Whenever I give talks on the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian livelihood, the status of nonviolence as a means to resisting the occupation, and how I believe nonviolence is the only way to move forward to resolve the conflict and create a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the first and immediate questions I get from foreign visitors to my office in Bethlehem is, "What you said is good, but what about the Muslims? Do they also believe in nonviolence? Do they understand it?" Even if I don't mention religion in my presentation -- and I rarely do -- this question always seems to make its way in our discussions.
I have to admit that this question challenges me because within it lies an underlying stereotype, a bias, or at the least a grave misunderstanding of the Palestinian Muslim community -- that they are violent people and do not have any understanding of nonviolence. The second challenge is in the biases toward Palestinian Christians. Western Christians simply think and assume that Palestinian Christians must engage in nonviolence and that it is "unchristian" if they use violence.
Even though we never look at it through a religious lens, the reality on the ground is that when it comes to nonviolence in Palestine, it is not Christians but Muslims who are engaging in this tremendous work. It is Palestinian Muslims who are the main leaders, the organizers, the activists and the strategists, and only some Christians are active in nonviolent resistance.
The men and women organizing the protests each week in villages where land is being confiscated and the separation wall is being built, chaining themselves to olive trees so they don't get uprooted and laying in front of bulldozers are Muslims. When we organize protests that fall on Christian holidays, like an Easter protest or the Palm Sunday march to Jerusalem, 90 percent of the protestors were Muslims, standing in solidarity with the rights of the Christian brothers and sisters to pray in Jerusalem. Many Muslims, some of whom are my closest friends, like Basim and Naji Tamimi from a small village called Nabi Saleh whom I have worked with and trained with for years, are now locked up in Israeli prisons because of their nonviolent actions.
On the other hand, the Palestinian Christian community has limited numbers of leaders and activists in this work. One reason is, of course, demographic: Palestinian Christians are less than 1.8 percent of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. But the main reason why Christians are not active is due to the fact that, like many Muslims, they have simply given up. They refrain from any actions working to end the military occupation and are simply resigned trying to live life day-to-day. The community sees the expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements, the increased regulations on movement by Israeli military checkpoints, the harder economic conditions and, most of all, the failure by our own political leadership to even sit together, let alone lead us to liberation. Sadly, this breeds hopelessness.
At the end of the day, while the question is always asked by our foreign friends, when it comes to how we live with each other and how the Israeli occupation treats us, there is actual agreement: We are all the same; we are "Palestinians." I have never gone to a nonviolent demonstration and counted how many Christians and how many Muslims were there. I have never helped this family and not that because of their faith. Christian and Muslim farmers have had their olive trees uprooted and their fields burned by settlers, Christian and Muslim homes have been destroyed by Israeli military bulldozers. Christians and Muslims have been killed, injured or arrested by the Israeli military. The walls and fences surround Christian cities like Bethlehem and have confiscated hundreds of acres that belong to Christian and Muslim families. When I am stopped at a military checkpoint and interrogated, the Israeli soldier never says, "Oh, a Christian. Sorry, go ahead." I am held up for hours along with my Muslim friends for no reason but intimidation.
I am proud of the fact that when it comes to the Palestinian community, with all the challenges, hardships, and divisions that we face, religious identity remains a sacred space, honored by the greatest overwhelming majority. It brings me the greatest joy to see Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) deeply engaged and committed to nonviolence. It gives me even greater pleasure when I see the growing number of Israeli Jews join us hand in hand in this struggle.
My prayer is that a new question will arise from my Christian friends in the U.S. and Europe and from our churches across the globe: What can we do to help you (Christians, Muslims and Jews) end this occupation and conflict, once and for all, and create a peace in the Holy Land that will bring us all pride in our religious faith, teachings and heritage?
Sami Awad is a Palestinian Christian active in the nonviolence movement. He is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. His story is told in the film "Little Town of Bethlehem." For more information visit www.holylandtrust.org and www.littletownofbethlehem.org