The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center's 10th international conference is underway in Bethlehem under the theme: Jesus Christ - Liberator Then and Now. The event recognizes 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter indicating the British government's favorable view toward "...the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people..." Publication of the Declaration had long lasting consequences and was a key moment leading to the Arab-Israeli conflict that remains unresolved today.
Vera Baboun, mayor of the Bethlehem suggested amending the theme to "Jesus Christ - Liberator Then and Now and Ever!" She spoke at the Bethlehem Hotel on March 7.
Baboun said, "The legacy of Jesus Christ is a legacy of justice. He showed us that justice starts with just one individual who is a liberator." She said, "Now Jesus' city is walled, constrained and strangled. The nativity of peace is walled; peace itself is walled." Bethlehem's population is severely hemmed in by the separation barrier constructed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian lands.
"Bethlehem is all about the message," Baboun said, "and the messenger, who asks us to open our minds and hearts. Bethlehem is part and parcel of Palestine's context. We still have much work to do. Don't lose the message: our liberation is for love."
Nour Odeh, CEO of Connect Consulting, described Balfour's legacy, "... that denied the existence of a nation, of the Palestinian people."
Odeh said, "We were the anonymous, the others living here, the tribes, the scattered people. As if we did not have an identity, when we did. We had a thriving society, cultural, economic, a life that we know about and that the world ignored or denied later out of political, convenience."
"The world does not see our beautiful society with its colors and nuances; we are not just 'Arabs.'" Odeh said. Public discussion about our situation "is all about Israel and fulfilling Israel's aspirations," she said.
"We want a conversation between equals, a reality set by equals on the ground of justice," Odeh said.
Odeh pointed to "a connection among those who are united on the principle of our shared humanity... principles of respect and dignity and freedom and justice." She urged participants to avoid fragmenting Christians and Muslims, Gazans and Jerusalemites. These are all Palestinians, she said, "Don't play into fragmentation."
The Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel, opened the conference with worship at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine at the nativity site in Bethlehem. "You, our friends... have come anxiously to search for peace and wellbeing for the children of God who live in this land."
He said, "you have come to stand with us, your sisters and brothers in Palestine. We are here together to witness to peace that must be based on truth and justice."