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“Dying Slowly While the World Is Watching”: Bethlehem Reverend on Israel’s War on Palestinian Christians

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As Christians around the world celebrated Easter Sunday, Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank were prevented from reaching Jerusalem for Good Friday to walk the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus is said to have followed on the way to his crucifixion more than 2,000 years ago. Meanwhile, Jesus’s birthplace of Bethlehem is uncharacteristically empty of tourists this year as Israel’s assault on Gaza and crackdown on the West Bank escalate. “Nothing can wash the blood from your hands,” said the Reverend Munther Isaac at an Easter vigil for Gaza on Saturday, about Western complicity in Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Isaac is a Palestinian Christian theologian and the pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He joins Democracy Now! to discuss the history of Palestinian Christians in Gaza, Israel’s occupation of Bethlehem and its strangling of freedoms in the West Bank, U.S. Christians’ support of Israel and more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

As Christians around the world celebrated Easter Sunday, Palestinians faced severe restrictions on entering the Old City in Jerusalem. Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank were prevented from reaching Jerusalem for Good Friday to walk the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus is said to have followed on the way to his crucifixion more than 2,000 years ago. Even before October, Palestinian Christians had to seek permission to visit the Old City. In Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, the wall separating Israel from the West Bank cuts through the city, largely empty of tourists this weekend.

The Reverend Munther Isaac, who is the pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, participated in an Easter vigil for Gaza on Saturday. This is some of what he said.

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Today we have entered a new phase of the war of genocide, in which the people of Gaza are being killed by hunger, thirst and disease. They are starved to death. It is a slow death. They are hanging between heaven and Earth, dying slowly while the world is watching. They have no form or majesty, that we should look at them, from whom men hide their faces.

It took more than five months and 32,000 people killed, including 13,000 children, for the U.N. Security Council to finally pass a ceasefire. But nothing has changed on the ground. Since when does Israel care about U.N. resolutions? Israel has never been held accountable or even condemned by Western leaders. This remains the single biggest problem today. Right now we are pleading for aid and food to enter. We gave up on a ceasefire. Just bring food, water and medicine. Lord, have mercy.

Friends, a genocide has been normalized. And as people of faith, if we truly claim to follow a crucified savior, we can never be OK with this. We should never accept the normalization of a genocide. We should never be OK with children dying from starvation, not because of drought or famine, but starvation, man-made catastrophe, because of the empire. A genocide has been normalized, just as apartheid was normalized in Palestine and, before that, in South Africa, just as slavery and the caste system were normalized. It has been firmly established to us that the leaders of the superpowers and those who benefit from the modern colonialism do not look at us as equals. They created the narrative to normalize genocide. They have a theology for it. A genocide has been normalized. This is racism at its worst.

And the very same political and church leaders who lined up in October, one after the other, to give the green light for this genocide, giving it the cover of self-defense, cannot even bring themselves to condemn the obvious war crimes being committed by Israel. They are good at raising their concern, make statements that they are “troubled” by the killing of our children. We’re sorry that the killing of our children by your weapons, actually, troubled you. They want to convince us that they actually care. So, their response? They are silent during the genocide and then show up afterwards with charity to say that they care. Can we really accept this?

Many countries rushed to suspend their funding of UNRWA based on mere allegations that were not fully proven, yet did nothing with regards to the clear findings of the ICJ. The amount of hypocrisy is incomprehensible, and the level of racism involved for such hypocrisy is appalling. And now some politicians claim that their patience with Israel is ending. And we say nothing can wash the blood from your hands.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Reverend Munther Isaac — Isaac in English — pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, speaking in Bethlehem at an Easter vigil for Gaza Saturday, joining us now from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Reverend Isaac, thank you for joining Democracy Now! again. You joined us at Christmas time after you had made that famous “Christ in the Rubble.” I’m wondering if you can share a description of what’s happening in Bethlehem today, in the occupied West Bank, and also talk about what happened on Good Friday.

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Thank you for having me.

Bethlehem, like the rest of Palestinian cities in the West Bank, continue to be almost completely isolated since the war began. And when I say “isolated,” I’m not just referring to the fact that we cannot go to Jerusalem, but even a trip to other Palestinian towns and cities right now is a big hassle. It’s a risky trip because of the potential of settler violence on the roads that Israel control between all the Palestinian towns and cities, and the delays that the checkpoints are causing. Sometimes you could wait up two to three hours just on the checkpoint with no movement. It’s all part of Intimidation and control.

And as I said, here in Bethlehem, we’re also completely now isolated from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a 15-, 20-minute drive from where I’m speaking from. Jerusalem, you know, we used to be considered like another neighborhood in Jerusalem, like two twin cities. But right now, for the first time in history, we are completely isolated as Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, if you could talk about what happened on Good Friday, the procession in the Old City?

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Well, it was not the normal procession. I mean, at least in previous years, some Palestinian Christians from the West Bank were given those permits by the Israeli military to cross to Jerusalem and attend whether the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, or, you know, visit Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during the holy week. Permits are not available these days. The normal processions and prayers that take place in the Old City with many faithful were missing. And you could see that very small numbers took part in these prayers.

And let’s be clear: The idea that we need a permit is ridiculous, to begin with. That’s the problem. The problem is not that Israel is not giving us permits. The problem is that we need permits, to begin with, as Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem or Ramallah, that we need those permits to go to Jerusalem. This is the real scandal here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the wall through Bethlehem, for people to understand who haven’t been there?

