Wazala: How significant was the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land? Will his plea to "break the spiral of hatred and violence" be heard?
Labib: This was the most important visit I think of any Pope that came to the Holy Land. The messages he gave were very strong. They had a deep impact on the Muslim community as well as the Christian community. He spoke with courage and said things that weren’t said publicly before, such as [his statements] against violence – not only against war but the manufacture and sale of arms – which was very, very courageous.
He stood with the victims of conflict regardless, both at the Separation Wall in Bethlehem and at the memorial for Israelis killed by Palestinians. That was also quite a courageous step.
He spoke openly and clearly in Jordan about the necessity to move beyond freedom of religion to [a person’s] freedom to choose their religion, meaning a change of religion. This was a very, very significant call.
His visit as well contributed to more unity among Christians because all Christians - Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Protestant – identified with his visit, as if he was the Pope of all of us. So this has been an absolutely wonderful visit and I pray that we will hear his message, first we as Christians, and that we’ll see more and more of this show of incredible leadership. [The visit] couldn’t have been better for Christians now living in the Middle East. I just feel sorry that he wasn’t able to go to Syria or to Iraq, but it was exceptional.
In terms of how much people will listen to his message for the end of conflict, we do not expect miracles to come out of that. We are people of faith, but I think that was a message that people needed to hear the Pope say and to challenge leaders. Also it was amazing to see a Christian leader call both Jews and Muslims to come together. Again that bridge we can be in the Middle East was exemplified in such a unique way.
Morally and for the credibility of Christians in the Middle East this has been a huge step.
It doesn’t matter if it will not affect the political scene. Morally and for the credibility of Christians in the Middle East this has been a huge step.
W: What encouraging signs do you see in the churches in the Holy Land?
L: There is definitely more courage. On the Messianic Jewish side, there is much more courage. It’s no longer a secret sect; it’s a very above-board, active movement. Evangelistic activities, their presence and prominence in the country is being felt and talked about and the Messianic church is growing and growing healthily. More and more younger people are part of the movement. It’s very encouraging as well to see a growing number of Orthodox Jews very interested in the Gospel, seeking more openly to know about Yeshua, Jesus Christ. On the other hand, more and more younger Israelis who were born in Israel – not immigrants - are seeking the Lord, so this is a very encouraging sign. There’s new creativity in the churches. The Messianic Church is becoming more and more Israeli, rather than a new immigrant or ex-pat dominated church. This is extremely important.
On the Palestinian side, more churches are realising, opening up, taking more steps towards their responsibility to be an active witness for Jesus Christ among the majority Muslim population. The Church as well is becoming more and more local. But still I pray for more unity among the churches. Unity is still an issue amongst the Palestinian and Arab Israeli churches.
What encourages me is that there is a huge potential of younger leaders in the churches. They are no longer restrained by restrictive patriarchs - “eternal leaders” - in the churches. They are finding their ways to move and to go beyond [the old ways]. I’m very encouraged by what God is doing at the Bethlehem Bible College – the leadership there, the openness there, the affirmation of the younger generation. A few churches and congregations are showing that too. So what encourages me is that I see this great growth of young, fresh, energetic blood, so that is exciting.
W: How can we best pray for the spiritual, social and political needs of Israel-Palestine?
L: Pray that we will not hold mission advancement or progress of the Gospel hostage to political breakthroughs, but rather even see the impasse in the political process as another opportunity to minister the Gospel of grace in a place of conflict.
W: How can we pray for the people of Gaza? Both the European Union and President Obama said in 2010 that “the situation in Gaza remains unsustainable”.
L: I think we can pray that the Lord will set Gaza free. On every level, life is unsustainable there. There is lots of hidden suffering, not spoken about or reported at all. Pray for better days for Gaza. Anything you can think of to pray for Gaza.
And pray that ending the division between the two main Palestinian factions will open the road for us as Christian organisations to contribute more and more to the spiritual and social wellbeing of the people of the Gaza Strip.
There will always be wonderful neighbours and there will always be wonderful enemies to love, and that’s what sustains us.
W: What sustains you in the face of the deep divisions and obstacles in the Holy Land?
L: The love of my brothers. Two things – “Love your neighbour as yourself and love your enemy”. There will always be wonderful neighbours and there will always be wonderful enemies to love and that’s what sustains us.
Also what sustains us is the fellowship of the Church worldwide. It’s amazing. [Take] for example, Christian TV. For Palestinians living inside Gaza or the West Bank who do not have that freedom to fellowship or enjoy the richness of the Church, especially in the Arab world - they find through TV broadcasts from SAT-7 that way of linking and connecting with the Church and being in fellowship with them. I know people who can’t wait for the School of Christ of Sameh Maurice or celebrations to come, or reports of ministries, or Bible studies. All of this.
[Satellite] TV is spreading the richness of the Gospel of Christ across closed borders of the Middle East. This is a very important contribution in all honesty to the strength and encouragement of the Church, especially [where it is] living under difficult circumstances.
Labib was interviewed at the United Bible Societies office, Swindon, 9 June 2014
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