Bahai News - Area Christians Will Pray For Mideast Peace

Area Christians Will Pray For Mideast Peace This Christmas Spiritual Leaders Here Wish Holy Sites Could Be Shared, Free Of Violence

This Christmas Day, St. Louis Christians are praying for the infants of modern Bethlehem as they read about the birth of the child Jesus two millennia ago in the little hilltop town.

"Bethlehem is such a powder keg now," said the Rev. Timothy Carson, pastor of Webster Groves Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and president of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Carson will lead his congregation in prayers today for peace for all the people in the land where Jesus walked. Carson will also preach about it in his Christmas meditation.

The town, which began this Jubilee year of Jesus' birth with such hope for peace, now shakes with violence. Children crossing Bethlehem's Manger Square are afraid of gunfire. There has been violence at the site of Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem. It's a site dear to the three great faiths of the spiritual children of Abraham and Rachel: Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Children's choirs from around the world were planning to participate in a long-planned Christmas Eve 2000 concert at Bethlehem's Manger Square.

"All of that was canceled," Carson said. "Tragic"

Hopes for a peace were first dashed in October when the Camp David talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat broke down over the issue of who should control Jerusalem.

Since then, violence in the region has killed more than 345 people, mostly Palestinians. There has been destruction of Islamic and Jewish places of worship.

The Christmas Eve concert is but one of many cancellations. Thousands of tourists, including Christians and Jews from the St. Louis area, canceled trips to the Middle East this fall.

Carson is concerned about more than the Christian Arabs in Bethlehem.

"I think that Christians should be concerned with justice and peace for all, whether they are Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims or Jewish Israelis," he said. "In terms of Christian solidarity with other Christians, there is great benefit to having many faiths in that place. In my personal opinion, Jerusalem should be a holy city with protection given for all people and not a national capital."

As president of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis, Carson helped assemble 21 ranking regional spiritual leaders last month to sign a call for "people of all faiths to join in prayers of peace" in the Middle East.

Among those signing the statement and a prayer were the Eastern Missouri's ranking Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, Mormon and Baha'i leaders.

In many of those leaders' houses of worship, requests for prayers for a Middle East peace may have gotten lost simply because Americans have been focused on the U.S. national elections, Carson said. He hopes they will be renewed this Christmas.

In Illinois, parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Madison have heard stories about the Holy Land sites firsthand. The parish administrator, the Rev. Ed Mundwiller, worked in the shrine of the nativity in Bethlehem from Dec. 31, 1999, until late June 2000.

"It's a very hard land, that's been fought over for so long, for many centuries by people of such deep conviction and deep faith," said Mundwiller, who is a Franciscan friar and priest.

A chance for a peace settlement seemed good during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the Middle East in March, Mundwiller said. The pope prayed at the wailing wall, the remnant of the destroyed Jewish Temple, and prayed with people in Palestinian detention camps. He called for an international force to keep Jerusalem independent and its holy sites open.

Members of Mundwiller's Roman Catholic order, the Franciscans, have been "custodians" of many of the most important shrines associated with Jesus' life since 1340.

They have observed conflict in the holy places for much of that time. Even their founder, St. Francis of Assisi, was unsuccessful at trying to forge a peace there in 1219 between Christians and the land's overseer, a caliph in Alexandria, Egypt.

A year ago, Archbishop Justin F. Rigali, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory and more than 300 other U.S. Catholic bishops approved a letter calling on Israel to become more concerned about maintaining the Christian holy places. Rigali and other Catholic bishops are concerned about the plight and permanence of Christians in present day Israel, as is Mundwiller.

"I worked with many Christian Arabs and it has become very hard economically for them," Mundwiller said. "They depend on Christian pilgrims for their work. Now these pilgrims can't rent a car or get car insurance to drive to Palestinian-occupied regions."

Israeli restrictions and licensing for travel agents, drivers and tour guides make it difficult for Christians to hire Arabs as their guides.

Two weeks ago, Monsignor James Telthorst, pastor of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, was preparing a Scripture reading from the fifth chapter of biblical book of Baruch. The passage is assigned for Catholic Masses for the second Sunday in Advent: "Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery and put on the glory from God and be wrapped in the cloak of Justice from God."

He read the passage just after he heard the news that people were throwing rocks against each other on the Via Dolorosa, the winding narrow Jerusalem streets down which Jesus carried his cross.

"In the Holy Land, people are in mourning on both sides, and both sides have holy sites, and both sides have religious traditions and both sides pray," Telthorst said in a sermon at the basilica. "And both sides continue to distrust one another. One side's feeling threatened and the other side oppressed. Hatred continues in the very city where the Light (Jesus) was born and in the street where he walked on his way to the cross."

Christmas is about welcoming the light in the midst of winter's darkness, he said. Christ's coming is about the removal of mountains and the filling of chasms and the change of heart, he said.

Today, St. Louisans of many faiths are praying for a change of heart among the leaders so that there can be a just peace in the land of the first Christmas.


©Copyright 2000, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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