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Yes, it’s a really ugly concrete barrier that’s taller even than the Berlin Wall, that cuts deep into some of our neighborhoods. It’s very visible from very many places in Bethlehem. It gives the impression that we live in a big prison. And this is not just an impression, because all it takes for Israel right now is to close two checkpoints, and then we’re completely isolated in Bethlehem. The wall speaks volumes. I mean, it’s the message that it’s sending, that we are not wanted, that we are as if dangerous. There is a psychological effect to it, again, because it’s very visible.

And the route of the wall is very indicative. As I said, it cuts deep into Palestinian neighborhoods in Bethlehem, and it basically confiscated all the land surrounding Bethlehem area. By that, I mean the agricultural land and land that would have been the space for natural expansion. That’s why Bethlehem is very crowded right now. And when we say it confiscated Palestinian land, please understand I’m not just making a political statement as if to say this is Palestinian land. This is land owned and farmed by Palestinian families, including Palestinian Christian families, for generations. But the wall has completely isolated us from these, from our lands.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Munther Isaac, if you can talk about Gaza now? How many Christians, Palestinian Christians, are there? Why didn’t most Christians leave Gaza City to go to Rafah?

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Yes, there is around anything between 800 to 900 Palestinian Christians left in the Gaza Strip. And as you said, most of them preferred to stay in Gaza in the city, and they preferred to take refuge in one of the two churches, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, with the Catholic Church now hosting the majority because it has a bigger compound with a school.

The decision was made, from what they told us, by everyone involved. They met, and they decided that they don’t want to go to the unknown. They don’t want to end up in tents in Egypt maybe or in the desert. Don’t forget that many still carry the memories of 1948, the Nakba. So they don’t want to leave their homes again. And the message they told us is they’d rather die in the church rather than leave to the unknown and end up somewhere that they don’t know. So they chose to be together. They chose to be in the two churches.

And at times, it was very difficult. The Shifa Hospital is from walking distance from the two churches. So you could imagine the amount of trauma and fear they experienced. Many were killed in this war already, whether by bombardment or by snipers or from diseases. You know, the problem right now is, if you get sick in Gaza, chances are very high you don’t survive, because there is no medical care at all.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you two questions, one about the pope giving his Easter sermon at the Vatican, calling for a ceasefire. While he called for peace, a Republican member of the U.S. Congress publicly suggested Gaza should be bombed, quote, “like Nagasaki and Hiroshima.” It was Michigan Congressmember Tim Walberg, who himself is an ordained pastor, who made the comment during a recent town hall. Listen carefully. It’s a little off mic.

REP. TIM WALBERG: We shouldn’t be spending a dime on humanitarian aid. It should be like Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Get it over quick.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts? Shouldn’t be spending a dime of humanitarian aid, and it should be dealt with like the U.S. dealt with Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: I’m angry. It really makes me angry. And I’ve heard these comments, and I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it. It makes me angry as a Christian, makes me furious as a Christian, for the lack of mercy and compassion. This is definitely not Jesus’ way. I can’t understand which Bible are they reading. And then, when I search about this congressman, only to discover that he went to prestigious and influential evangelical seminaries — he was a pastor — I couldn’t — I couldn’t believe it. I mean, this is a stain on the credibility of the Christian witness. And the idea that he brings those two cities as a positive example, it’s beyond my comprehension. He brings the example of two cities that were completely destroyed, with hundreds of thousands killed, as a positive example? I couldn’t believe it.

I couldn’t believe that, you know, he would think of that, only to think that the real scary part of all of this is that Israel could actually do it and get away with it, because of people like him providing the political and theological cover to execute such a genocide, just as we’ve been witnessing for the last five to six months. This is the scary part, that he thinks of it as a possibility, and that we know that if it happens, there are those who will continue to defend it. I’m horrified by this. As a pastor, I’m appalled and I’m angry, because this is not a Christian witness.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally —

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: And we need more calls for ceasefire. We need stronger calls for a ceasefire, like the one Pope Francis made. We need those church leaders to come to the Holy Land, come and demand a ceasefire. It’s beyond tragic. We need to be very forceful in our demand right now for a ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in a moment, we’re going to be talking about the mass protests in Tel Aviv around calling for — it used to be the resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu, now it’s for the overthrow of the government. Your thoughts?

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: Well, I think Netanyahu should have resigned on October 7th. He led us to this mess. And I’m not just saying that because of his negligence. But his policies, this current Israeli government’s policies, their policies with regard to continuing the split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, empowering one of the other, even bringing cash money, the fact that they intentionally killed the two-state solution, all of that led us — I mean, these are all the policies that led us to this mess. And we’ve been saying that things are about to explode. We’ve been warning for that. So, to me, he should have resigned — if he had any integrity, he should have resigned immediately after October 7th for causing the death of so many innocent Palestinians and Israeli civilians, as we are witnessing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Munther —

REV. MUNTHER ISAAC: We definitely need —

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Reverend Munther Isaac, Palestinian Christian theologian, pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He addressed Easter vigil for Gaza on Saturday.

Coming up, tens of thousands protested across Israel, calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We’ll go to Tel Aviv for the latest, in 20 seconds.

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