THE protests in Malaysia against Israel’s attacks on Gaza have taken on an overwhelmingly Islamic hue. From PAS‘s public demonstrations to the Muslim Consumers Association’s campaign to boycott all Jewish products, the crisis in Gaza has been painted as a proxy war between Muslims and Jews.
Some prominent Malaysian Muslims have spoken up against this trend. In an interview with Utusan Malaysia, 3 Feb 2009, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society’s Raja Zarith Sofiah Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah said it was wrong to call Jews evil, just as it was wrong to say Muslims are terrorists.
Notes offering support to Gaza (All pics courtesy of Sivin Kit and Eng-Jee ong)
Reverend Sivin Kit, who is pastor of the Bangsar Lutheran Church, has similarly been offering a different response to the crisis in Gaza. In this exclusive interview with The Nut Graph, Kit explains the complexities in the Christian community’s position on Palestine, and places this within the context of a Muslim-majority country.
TNG: As pastor of the Bangsar Lutheran Church, you have expressed opposition to Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza. Can you tell us why?
Reverend Sivin Kit: I think Alex Awad, pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church and Professor at Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, says it better than I could:
“There is no doubt that the Qassam rockets launched against the western Negev and Ashkelon by Islamic militants linked to Hamas cause great pain and anxiety for many Israelis. Most people agree that Israel, like any other country, has the right to defend itself from outside attacks. However, in this unequal conflict between Israel and Hamas, Israel, as usual, has overdone it.”
Is your position held by a majority of Christians in Malaysia?
Generally, I get the sense that most peace-loving Christians are troubled by the violence and war. But they do not know enough to get their mind around the complexities of the politics surrounding the Middle East, and therefore keep their opinions mostly to themselves.
But there is also a particular interpretation of the meaning of Israel as the “chosen people” derived from the Old Testament, which is linked with narrower teachings on the End Times. Due to this, some Christians are not willing to be critical towards the current Israeli government lest we move out of God’s will for the last days.
I have heard a number of Christians operate more out of a “just war” theory or their own political analysis. They put blame on both sides of the conflict; in some cases more on Hamas’ firing of rockets than on the Israeli government’s military operation.
Is there an official church position on the Israel-Palestine conflict? For example, about the status of Israel, or a two-state solution?
On the recent Gaza crisis, the three main church bodies that make up the Christian Federation of Malaysia have issued their official statements on recent events. The Council of Churches of Malaysia issued a statement on 8 January 2009, which said, “Israeli airstrikes must end along with further threats of increased military action. Palestinian militant groups must also cease all current and future attacks on Israel.”
The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship has also issued a prayer statement. Archbishop Murphy Packiam issued a call for prayer vigils for Gaza in the Herald, “that God will soften the hearts of the leaders to avoid the sledgehammer tactics of Israel or the acts of Hamas which only further the sufferings of innocent people in Palestine.”
There is no one “Christian” position on the Middle East conflict. Essentially there are three “clusters” of opinion:
The Christian “right”, Protestant, position, which is strongly pro-Israel and activist.
The Mainline Protestant (Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ) position, which is more sympathetic to Palestinian interests than to Israel.
The Roman Catholic Church, whose official statements strive to be diplomatically balanced and defend the interests of both parties in the conflict.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) — consisting mostly of Mainline Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox Church — supports a two-state solution, and says, among other things, that Palestinians have the right to self-determination.
What kind of feedback have you been getting from both Christians and Muslims regarding your position on Gaza?
There has been puzzlement, encouragement, support, caution, and criticism.
Muslims I have interacted with have been most supportive. Maybe they are intrigued that a Christian, a pastor, is willing to voice solidarity for the Palestinians and is not uncritical of the Israeli government.
Of course, my Muslim friends are aware that my solidarity with Palestinians who are suffering does not mean I support any of the political factions in Palestine.
Do you feel conflicted when you are criticised?
I believe no one is above criticism, and I am only human.
There is no easy solution or analysis, but it is simplistic appeals to ideas like, “We must bless Israel and not curse them because they are the chosen people”, which disturb me. Or how, while we can speak out against wars by other nations, we can only pray when it comes to Israel.
Then there is the “blame game” approach: who shot the first missile? How far in history shall we go back to decide who cast the first stone?
I think some cautions were well grounded. For example, in the Malaysian mass media, coverage was perceived to be very one-sided towards the Palestinian cause. In some cases, I question why some local papers and public figures frame the issues with a highly anti-Jewish, anti-US, and even anti-Western angle. The fact is, there are many Jewish and Western activists criticising the Israeli government’s actions in this conflict.
Many people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sometimes see the Israel-Palestine conflict as a Judeo-Christian versus Muslim issue. What do you think?
I think framing it primarily as a religious conflict as well as in purely racial terms is problematic and unhelpful. It also fuels hostile attitudes among people, affecting interfaith relations within Israel-Palestine, around the Middle East, and beyond.
Our starting point is first to acknowledge the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict historically, politically, socially, and of course, religiously. I heard a helpful presentation from Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi the other day when he spoke to a majority Muslim audience. He approached the subject from a human rights and international law perspective, in which all interested parties can contribute more positively.
I do not think we have to necessarily keep religion out of the discourse. We have resources from our respective faith traditions which promote justice, peace and reconciliation. If these are brought into conversations respectfully, reflectively and self-critically, in a civil manner, much good can come out of this kind of engagement towards peacemaking. When people of faith draw on the well-spring of commitment for the common good, is it not possible that divine intervention can come through our every small, collective effort? Perhaps I am too idealistic?
You have worked together with Complete (the Coalition of Malaysian NGOs against Persecution of Palestinians) in raising awareness on the crisis in Gaza. Can you tell us how you got involved with Complete? What activities have you participated in so far?
Buntings set up by Council of Churches Malaysia and
Friends in ConversationA Muslim friend, Ali, told me there was a group of friends who wanted to raise awareness on Gaza without framing it as a Muslim problem, but as a humanitarian crisis. He invited me to participate in their planning meetings to provide input and contribute in any way I could.
So far, a number of my church members and friends have participated in the planning meetings, and in the main launching event, Save the Palestinians Day, 18 Jan 2009, at Bangsar Sports Complex. We set up a booth by the Council of Churches Malaysia youth committee and Friends in Conversation to share with the public Christian responses on Gaza. I also participated in an interview for the event.
What other efforts are you part of, with regard to the crisis in Gaza?
I was delightfully surprised to receive an invitation by Zun Arif from Pertubuhan Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), Selangor, to give a five-minute speech at an event co-organised by JIM on 31 Jan 2009. I was happy to offer a solidarity speech and prayer in Bahasa Malaysia, with many thanks to two church members who helped me in the translation.
Besides that, I have been working with others trying our best to provide some Christian perspectives on the website The Micah Mandate.
Do you see the crisis in Palestine as an opportunity to deepen interfaith dialogue in Malaysia? Why?
I think as a Christian, and a human being, there are many common themes we can engage in conversation on.
Opportunities are available to broaden our horizons in understanding and correcting stereotypes, and in debunking myths that hinder genuine relationships. It is a mosaic of different levels of engagement in heart, mind and common action, which I believe, at its best, has planted the seeds for more in-depth conversations in the future.