Spiritual leaders in the Middle East are unanimously calling for peace as bombs whiz above them and a full-scale war is on the horizon.
No stranger to the conflict, the Middle East is experiencing what some experts are saying could escalate into war. Israeli and Palestinian Hamas forces are clashing, with death tolls in the hundreds in less than one week of violent conflicts. Christians are being caught in the Arab-Jewish crossfire.
Christians in Palestine
As Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb is sitting in his office in Bethlehem Friday evening, where minutes earlier there was shooting at the city's entrance, Raheb says while they feel the impacts of the conflict, they do not feel it like they do in Gaza.
As he continues to be around conflict, Raheb's faith is unwavering.
"Our faith is always tested but our faith is always ground in the story of Jesus. It is tested because we feel often that we are abandoned," Raheb says, saying he feels the international community is biased towards Israel.
The Reverend says people often "mix Biblical Israel and the state of Israel" and want to be connected with the more powerful Israeli nation. He has dedicated his life to sharing what is happening with Christians in the Middle East.
"It is at times like this that the Lord calls us to reach out to the larger community with a message of hope, or justice, of peace, and of reconciliation."
He is asking for peace, freedom, and dignity for Palestinians. The Palestinian Christian scholar and author has worked on dozens of books about the Christian faith in the Middle East.
The President of Dar al-Kalima of University College of Arts and Culture is a Palestinian minority. Roughly three per cent of all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are Christian and 20 per cent worldwide.
Raheb says Christians in Palestine greatly relate to Jesus, as they both are under occupation.
"If you want to choose one symbol that best tells the story of Palestine it is the cross. And yet, the cross was not the last word because there was hope and there is the resurrection and there is life in abundance and this is the hope we want to stick to, even at times like this."
Some of Raheb's students were injured and detained last week. Students attending their statellite living in Gaza, which Raheb calls the biggest open-air prison in the world, are attending the arts school remotely experiencing their city being levelled by the bombings.
He is asking for prayers for their ministry workers and students.
"We need prayers. They keep us going. Please pray for a just peace so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace, and in dignity and in freedom."
Raheb is praying for and is hopeful that one day Palestine will be free of occupation and Jewish, Muslim, and Christians can live side-by-side peacefully. He is dreaming of welcoming Christians safely into the Holy Land, including his hometown.
Inside the Christian emergency response in Israel
Fast is speaking from Winnipeg Friday, as their workers in Jerusalem are focussing on relief efforts in between taking shelter from the bombings.
"We are committed to showing Christian love," Fast says. "God loves all, everyone in this region. And our prayers are for the preservation of Israel."
The organization has been in the area for decades fostering relationships between Christians and Jews. Directing Psalm 122:6, he is asking for prayers for Israel and Gaza.
"We just want to see hate pushed away, and the love of God come into that region. But we also are realists and we know the difficulties and the tensions of that region. We need to pray to be wise and have the courage right from the Lord in how we act."
Already a constant fixture in the region, the group is now in hyperdrive as they help as many people in need as possible. Fast says they have been delivering food and other supplies, but currently, they are struggling to do so.
"It is tragic on both sides and it is a very tense situation but we are going to stand in the gap and provide."
As there continue to be some COVID protocols in the country, Fast says, they are having issues bringing supplies to other areas of the country. The most difficult is the communities in the south, particularly those bordering Gaza.
"With the rocket fire and these things, it is too early to say exactly what we have been able to do with the resources that exist but we are definitely doing everything that we can."
He says in the past week the most in-demand support they have been offering is comfort.
"Our prayers also go out to the innocent Palestinian Arabs in Gaza who are terrorized by Hamas. Their lives are put in jeopardy because of the presence of Hamas and what Hamas is dedicated to. And we pray for their betterment, as a people, and this violence would be resolved."
Fast stresses the struggle that Israel is facing through this time.
"In everything, Israel's response is to stop the terrorism and protect their citizens, as any sovereign nation would, to minimize the damage and the deaths, but they have to respond to a violent attack on their nation. They have the most difficult job, as how do you eliminate an enemy that is embedded in a densly populated territory."
Middle East Council of Churches
A council of churches is urging Holy Land conflicts to cease. The Middle East Council of Churches is calling for an end to the 70 years of Palestinian occupation.
"We urgently demand that the decision-makers in the world and all the concerned forces intervene quickly and diligently in order to safeguard the rights and lift the injustice of these people, whose no one else remains under occupation in the twenty-first century and in the era of human rights," the council writes Tuesday. "These people have the right to live a life of dignity, safety and prosperity, just like the peoples of the world!"
Israel is not a member of this council.
Pope Francis is calling for prayers of peace.
"I pray that it may be a place of encounter and not of violent clashes, a place of prayer and peace. Violence begets only violence," he tweets.
I am following with particular concern the events in Jerusalem. I pray that it may be a place of encounter and not of violent clashes, a place of prayer and peace. Violence begets only violence. Enough of these clashes.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 9, 2021
One week ago, tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers filled in the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, praying on the last day of Ramadan. The holy site, famous for its golden dome and location close to the Western Wall, has been a hot spot for Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Outside the mosque, many remained to protest a lower-court ruling regarding a land claim that would allow Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians.
Throwing rocks, stones, and fireworks at police officers, protesters were met with rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades. This left more than 200 people wounded and sparked further outbursts of violence across the city that night and into Saturday. On Monday, doors were closed at al-Aqsa during worship by soldiers, with fighting injuring over 300 Palestinians and 20 Israeli security force officers.
Tuesday morning, Israel's government said Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic militant organization that runs Gaza, sent over 200 rockets flying over Israeli skies, including some targeted at Jerusalem. Two Israelis were killed with the Iron Dome defence system stopping many of the rockets mid-air. Israel responded with their own aerial attacks, including hitting apartment buildings. Health authorities in Gaza say 26 Palestinians, including children, were killed.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was expected to be moved out of power by a presidential or parliamentary move after failing to form a government, is staying in power as the fighting continues. Netanyahu has previously been indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The Prime Minister is also facing corruption charges.
"Israel more than ever needs a unity government that will enable us to face the challenges together. I have no intention of stopping the democratic process of forming a new government because of Hamas. It will be a victory for terrorism, and it is time for Israel to stop giving in to terrorism," Netanyahu's opposition, Yesh Atid writes on Facebook.
The United Nations is calling for a de-escalation of the conflict.