The tragedy in Gaza is not a sectarian religious issue and must not be allowed to become one. It is an issue of injustice and human suffering, and this is relevant to all peoples, and should be especially significant to Christians.
I attended a march and a rally calling for justice for Gaza. When I agreed to go, I hadn’t realised that it was being organised by a radical Muslim group, but that would not have put me off even if I had known.
Indeed, if radical Muslims were organising it, this was all the more reason for me to be there and help establish a Christian presence. For the tragedy in Gaza is not a sectarian religious issue and must not be allowed to become one. It is an issue of injustice and human suffering, and this is relevant to all peoples, and should be especially significant to Christians. So I donned my black shirt and clerical collar and hung the largest crucifix I have around my neck, and Ange and I and young Joanna (who runs our Youth Group) set off to the city to join the rally.
I didn’t see many familiar faces amongst the thousand or so who were there. Indeed, we looked distinctively white and couldn’t join in all the chants, many of which were in Arabic. Having said that, the prevailing chant was ‘Free, Free Palestine’, and we could join heartily in that one.
I noticed though that there were a number of ‘Muslims Unite’ placards alongside the ‘Free Gaza’banners, and while they were not as numerous, they did spur me to want to show off my cross and to let this crowd know that it was not only Muslims who were concerned about what was happening to the people of Gaza.
Indeed, as the march wore on, I started to pray that the Good Lord might give me opportunity to say something to this crowd. And He did!
As we reached our destination in the heart of the city, I saw the colourful (and somewhat notorious) figure of Sheikh Hillaly – a figurehead in the Australian Muslim community – surrounded by his minders. He was being ushered to the front of the crowd. I figured he might be being lined up as a speaker, so I tried to work my way towards him through the thick crowd.
I know Hillaly vaguely. We’ve met on a few occasions and even spoke on the same platform once, so I hoped he’d recognise me. Indeed he did. When the Sheikh saw me coming, he reached out and pulled me towards him. He gave me the traditional three-fold kiss and then dragged me up on to the stage with him. I then stood alongside the Sheikh for ten minutes while he spoke in Arabic. I remained rather stoic in my stance, not wanting to join in the cheering when I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I was sure that if Hillaly wanted me alongside him, it must have been because he too wanted to present the tragedy of Gaza as being more than just an Islamic issue.
When the Sheikh wound up, the organiser asked me if I wanted to say a few words. I heartily agreed. Here are my exact words (composed while the Sheikh gave his speech alongside me):
Sisters and brothers, Salaman Aleykum (ie. Peace be with you).
This tragedy in Gaza is not a struggle between Christian and Muslim. It is not a struggle between Muslim and Jew. It is a struggle between humanity and inhumanity, between justice and injustice, between truth and the lie.
And so we take our stand with the truth, with justice and with humanity, as our prayers go up for our oppressed sisters and brothers in Gaza. Ensallah (ie. Amen).
My speech was short, but I made my point, and I was thankful for every cheer from the assembled throng.
The guy who followed me to the microphone, I found out later, was the radical guy who organised it. He began by saying, “We Muslims cannot tolerate the existence of the State of Israel”. At that point I excused myself to the Sheikh and walked off the stage – a gesture that did not go unnoticed by the crowd.
Even so, as I walked back through the crowd towards my wife and friend, scores of people reached out to shake my hand. One huge Arabic man grabbed me and said, “it means a lot to us that you are here. Thank you!”
After that a couple of Muslim parents asked me if I would have my photo taken alongside their kids. I pulled Ange in to the last photo with me, and then it was my turn to say, “thank you”.
Did the rally achieve much? I don’t know. But I have no doubt at all that I was exactly where God wanted me to be that day, and I thank God for the opportunity to, once again, be a visible sign to the Islamic community that we Christians are not unconcerned about the plight of their fellow Muslims.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: the current crisis in the Middle East, despite all its horror, is a great opportunity for all of us who follow the Lord Jesus to break down prejudicial barriers, by pitching in alongside our Islamic sisters and brothers and so sewing seeds of brotherly and sisterly love while working together for justice.
Let me urge you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, and my sisters and brothers in all the human family, to join the next pro-Gaza rally you hear about. If it’s organised by radical extremists, all the better! Let your presence be felt, and let the world know that concern for the suffering of the people of Gaza is not the property of any one religion but is a burden laid upon the heart of all humanity, and a tragedy about which all human beings should be equally concerned.