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Donald E. Wagner. Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000.

Donald E. Wagner. Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000. London, U.K.: Melisende, 2003. 307 pages. $21.95.

In the midst of the current Western obsession with Muslims and Islam, a book draws our attention to the travails of a Christian community deeply entwined with the fate of the most beleaguered Muslim community in the world, namely that of the Palestinians. Donald Wagner chose to study the life and fate of the Palestinian Christians, however, not as an anecdote of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, but as a living community facing the challenges of ethno-nationalism, religious revival, and most importantly, betrayal by sister Western churches. The combined effect of these forces which superficially resulted in emigration from the Holy Land, also produced more serious challenges to Western Christendom and to the disunited local churches ministering to the Palestinians. This book, additionally, is written as a refutation of a stinging statement by Teddy Kollek, a past Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, to the effect that Christianity developed and spread far away from the Holy Land. Citing the establishment of the early Church in Antioch, and later in other corners of the far-flung Byzantine/Roman world, Kollek wanted us to accept the historical annihilation of Palestine's indigenous Christians. Wagner demonstrates through his superb historical research into the survival of this community both Kollek's erroneous assumption and the regional impact of the Christian community's decline. He also shows that no other Christian group shares the Palestinians' distinct connection of people to land, a connection that is being violently revoked in the very land of the Bible. Historically, the challenges to Palestinian Christians emanated from its Jewish and Muslim neighbors. Those challenges were not only doctrinal, but also political. As Wagner demonstrates, however, in modern times Palestinian Christians are facing the prospect of physical separation from the land of the Bible through a powerful combination of ancient and modern enemies, a separation which has grave implications for the survival of the Holy Land itself.

Through this historical inquiry, Wagner finds that most of the time Christians were treated with tolerance by their Muslim overlords. Examples of this Muslim ecumenism, which is mandated by the Muslim faith, abound. For instance, not only was Caliph Omar's pact with Bishop Sophronius (himself of Arab descent) an early model for the development of international law, but there were also little known instances, such as the Umayyad approval of the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which truly stands out as an example of official tolerance of Christianity. The Umayyads and other dynasties regularly extended cordial relations to local Christian communities even at a time when Muslim armies battled Greek Byzantine forces and European Crusaders. Muslims, it seems, were readily accepting of the Arab and local affiliation of the Holy Land's Christians and were willing to exclude them from the definition of warring Christianity, which continuously afflicted Muslim lands. Even greatly publicized Islamic assaults on local Christians turn out to be lifted out of context. Wagner reminds us, for instance, that the persecution suffered by the Palestinian Church at the hands of the deranged ruler of Fatimid Egypt, al-Hakim bi-Amr al-Allah, was also meted out to fellow-Muslims. Al-Hakim may have ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (whose Bishop was the Egyptian ruler's maternal uncle), but he also prevented Muslims under his rule from performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, attacks on Palestinian churches and monasteries by marauding Bedouins during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries were not motivated by religious hatred but resulted from plagues, earthquakes, and general economic despair. Wagner also notes that the Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which originated with the arrival of Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine who commissioned the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the third century, also initiated a tradition which flooded the country with European pilgrims and opened the way for misreporting the affairs of indigenous Christians and Muslims alike. In the same spirit, Wagner describes in detail the Ottoman millet system which institutionalized a unique style of ethnic and religious communitarian co-existence that lasted for centuries.

The intrusion of Western missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, not only paved the way for the entrenchment of Western consuls in weakened Ottoman Palestine, it also made it possible for European Zionists to settle the land. Wagner's best sections actually are those devoted to unraveling this Christian-Jewish relationship in the land where Jesus began His spiritual journey by breaking away from the rabbinic fold. Palestinian Christians maintained this separation when they rejected attempts by the Jewish Zealots under Bar Kochba in 131 to project Jesus' role as that of a military Messiah. In the nineteenth-century, Palestinian Christians also suffered the blows of disunity and fragmentation when European missionaries descended on Palestine and succeeded in winning members of ancient Middle Eastern churches to European Protestanism.

