heard but has received the overwhelming support of the powerful nations. The Palestinians were supposed to cede, perhaps even disappear, in order to make way for Jewish sovereignty. Hamas, which emerged in the 1980s, gave voice to an angry and often violent resistance to this. I believe that the only way to destroy the violence, anger and frustration associated with Hamas is to address the Palestinian cry for justice. What is happening instead is that in the name of a war “to destroy Hamas”, tens of thousands are being killed, the Gaza Strip is being turned into a ruined wilderness, the realities of famine and disease are crystalizing. These are all powerful reasons for more violence, anger and frustration.

What do you think about international and especially Western countries' reactions in the face of the escalation?

NEUHAUS: These countries have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel since October 7. Indeed, the horrors of that day were absolutely shocking: murder, gratuitous violence of all kinds, destruction and the dramatic kidnapping of men, women and children, old and young, taken hostage. The events were also shocking because no one could have believed that the Israeli army and intelligence establishment would be taken by surprise in such a stunning attack. Too many ignored what had been going on before October 7, the context in which these brutal attacks occurred: the siege of Gaza that had made the Strip an open-air prison, the brutal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967, the confiscation of lands, the building of settlements and the stifling of Palestinian social, economic, political and cultural life, as well as the ongoing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel since 1948. The brutality of the Palestinian attacks on October 7 also prevented many from immediately perceiving the brutality of the Israeli response: the shocking consequences of Israeli bombardments and ground operations on non-combatants, the complete lack of proportionality and the free reign given to the most extremist of forces in Israeli society to wreak havoc in the West Bank. It is only in the last few weeks that the political leadership in the Countries that support Israel have begun to express doubts about Israel’s ongoing military campaign and are now exerting still feeble pressure to reign Israel in.

Calls to stop escalation seem to fall on deaf ears. On what does their ineffectiveness depend? And what might be more effective tools and methods of pressure?

NEUHAUS: The international community, particularly in Western countries, has too often ignored the Palestinians, expecting them to accept being consigned to the margins of history. Recent so-called “peace” plans ignored the Palestinians, contenting to try and coax the Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, a normalization based upon commerce, military collaboration, hostility to Iran, etc. Just before October 7, Israel was expecting to reach a peak in this process by cementing ties, under US patronage, with Saudi Arabia. This series of treaties stretches back to the 1970s when Israel signed a US brokered peace treaty with Egypt. October 7 put the Palestinian question back at the center and hopefully the powers that be will now work with more determination to find a resolution to the Palestinian question that guarantees Palestinians the same rights as Israelis, the right to liberty, equality and justice. Without this there can be no peace.

Pope Francis and the diplomacy of the Holy See are under attack for their words on the “Piecemeal World War” and calls for truce, which are presented as expressions of "complicity" with enemies (Hamas, Iran, etc etc.). How do you consider these pressures and attacks directed toward the Pope and the Holy See?

NEUHAUS: The voice of the Holy Father has been coherent and uncompromising since the beginning of this round of the conflict. He has cried out repeatedly “War is defeat for everyone”. Most recently, in his Easter message, he added, “War is always an absurdity”. Since the time of Pope John Paul II, questions are being Raised about whether there can be a “just war” in times of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, countries engaged in wars and those countries that support them do not appreciate this message that puts human life above political ideologies and supposed national interests. Pope Francis has not ceased to also underline that the violence of both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, has primarily led to the killing of non-combatants, particularly women and children. Those that want the Pope to take sides are frustrated by his refusal to do so and this has also infuriated the Israeli establishment. He has repeatedly insisted that when we speak of Israel/Palestine we must open up the horizons to include both Israelis and Palestinians. He has consistently refused to be complicit with those who engage in war. Rather, he insists that he takes sides: he is on the side of the victims of the violence, those who have been killed by Israeli bombardments and ground operations, those wounded and buried under the mountains of rubble, those hungry and wounded, those who have lost their homes as well as those who have been taken hostage and languish in dark places in Gaza. In providing a grammar to speak of the conflict he enunciates a language of “equivicinanza” – an equal closeness to Israelis and Palestinians suffering the consequences of a conflict that has been allowed to fester for more than one hundred years.
What consequences might the war in Gaza have for the path of coexistence between faiths? Doesn't the tragedy happening in the Holy Land risk making the words of dialogue and brotherhood appear as unrealistic idealisms and rhetoric?

NEUHAUS: Unfortunately, the present conflict is only the most recent stage in a long war that has been raging for decades. Perhaps it seemed that the faith communities in the Holy Land lived together but it has always been a rather superficial perception by those untouched by the festering woundedness of the inhabitants of this land. So much of Jewish nationalism still feeds off the horrors of the Shoah. There is still deep anger, sorrow and a sense of betrayal that Jews were abandoned to their fate in those dark years. So much of Palestinian nationalism feeds off the horrors of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, and a sense that they were betrayed, expected to evaporate and make place for the Jews. Now, in Israel/Palestine, there are seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians. The time has come for each one to accept the other, to realize that the other is here to stay. Only this basis can guarantee shared life based on the equality of each person, the liberty of each one; equality and liberty being the basic components of a justice without which there can be no peace.

Political and military choices implemented in the Gaza war are influenced by apocalyptic-religious theories?

NEUHAUS: The conflict in Israel/Palestine is not a religious one. It is rather the clash between two national movements, both forged in the conceptual world of 19th century European nationalism. However, both nationalist movements have engaged in an appropriation, exploitation, manipulation of religious traditions in order to mobilize God to their side. Religious texts are ripped out of their historical and spiritual context, whether Biblical or Quranic, in order to speak to our present. This pitiless use of religion and Scripture has little to do with God or spiritual values, instead glorifying war and death. As men and women of religion we must resist this cynical use of religion. Since the 1967 War, the visibility of religion in the conflict has increased by leaps and bounds.

Rereading the 2019 document “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, signed by Pope Francis and Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib of Al-Azhar, is illuminating in this context, “Religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted. We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.” Rabbis, shaykhs and pastors in Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East would do well to meditate carefully this paragraph before supporting the military campaigns of the governments they live under. (Fides News Agency 6/4/2024)