This week I received two interesting stories from the Middle East. Both have to do with the challenge of maintaining relationships and identity. The first story is from Asira Al-Qibliya, in the West Bank.
The homes at the edge of this Palestinian village are located a few hundred metres from houses in the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar. But the relationship is anything but neighbourly.
On a late January tour of the Palestinian village led by representatives of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), residents said attacks by Jewish settlers on their village are more organised and increasing.
Sometimes the attacks, which involve rock throwing, vandalism and crowd intimidation, are a part of reprisals known as "price tag" attacks carried out by settlers after an Israeli government attempt to dismantle illegal outposts or a Palestinian attack against Israeli targets, they said.
EAPPI was established by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches in 2001.
"Sometimes the attacks are random, sometimes they attack on Saturdays but we always are on stand-by whenever something happens like dismantling an illegal outpost," said Ibrahim Mahklouf, 50, a schoolteacher who lives in the village with his wife and six children.
Village Mayor Ahmed Abdel Hadi said attacks by settlers on the village of 3,000 residents have increased over the past two years.
EAPPI has a 24-hour presence in the nearby smaller, more vulnerable village of Yanoun, noted field worker Joudeh Abu Sa'd, which sometimes helps to prevent attacks, but volunteers can come to visit Asira Al-Qibliya only once a week to assess the situation here.
Mahklouf said villagers are in touch with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) but soldiers and border police often only arrive after the attack is over or don't stop the settlers.
"The mission of the IDF in the Judea and Samaria Division includes maintaining security and stability. It is in the IDF's understanding that all forms of violence undermine such stability," said an IDF spokesman in an e-mail response to an inquiry by ENInews.
One of the Israeli responses has been to prevent the Palestinians from entering land more than 60 metres from their home, much of which is used by the residents to grow their own produce in small gardens, he said.
According to the United Nations Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the weekly average of settler attacks against Palestinians and their property has increased by 40 per cent in 2011 compared to 2010 and by over 165 per cent compared to 2009.
Israelis from peace groups have come to visit and support them, said village resident Hadra Abdul Kareem, whose 14-year-old son was jailed for 30 days after an attack for throwing rocks back at the settlers.
"We show the children that there are two kinds of people, that there are Israelis who like peace," she said. "We don't want to put hatred in their heads. We don't need violence. I don't want our children to do violence or to go to jail." (Source: Ecumenical News International)
Recently the World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit reaffirmed churches' commitment to justice and peace in the Middle East, while stressing the importance of a common vision for living together by Christians and Muslims in the Arab world.
Tveit was speaking at the Christian-Muslim consultation on "Christian Presence and Witness in the Arab World" organised by the WCC programs for Churches in the Middle East and Inter-religious Dialogue and Co-operation in collaboration with the Middle East Council of Churches.
The consultation was held last week at the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon, bringing together youth, scholars and Christian and Muslim leaders for a frank and dynamic discussion.
Tveit said the Middle East was of special interest for the WCC, and articulated the historic significance of Christian presence in the Arab world, where he believes faith plays a major role, reflecting on the decleration of the WCC's Central Committee meeting of February 2011:
"Our living faith has its roots in this region and is nourished and nurtured by the unbroken witness of the local churches, who have their own roots from the apostolic times."
"Without this Christian presence, the conviviality among people from different faiths, cultures, and civilisations, which is a sign of God's love for all humanity, will be endangered," said Tveit.
He appreciated the participation of a range of Muslims in the consultation, who he says, have emphasised their commitment to strengthen the Christian presence in the Middle East. He said that it was through their action for the common good that people in the Arab world can accomplish peace, justice, freedom and harmony.
"We will certainly want to make clear to our wider constituency, the WCC's extensive experience over many years of how Christians and Muslims continue to work together constructively for the common good," he said.
Tveit also pointed out the challenges faced by the Christians in the Arab world, and the sense of insecurity they feel, because of political divides and persistent conflicts.
The WCC has addressed over a number of years the issue of emigration of Christians from the region resulting from the occupation and war in Iraq and the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
He said, "We know that the changes in the Arab world over the last year - and changes still to come - have also left many Christians, along with many Muslims, feeling uncertain and even afraid for their future."
Highlighting the efforts of churches struggling for justice and peace in Israel and Palestine, Tveit said that the situation was of great concern for Christians in Jerusalem, as well as people of other faiths. (Source: World Council of Churches)
* Reverend JS Bhagwan is currently based in Seoul, South Korea, studying at the Methodist Theological University's
International Graduate School of Theology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org