Introduction to the Bethlehem Consultation on 50 Years of Occupation

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General secretary of the WCC

20 June 2017

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

We are blessed to be together during these days, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to hope. It is as described in the biblical texts, where we read: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

And again:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 11:1 and 12:1-3)

We too are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses of hope today. Some of them speak to us in the exhibition in this room, some of them will speak to us during the days of this consultation.  You come from the biblical land of Palestine, you come from the whole world.

The best way to mark the tragedy of the 50 years of occupation is to listen carefully to those witnesses of hope who live under occupation and who experience the grave consequences in  their daily lives. No people should experience occupation. No people should be denied the right to real self-determination. No state should constantly, for 50 years, violate the human rights of another people. No one should live with so many restrictions on their daily routines, drastically reducing the freedom so many of us take for granted. That the Palestinians have lived for 50 years under occupation is a dark part of your history. For the occupier, it is a part of their history that should end as soon as possible, in part for their own moral integrity and credibility as a partner in the world. This is a part of world history that the world should be ashamed of.

Yet it is never too late to end occupation. It is possible to change a tragedy created by human actions into a situation of hope.

The strongest voices for hope are those that come from within, from the context that seems to be a hopeless situation. The hope brought to us in this exhibition of these 12 faces of hope is the strongest sign of a living hope. They speak of love and dreams of life together with others in peace. This is the power that can move hearts and change history. Let us listen carefully to them. Let us be moved by their hope. Nothing is impossible for those who believe. Everything is possible if we have faith, hope, and love.

We are gathered here because of our common faith, expressed as hope, shared in love. We are here together to pray together that “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yet the will of God is not done in this world as it should be. The will of God is ignored every day by ourselves and others. That is why we pray every day also, “forgive us our sins.” Because of the gospel message of the justification of sinners, we can also address the reality of sin and ignorance of the will of God to end injustice. Forgiveness is not accepting sin, rather to the contrary. It is the strongest way to say that this should not happen. Therefore, we pray first of all: “Thy will be done.”

It is impossible to defend this occupation morally, or even politically. Occupation is not just a name of a policy in a situation of conflict. It is against the Ten Commandments; it is a sin. The way it is pursued here is also breaking the standard of justice formulated in international law.  Occupation is the door to so much that has to be named: discrimination, oppression, harassments, reducing the freedom of movement of others, stealing the hope and future of the next generations, leading others to desperation and desperate actions, siege and blockade, extrajudicial killings, arrests and assassinations of political leaders of another people, collective punishment of families and communities, bulldozers demolishing houses, land grabbing, annexation of the land of others, confiscating of land and private properties, colonization. These are matters of fact about the occupation, and more will be added as we hear today. These remain matters of fact, whatever might be said about other stories of unacceptable actions of violence, of hate and fear. There is a relationship between the occupied and the occupier that is and never can be balanced as long as the occupation, with all its consequences, goes on. We will hear more about these realities today, and how the situation is deteriorating.

We are here also to pray “thy kingdom come.” We ask ourselves what it means that the reign of God consists of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14) and that we are called to make this kingdom – which is not of this world – visible in this world, and particularly so here in the Holy Land. As fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection are always calling and encouraging us to witness against sin, darkness, and injustice. Even in the utmost moment of silence and brutal death, he became a witness against the injustice of this world. Through his resurrection there is a new reality in which we live; after the cross and the resurrection there is no place, no time, no human life where there never can be hope.

We are here also because we want to be among those of his followers who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We want to be among those who are blessed because we are peace-makers. As sisters and brothers in Christ,  we want to express this relationship in our accompaniment and our solidarity, particularly with the Palestinian people living under occupation for 50 years, and with the impact of the Nakba that hit your people 70 years ago, and with the impact of an international political dynamic that for 100 years and more have left the Palestinian people at the non-privileged place, at the place outside, at the place of refugees, occupied, even in the name of our costly faith in God. We are gathered here because we believe that the risen Christ is among you, as he was on the way to Emmaus, a city that had been victimized and traumatized by the occupiers of its time.

We are gathered here because we want to understand better the situation here and now. We  who have come from outside want to understand it better by listening to you, our Palestinian sisters and brothers.  We want to hear more of your stories, learn from more of your analysis, witness more of your commitments. Before this meeting I have tried to prepare myself by reading several texts that are analyse what has happened, reciting the facts about these 50 years of occupation and also especially these most recent years. The more I read, the more unwell I get, the more I see that this is a history of extreme, systematic oppression and violence against a people and its leaders, making it - in more or less sophisticated ways - look like this is your own fault, and that there is no solution to this situation. The more I read, and the more I know what I see every time I visit here, the more I am sure that it is not only an occupation, but a violation of all kinds of international rules and regulations that actually should be applied in situations of occupation, according to the Geneva conventions. The more I read and reflect, the more I am convinced that we should not only talk about occupation but about colonization in the most oppressive and emperial style, something we thought the world was done with after the decolonization processes in the 20th century.

You call for human rights to be respected, occupation to be ended, discrimination of citizens to stop, detention of political prisoners to end. You rightly call for solidarity and actions that can bring change, through the nonviolent means at the disposal of individuals, groups, churches, countries, international organizations.  Even while the occupying regime makes and implements laws that try to silence and keep out those voices who call against this situation and for change.

Since the first time I visited this region in 2002, under the curfew of Palestinian cities like Bethlehem, I have admired and been astonished by the strong resilience and the clear message from you, Palestinian churches and Christians, that your agenda is justice and peace – pursued without violence. You have been and are one of the strongest voices of just peace in the world today. I heard about the occupation of my country during the five years of World War II as the story of my parents. Now I see and hear the stories of 50 years of occupation, several generations, many of whom have never seen anything else than this.

Whatever I say and whatever we do as the World Council of Churches we do in deep respect for you and with gratefulness to you for accepting us as your partners for justice and peace. It is by your grace and love that we continue trying our best to support you. Most of all, we are grateful to God who keeps you in the realm of the resurrection and who makes of you such significant beacons of hope to the worldwide church and to the world.

As we are gathered here, I also want to express my deep respect and admiration for those who have come from outside this area, who, out of personal commitment and the commitment of your church and your organization, tirelessly and with resilience continue the work for just peace here in this land and for the peoples of Palestine and Israel. I am grateful to God for your strong involvement and your contributions to what we can do together.

We are here to share our insights and our opinions, to develop our understanding and to nurture our commitment to just peace for the people of Palestine. This is guiding our further work, our objectives, policies and programmes in various churches and organizations. For the WCC it is not a decision-making event, but an important opportunity for reflection and discussion for our future work. We hope that these days can bring more insight, more ideas, more creativity, more faith, and more hope that we can make a difference together.

Let us use this privilege of time together here during these days to respond together to our calling to search for righteousness and to contribute to just peace. Let us have the right perspectives – believing in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be with you and us these days, giving us open eyes and listening ears, creative and courageous minds, and most of all: faith, hope, and love in our hearts.