Thursday, June 18, 2009

The New Exodus

About 3400 years ago, Moses led the Israelis away from Egypt to find the promised land. They finally settled in Palestine and built a temple in Jerusalem. This story is recorded in Exodus which is a sacred text worshiped by the Jews, and more than a thousand years later worshiped by the Christians and the Muslims. Exodus has become a symbol of people escaping hardship and finding a bright future.

National Geographic carries a story in the June 2009 issue entitled the New Exodus. This time, the direction has reversed. Christians are now escaping from the promised land; but the meaning and the spirit of Exodus are the same.

The article gives a detailed account of the Christians living in the Levant, which is an area south of Turkey down to Sinai. Christians have been living there since the first century and flourished when the Roman Empire turned Christian. The area was conquered by the Muslims a few hundred years later, but Christians were still living there. The first great disaster to them was the Crusades, claiming to preserve Christianity. Crusaders slaughtered most of the people in the town they captured. There is an old story that the Crusaders could not tell who was Muslim or Christian; so they killed everyone, saying god could tell when these people died. After the Crusades, there were still many Christians living in the Levant alongside the Muslims.

The present disaster is a result of the clash between western countries and middle east countries. A quote from the article says:
"Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. It's because of what Christians in the West, led by the U.S., have been doing in the East," he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, and the threats of "regime change" by the Bush Administration. To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the Crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we're Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It's guilt by association."

The New Exodus is on-going. Christians in the promised lands are now out-numbered and surrounded by angry voices. They are continuously seeking an exit to other countries, leaving behind only those who are too old to emigrate. The article tells a story about a Christian family. The wife is from Bethlehem while the husband is from Jerusalem, only 10 km away. Because Bethlehem is Palestinian territory, by Israeli law they cannot live together. The wife has to apply for special permit to enter Jerusalem to visit her husband. They are now planning to emigrate to Canada.

exodus

The situation is very vivid when I visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem two years ago. Jerusalem is Jewish territory. I saw Judaism worship everywhere. Christianity is only present inside the ancient church relics. Bethlehem is even worse. The Jewish guide could not even get close to the wall surrounding Bethlehem. Tourists were met by a Palestinian guide on the other side. Christianity in Bethlehem is limited to the Church of Nativity. It is not difficult to imagine how hard a Christian is living there. Both the Jews and the Palestinians are not friendly. Not friendly is actually an under-statement.

During Easter, the Christian world suddenly descends on the promised land. Christian tourists from different countries roam the holy land, doing the ritual of walking the Via Dolorosa, crowding the Church of Sepulchure and the Church of All Nations by the Garden of Gethsemane. As seen by this local Christian family:
"Hundreds of pilgrims churned through the church's double doors, filling the cavernous space with warm bodies and pushing us deeper into the church... Lisa gripped the stroller and tried to anchor herself against the river of humanity flowing into the church. Dutch, German, Korean, Nigerian, American, French, Spanish, Russian, Filipino, Brazilian, the crowd surged forward, searching hungrily for a greater proximity to God... Suddenly Lisa's decision to bring Nadia along was looking like a mistake... As we passed through the doors, the crowd thinned out slightly. Lisa leaned in, straining to be heard over the chaos around us. "Do you see how it is?" she asked, gasping for air on the hill where Jesus spent his last night on Earth. "This is our home. And it's like we're not even here!"

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