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Where is the hope in the MENA region?

To the surprise of some observers, and the anger of many others, the Israeli High Court last week allowed the authorities to resume building the separation wall in Beir Ona, in the valley of Cremisan, that lies south of Jerusalem. 

Fr Aktham Hijazin, the Catholic parish priest of Beit Jala that is a majority Palestinian Christian town in the southern West Bank, lamented that labourers and their bulldozers had uprooted some fifty olive trees amongst the most ancient of the valley - some 1500 years old - under the protection of the Israeli army. He described this as “an action against the past and the future of our [Palestinian] people”. He added, “This is an operation against justice, against our presence here, against our history and our future. These trees have been here for centuries and are part of the lives of these families. Confiscate these lands and you confiscate the past in these families and the future of generations to come.” 

Faced with this never-ending sense of frustration, many Palestinian Christians are leaving the Holy Land for other seemingly greener pastures and so making the Christian reality even more vulnerable in the biblical lands. But there are also those who refuse to give up their lands or go away. Every morning, at 8:30 AM, prayers are being said and a mass is being held under a small tent installed in the shadow of the olive trees of the Cremisan valley. “We hope and pray that the Church and the international community will do everything to protect the Christian presence here,” said Fr Hijazin. Bishop William Shomali, who is also the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, spoke of being “stunned by the obstinacy of Israel. This stubbornness to want to conquer lands belonging to others does not help the cause of peace in any way”. 

The controversy over this separation wall that will slice further through Palestinian-owned and Palestinian-tilled lands, separating families from their agricultural lands or institutions, is admittedly a microcosm of a bigger Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been rumbling on since 1967 - and some readers might suggest even earlier than that date too. 

But this crisis is also a microcosm of so many other crises and ructions occurring across the whole MENA from Syria & Iraq to Libya and Yemen. After all, it was only last Friday that I was giving numerous interviews on the blowing up by Daesh/ISIL of the 1500-year-old Catholic monastery of Mar Elian in the town of Al-Qaryatayn, in the province of Homs in western Syria. Earlier than last week, I was also talking about the fragile situation of Iraqi refugees across the region. 

As I often moot at Premier Radio, it is no longer possible to forecast with any measure of integrity how things will develop in the MENA region. Forces have been unleashed and genies have been liberated that cannot easily be tamed or rebottled anymore and I suspect we have to cling to the faith-driven hope that the winds of change blowing across the region will eventually usher in an improvement in the lives and livelihoods of the residents (not really citizens) of the MENA. But let me go biblical on my readers for a moment and add that there are at the moment many leviathans on the shores of the Mediterranean that it is hard to have much confidence in the future. In fact, in an interview yesterday, I used three terms - stalemate, gridlock and meltdown - to adumbrate those dismal realities. 

As Marcus & I often stress out, our monthly MENA Analysis programme is not newsy as much as it is a monthly reflection on the events and an attempt to place them in their proper context. We are of course led by a Christian prism but I also acknowledge that those events quaking the region are at least as political as they are ecumenical, and so we strive to solder the constituent strands that together filter the MENA sound wave more audible to our listeners.

This month, Marcus and I hope to speak with our guest Nadine Lolas via telephone linkup in Bethlehem in order to discuss the Cremisan Valley debacle in Palestine. I will also discuss the recent disturbing events in Lebanon and Iraq. But equally importantly, we plan to host in studio Oshin Shahiean, a bright young lawyer from OTS Solicitors in London. As an international lawyer myself, I look forward to discussing with him issues of immigration. After all, we hear so many stories - some of them media-sensational and headline-grabbing - about MENA refugees sneaking into the EU by boat, train or lorry or overwhelming the borders of Macedonia, Greece or Italy. What do the 1990 Dublin Convention and its recast Regulations say about refugees and asylum-seekers? What about the Return Directive? What happens once the UK Border Agency places those men, women and children in different detention centres? Could Oshin help us separate the chaff from the wheat - the real from the mythic? I am confident his experience with Judicial Reviews could also provide an opportunity to engage with him on this vexatious topic. 

So join us for an hour as we wade through those hefty issues. Keep open minds and hearts as you think of those men and women who are a continent away but who are not so different from us. Many of them are in dire straits and we surely cannot pretend that they do not exist simply because we do not understand them or even trust them? Or that we think - justifiably in some cases, and not so in others - that we in the UK are running out of space for housing more immigrants. 

Can hope spring eternal, or has such hope alas become indefensible? After all, what happens across the MENA also affects what happens to us in Europe - and that is indeed a sobering thought for me!


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