Larry Ekin, Enduring Witness: The Churches and the Palestinians (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1985).
On July 21, 1948, a group of expatriate missionaries and educators in Jerusalem addressed an urgent appeal to the Federal Council of Churches in America, the predecessor of the National Council of Churches: “We regard it as our inescapable duty to place before our fellow Christians in the US the appalling facts of the Palestine Arab refugee problem during the last six months.” A few weeks later the same group addressed a similar appeal to the Inaugural Assembly of the World Council of Churches, adding that the Assembly should “examine [the] Palestine problem in light of principles of Christian justice with the view to recommend rectification of obvious wrongs.”
These two cables summarize an underlying theme of Larry Ekin’s compelling narrative of the history of the churches and the Palestinians, a history that approaches its fortieth year. This, the second volume of the history — the first, written by Michael Christopher King, covered the years 1948-1956 — ably captures the drama of the churches’ first tentative efforts to come to terms with the tragedy of the Palestinians, not only as suffering refugees but also as the victims of gross injustice. Indeed, it is Ekin’s unblinking account of the tension between those who saw the “Palestinian problem” as a strictly humanitarian issue — a matter of Christian charity — and those who felt it necessary to come to terms with the more troubling question of a political resolution “in the light of the principles of Christian justice” that makes this book much more than a public relations piece for the World Council of Churches.
A collateral, but integrally related theme, is the history of the evolving relationship between indigenous Middle East Christians and the Western mission agencies and denominations whose funds supported relief and development programs among the Palestinians and whose personnel, in the early years at least, administered those programs. Despite the increasing popularity during this period of such concepts as “indigenization” and “enablement,” Ekin’s book makes it clear that for some Western church leaders, at least, the insistence of the Middle Eastern churches that charity was not enough, that what was needed was genuine solidarity, was an unwelcome message. Thus, Ekin relates that a leading figure in the WCC’s Church Commission on International Affairs continued publicly to argue the case for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees (in neighboring Arab countries) even though Middle East church leaders had insisted on the “moral right [of Palestinian refugees] to repatriation.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that as the worldwide ecumenical movement took its commitment to partnership more seriously, and as the churches in the Middle East joined together in an indigenous ecumenical movement (the Middle East Council of Churches), the demands of the principles of Christian justice took their rightful place beside the genuine humanitarian impulses of the Western churches. Thus, in 1979, a consultation sponsored by the MECC concluded that church-related programs with the Palestinians “should aim mainly at encouraging Palestinians residing in the occupied territories and Israel to remain on their land.” Palestinians residing elsewhere should have projects that help them to “keep their identity and to participate in their self-determination.”
There are some Westerners who emerge as heroic figures in this story, to be sure. But the title Enduring Witness is especially appropriate for the Palestinians whose commitment to their people led to lives of service to those people. What began as an urgent reaction to what was assumed to be a short-term problem became an example of sumud, a persistence and dedication that defied all the odds. Larry Ekin’s book is an eloquent testimony to that witness.