Wagner's greatest forte, however, is in the area of Christian Zionism, the subject of one of his earlier books. Evangelical Zionism, as it was often called, converted some of Europe's eminent scholars and statesmen to the idea that Jews needed a state of their own in order to erase the legacy of Christian persecutions. These were steeped in Biblical studies and who somehow bridged the gap between ancient studies and the modern period through their new found theory of penance and remorse and their emphasis on the return of the Messiah. Among these were influential figures such as Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Arthur Balfour, David Lloyd George, and the American author William E. Blackstone, who founded in 1891 the first Zionist lobbying effort in the U.S. Winston Churchill was among those committed to the Zionist project very early in his political career and pursued these objectives with great duplicity towards the Arabs. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, an expert on this subject, has often wondered how these evangelical Christians could deliberately overlook the Palestinian community, Christian and Muslim, in the Holy Land. The complete denial of the rights of the Palestinians in general increased in intensity after the Holocaust succeeded in casting a deep shadow over European Christian and Jewish relations.

After political Zionism won over the British political classes early in the twentieth-century, the Holocaust worked to eliminate any remaining Western resistance to Jewish aspirations in Palestine. Paradoxically, the Holocaust not only obscured any remaining commitment to the Christians of the Holy Land, it also emboldened the Zionist forces to commit brazen acts of violence against British and Palestinian civilians. To his credit, Wagner highlights the impact of British betrayal and Zionist violence on the Palestinian community as a whole. He recounts such events as Yitzhak Rabin's responsibility for the forced evacuation and deadly march of the Arab population of Lydda and Ramie. He provides eyewitness accounts of the massacre of Deir Yassin. But he also assembles the personal tragedies, which befell Palestinian Christians who became prominent members of the clergy, such as Father Elias Chacour and the destruction of his native village, Bir'im. There are also the eyewitness accounts of the march from Lydda by Father Audeh Rantisi, an Anglican priest who later served as the deputy Mayor of Ramallah, and Canon Naim Ateeq's memory of the forced removal of the people of Beisan (Beit Shan).

Wagner also strongly refutes any suggestion that Palestine's Christians welcomed and benefited from the Israeli occupation, such as was the claim of Daphne Tsimhoni in Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1948 (Praeger, 1993). She claims that Christians welcomed the Israeli occupation as a balancing force against the growing influence of Islam, but Wagner asserts that the harshness of Israel's military rule was shared in equal measure by Christian and Muslim Palestinians. All of this leads the author to reflect on the future of Christianity in the Holy Land by wondering how could the plight of the Palestinians fail to move the conscience of the Western World? His conclusion emphasizes factors that are the outgrowth of his theological and religious approach to this topic. He mentions the Holocaust and the guilt complex that it generated among Western Christians and the effective Zionist propaganda which mobilized pro-Zionist Christian sentiment both in the US and Europe. He emphasizes that it was this propaganda and its basis in a special interpretation of the Bible, which not only marginalized the Palestinians' history, it also legitimized their destruction. Naturally, he blames the mainline Christian churches, such as Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians in the U.S., Europe and Latin America who have sister churches in Palestine for failing to mobilize their own Christian constituencies. One could also blame cynical Western governments that cared most about the strategic value of a dependent Zionist government in Palestine. These governments hardly pursued a genuine Christian foreign policy agenda based on bringing peace and justice to all comers of the globe. To them, the Middle East was an oil-rich strategic land bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, and Palestine was the entity capable of protecting the Suez Canal. Native Christian communities of Palestine and the rest of the Middle East were always taken for granted because different Western congregations also failed to influence foreign policy.

The rise of the evangelical political right in the U.S. and its increasing impact on the current Bush Administration do not augur well for the Christians of Palestine. Already, reckless and ignorant statements about the Prophet Muhammad by the likes of Pat Robertson have disturbed the peaceful coexistence of Arab Christian communities. These considerations make this study a courageous effort, which confronts all the hard choices before the Muslims and Christians of the Arab World. Wagner breaks fresh ground with his meticulous linkages between religious trends abroad and in Palestine. He does this without once losing focus on his target subject, producing a wealth of important background information that we all need to read.

Ghada Talhami is a professor of politics at Lake Forest College, Illinois, and a former editor of Arab Studies Quarterly.
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Author:Talhami, Ghada
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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