Pro-Palestinian demonstrations call on convention to listen to Palestinian Christians

By Logan Crews
Posted Jun 26, 2024

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered at the back of the House of Deputies’ hall holding signs and a banner that read “Listen to Palestinian Christians” during the June 25 legislative session. Photo: Randall Gornowich

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] Toward the end of the House of Deputies June 25 afternoon legislative session pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered at the back of the deputies’ hall holding signs and a banner that read “Listen to Palestinian Christians.” This is the second demonstration staged by Episcopalians representing Palestinian Anglicans and Clergy Allies and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network.

The Rev. Adam Shoemaker, a deputy from the Diocese of South Carolina, wanted to call a point of personal privilege to address the demonstrators, but President Julia Ayala Harris said it was not in order. The demonstrators stood there until the house adjourned before processing downstairs for a Compline for Palestine prayer service, also organized by PACA.

PACA is dedicated to educating Anglican clergy to “understand, teach and preach from sound theological and pastoral foundations” about the Palestinian experience.  It was founded in February 2024 in response to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The armed Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel killed about 1,200 people. Israel’s violent response has led to the deaths of at least 37,000 Palestinian civilians and combatants in Gaza and has displaced almost 2 million, or 83% of the population. Two of PACA’s four co-founders are the Rev. Leyla King and the Rev. Lauren Grubaugh Thomas. King is Palestinian American and Grubaugh Thomas has Jewish heritage.

King’s grandparents fled from their home in Haifa, the northern port city, as newlyweds in 1948, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and dispossessed during the Arab-Israeli war – an event known as the Nakba.

King’s grandmother was four months pregnant with her mother at the time. Her family in Palestine had been Anglican for generations, and she said that as the faith runs in her blood, so too does trauma and hope.

But watching the House of Bishops vote on Holy Land resolutions this week, King, who serves as canon for Mission in Small Congregations in the Diocese of West Texas, told Episcopal News Service she felt nothing but pain.

“I cannot overstate how betrayed I feel by this church,” King told Episcopal News Service in a Zoom interview.

Episcopalians representing Palestinian Anglicans and Clergy Allies and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network and others gathered at the Kentucky International Convention Center for Compline following the second day of the 81st General Convention’s legislative sessions. Photo: Logan Crews/Episcopal News Service

A homily King wrote was shared at the Compline for Palestine service, as well as a statement from Archbishop of Jerusalem Hosam Naoum and a short homily from Kwok Pui Lan, professor at Candler School of Theology.

“We should, as much as possible, stand with people amid anxiety and fear by facing reality as it is and not pretending that the situation is better or worse than it actually is,” Naoum’s statement read, as presented by Shoemaker. “Through our presence, we declare the presence of Jesus, who makes all things new, through the strength of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

The archbishop was unable to attend the Compline prayer service.

A day earlier, Naoum spoke to 70 people gathered at the Episcopal Church Center booth in the exhibit hall about how the Diocese of Jerusalem continues to provide pastoral care amid turmoil, and how other Episcopalians can offer support. The lunchtime conversation was sponsored by the Good Friday Offering and the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

Grubaugh Thomas, who represented PACA at convention, read for King, who is at home in Texas.

“The cries of Palestinian innocents, the cries of modern-day Israel’s victims, our cries, my cries have been ignored and swept away,” King’s homily said.

Grubaugh Thomas, whose Jewish ancestors fled antisemitic violence, cited her own family’s story as crucial to her advocacy for Palestinians.

“This crisis for me is particularly poignant because I’ve always drawn from my heritage of my ancestors fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe to understand that it’s my responsibility to stand up when any community has been targeted on the basis of their identity,” Grubaugh Thomas told ENS.

The situation in Gaza has surpassed a humanitarian crisis, with 495,000 people now facing “catastrophic acute food insecurity,” according to the United Nations. At the same time, Israeli airstrikes continue, with two schools and a refugee camp hit on June 25.

Episcopalians representing PACA and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network have twice organized direct actions at the convention meant to draw attention to the voices of Palestinian Christians. On June 24, demonstrators stood outside the House of Bishops holding signs.

Shoemaker, an Egyptian American, told ENS he worries the church’s fear of being perceived as antisemitic if it criticizes Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can paralyze support for Palestinians who are suffering. He emphasized that he condemns antisemitism wherever it shows up in the church, but that there is no antisemitic intent or content in the Holy Land resolutions.

“I would hope that the church could find room in its heart to include the concerns of [not just] Arab Christians, but all Arab people,” Shoemaker said. “Most of my family in the region are Muslim and [they are] as children of God fully deserving of inherent worth and dignity. I just often feel like our fear of being perceived as antisemitic silences us.”

During their June 23 legislative session, the House of Bishops voted down four Holy Land resolutions and passed three.  They later reconsidered Resolution D006, which condemns the ideology of Christian Zionism, and passed it with amendments.

King told ENS that the bishops’ no vote on Resolution D004, which would have recognized Palestinians as Indigenous people from between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, hit her the hardest. In fact, she said she would have left The Episcopal Church after such a vote if not for how much she loves her job in the Diocese of West Texas.

“It is a feeling I have never known before, to be so invisible in my own church,” King said. “To have served this church for as long as I have, to have been a member of this church, to have loved this church since my birth and my baptism, and yet to be so despised by the church that I love that it won’t even see me and it won’t even name me. That is an indescribable pain.”

The 81st General Convention’s discussions have centered on whether the church in its advocacy for peace and justice should adopt resolutions using the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli government policies toward Palestinians, and whether Israel’s military response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack fits the definition of a “genocide.”

Shoemaker and others on the deputies’ Social Justice & International Policy Committee said these words accurately reflect what Palestinians are experiencing and trying to communicate to the rest of the world.

“I’m left yearning for the church to be brave and to be more willing to name what is unfolding on the ground,” Shoemaker said. “I think the words do matter. And we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth of what we see going on.”

Another committee member, Luke Thompson, a deputy from the Diocese of Michigan, spoke up on behalf of the Under 30 caucus during the committee’s June 24 meeting. He advocated for the use of “apartheid” and “genocide” in relevant resolutions, saying that young people are looking to the church for action that, he said, is long overdue. “We’re tired of the can being kicked down the road,” he said.

The deputies’ committee amended Resolution D013, which affirms a two-state solution, on June 24, reinserting the word “apartheid,” which first was removed in the House of Bishops. The deputies’ committee did this, they said, knowing it runs the risk of being struck down again by the bishops if it passes through the House of Deputies unamended.

The deputies’ committee has also thoroughly debated the use of the term “genocide.” On June 25, the bishops amended Resolution D056, which calls for a ceasefire. The original resolution described the Israeli government’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks as an ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people. The bishops’ amendment called for “urgent prayers that that conflict not end in genocide.”

The deputies’ Social Justice & International Policy committee, meeting at 7 a.m. on June 26 further amended the resolution to state the genocide is ongoing.

–Logan Crews, a former Episcopal Church Ecojustice Fellow, is a seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who serves on the student leadership team of the World Student Christian Federation-United States.