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Religious freedom essential to achieving peace in the Holy Land

Religious freedom essential to achieving peace in the Holy Land
© Getty Images

Last week, I was installed as the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem. On my first day in this new job, I did not expect my main concern to be whether my family got home safely. My family had travelled from my hometown in Galilee to St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem for the service. As anyone who has opened a newspaper could have guessed, the backdrop for this celebration was the worst intercommunal violence in a generation.

In mixed cities all over the country, radicals took to the street in search of violence. People have been pulled from their cars and beaten, merely on the suspicion that they belonged to the wrong group or community. We are witnessing places of worship being attacked and torched. Everyone is frightened. To get home, my family had to navigate violent groups and a heavily armed police force. My mind would not rest until I heard that they had returned safely, and thank God, they did.

Some were surprised that the installation service went ahead, given the seriousness of the current situation. But the church was adamant that it should. This tells us something about the ministry of the churches in the Holy Land. We trace our roots to the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like him, we are called to faithful presence in troubling times.

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Christians have worshipped here since the time of the Romans. The centuries since have taught us that empires rise, and empires fall. Our land has been governed by leaders from all three of the Abrahamic faiths, and though it all, we have continued to walk the streets where Christ walked. It is unsurprising then, that the installment, and the surrounding celebrations, went ahead as planned. This is just the latest example of faithful presence in difficult days. Yet another attempt to shine a light into the darkness.

In these dark days, it is more important than ever that the church continues to thrive in the Holy Land. However, our presence should not be taken for granted. The Christian community is all too often forgotten in negotiations about the future of these lands. The political climate is increasingly hostile, and attacks on Christian places of worship and holy sites are sadly common. Influential radical groups see no place for Christians in the Holy Land and are explicit in their intention to drive us out. These same groups are behind the move to evict families from their homes just a stone’s throw from our cathedral, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. Those actions did much to spark the terrible surge in violence that we now see nightly on TV screens around the world.

If these events teach us anything, it’s that religious freedom isn’t just a right for the benefit and liberty of private individuals; it is a fundamental issue of international peace and security. When freedom of religion is repressed, when religious communities are not protected from radical groups, when churches are desecrated and freedom of worship restricted, it undermines not just the dignity of individuals but the very fabric of our societies.

Having studied in Washington, D.C., I have long appreciated the faithful presence of different U.S. administrations and organizations in the promotion of international religious freedoms. The International Religious Freedom Roundtable, which meets alternately in Congress and the State Department, has inspired the creation of similar forums all over the world. I look forward to coming to Washington as soon as circumstances allow to join these conversations and share our own lessons from here in the Holy Land.

Right now, the people of the Holy Land need the prayers and support of our international friends more than ever. The violence and manifestations of hatred that we have all witnessed in the last couple of weeks have deepened our desperation. We all fear for the future.

People are tired, frustrated, and increasingly hopeless. But I could not have taken this assignment without hope. Hope is our business. By maintaining a faithful presence in the Holy Land, we work to bring the reconciliation and healing that our communities crave. We cannot do this alone, and we certainly cannot do this if we are no longer present.

Hosam Naoum is the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem.