- New tensions threaten Arab businesses recovering from trauma of Gaza war
- Tel Aviv residents save the city's oldest ficus tree
- Young woman killed, two others hurt in West Bank stabbing attack
- Four Syrian nuclear scientists shot dead near Damascus
- Netanyahu 'invites' Arab protesters to move to Palestinian Authority
Author Archives: cindydarylbyler
J. Daryl Byler is executive director at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Cynthia A. Byler teaches at EMU’s Intensive English Program. From 2007 until 2013, they served with MCC in Amman, Jordan
It has been 18 months now since we moved from Amman, Jordan to Harrisonburg, Virginia. We continue to reflect upon the rich lessons learned in the Middle East, even as we are increasingly becoming involved in our new community.
2014 has been an enriching year. Cindy teaches day classes at Eastern Mennonite University’s Intensive English Program, and evening English classes for recent immigrants through the Rockingham County Schools. Daryl is executive director at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) and has been spending one weekend a month on the road for Mennonite Central Committee, facilitating conversations about how anti-Jewish and Christian Zionist theologies have impacted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Highlights of the year included:
- Travel to Iran with an MCC delegation in February.
- Hosting Cindy’s mother, brother and sister-in-law in June.
- Hosting 10 Iranian women seminarians at CJP in May.
- Hiking in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in early July.
- Attending a restorative justice conference in Vermont in late July.
- Helping to host the Somali President at EMU in August.
- Attending our nephew Austin Keeler’s Hobbit-theme wedding in October.
- Hosting Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician from Gaza with a remarkable story of forgiveness and hope, in November.
- Having our whole family together for Thanksgiving.
- Sharing meals with CJP students throughout the year.
In October, Daryl was diagnosed with Ocular Melanoma, a rare form of eye cancer. He had surgery in November to treat the tumor in his right eye. The prognosis is optimistic. We have been overwhelmed by the support and generosity of family and friends throughout this experience.
In 2015 we anticipate:
- Going solar – installing 28 solar panels on our roof, which is projected to produce 94 percent of our electricity usage.
- Hosting many guests and learning their stories.
- Spending lots of time with our children and granddaughter Sydney.
We remain concerned about the significant number of violent conflicts around the world and the vast numbers of uprooted people. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. It is challenging to figure out how to respond even in small ways that are meaningful. We seek to be good global neighbors, to practice hospitality, to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us; to reflect God’s love for all. With the psalmist we pray, “Send out your light and your truth, God, let them lead us.” (Ps. 43:3)
To be clear, I believe it is wrong for militant groups in Gaza to fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. While most of the rockets are primitive, they causes psychological trauma for many Israelis and physical harm and death for a few.
For Palestinian militants, it is a losing strategy for gaining justice. It also violates international law.
But it is also wrong for the Israeli government to ignore the historical and continuing grievances of the Palestinian people, to maintain a ruthless economic siege on Gaza, and to respond to rocket fire with disproportionate and overwhelming force — resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians.
For Israelis, it is a losing strategy for building security. It also violates international law.
Already more than 430 Palestinians and nearly 20 Israelis have been killed in 13 days of fighting.
What is happening in Gaza today seems very much like a repeat of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in late 2008 and early 2009. In that three-week-long war:
- Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 750 rockets into Israel, killing three civilians and wounding 182 more.
- Israel dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the Gaza Strip, killing nearly 1,400 Palestinians including 454 women and children, according to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group.
At the time, Cindy and I were working for an international development agency in the Middle East. We visited Gaza a month after the fighting stopped.
We witnessed devastation from the north to the south of the 25-mile-long Gaza Strip — especially in areas closest to the border with Israel. Hundreds of houses were flattened. Olive trees and grape vines were uprooted.
We saw schools and even a hospital that had been bombed. Ironically, the elite American International School in Gaza — built with $4.0 million of U.S. taxpayer money – was destroyed by a bomb dropped from a U.S.-donated F-16 jet.
“Thirty years of hard work were gone in 30 minutes,” lamented a religious leader in describing the Israeli destruction of Beit Hanoun.
As a final act of the war the Israeli military destroyed all the cement factories in Gaza, making it difficult to rebuild.
We heard stories of resilience and horror.
“We were like falafel in hot oil,” said the leader of a Christian organization in Gaza, describing what it felt like to bounce up and down during Israeli attacks. “Really you get afraid.”
Small children were everywhere. Many were bare-footed in spite of cold weather during our visit. Parents told us that they tried to hide their own fears in order to keep their children calm. Some told their children that the bombing noises were thunder and rainstorms.
But the children were not fooled.
Near Khan Younis, we viewed their artwork. Their drawings were filled with fighter jets, helicopters, bombs, blood and dead bodies. In one school we visited, the children re-enacted the scene of Israeli soldiers killing a student’s parent.
When we entered a home in the northern community of Beit Hanoun, a young boy immediately wet his pants, fearing that we were there to do further harm. His grandmother tried to reassure him otherwise.
Unlike wars where civilians can flee to neighboring countries, Gaza’s current 1.8 million residents are trapped in a tiny strip of land just twice the size of Washington, D.C. They have nowhere to go. In our February 2009 visit, some described receiving calls from the Israeli Defense Force, warning them to leave their neighborhoods. “But where were we to go?” they asked.
“We are civilians. We are humans. No one deserves this,” an elderly woman from Jabalia told us angrily. She had become a refugee in 1948 and lost her husband in the 2009 war. “What did we do? What do we have? The U.S. government allows Israelis to do this.”
In spite of the devastation, Gazans we visited didn’t want handouts. They wanted Westerners to know their story. “Tell them the truth about what you see – that is all,” said Rifqa, the leader of a Palestinian development organization.
Getting to the roots
Five years after the 2009 war, have we learned nothing about how to change the dynamics of this conflict?
For centuries, church leaders espoused a harsh anti-Jewish theology that led to terrible persecution of Jews. Eventually it created the climate that permitted the Holocaust, with its implicit message that the world has a high level of tolerance for Jewish suffering.
Today, Palestinians are paying the price of this tragedy, which largely unfolded in Europe.
To create the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish military leaders depopulated and, in many cases destroyed, more than 500 Palestinian villages, producing more than 700,000 refugees. Hundreds of thousands of those refugees and their descendants now live in Gaza.
International peace negotiators for the last 20 years have largely ignored these narratives, unwisely believing that a just and secure peace can be fashioned without repairing past harms. Many have disingenuously tried to convince the rest of the world that this is simply a Palestinian-Israeli problem.
Sadly, until the international community acknowledges and more appropriately addresses these historical harms, we are likely to see wars in Gaza again and again.
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980, after Iranian students took 52 hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days. But there is a back story that many Americans do not know. Today in Vienna, envoys from Iran and the world’s six major powers are gathering for a third round of talks about Iran’s nuclear program, which began with support from the United States.
On April 7, the Richmond Times Dispatch published my opinion piece offering the perspective that, while significant differences remain between the two countries, it is time to rebuild mutually respectful relationships with Iran, a former U.S. ally.
I traveled to Iran, February 19-25, 2014, along with a professor from Canadian Mennonite University and the board chair and senior staff of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
This was my 11th trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past 20 years. Our host was Dr. Mohammad Shomali, director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has had program connections in Iran since 1990. During the past 15 years, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) has developed a growing network of connections as well. Ten Iranians have attended EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI). Two have gone on to receive an M.A. in Conflict Transformation from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where I now serve as executive director.
While in Iran, we were able to meet with three SPI alumni and with several Iranian women scholars who plan to attend SPI in May 2014.
Here is a link to an opinion piece that Daryl wrote for the Richmond Times Dispatch, regarding the potential for U.S. military strikes against Syria.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 16, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
II Samuel 11:26-12:15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
This week we said our last goodbyes in Jordan. On Monday, Wafa Goussous of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate hosted a lovely farewell gathering on behalf of MCC Jordan partners.
On Tuesday we traveled to Karak to say goodbye to our friend Mamun Tarawneh, who has introduced us to many Jordanian families during our time in the Middle East. We enjoyed the Jordanian national dish, mansef — a meat and rice dish served with nuts and yogurt.
On Thursday evening the MCC office staff took us out for a farewell dinner. To use a Middle Eastern expression, we feel generously “fare-welled.”
This will be our last posting from the Middle East. We plan to fly to Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 15.
Thanks to those who have journeyed with us during these six years. According to WordPress, we have had readers from 127 countries during the past several years. Many have taken time to send notes of encouragement. Our friend Mike Charles from Arizona, our small group from Washington, D.C. and Don and Lurline Campbell from Brisbane, Australia, deserve distinction as “encouragers-in-chief”! We are still trying to decide whether we will continue a blog — obviously under a new name — when we return to Virginia. If so, it will be at this same site.
There have been significant changes during our six years in the Middle East:
- The aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war uprooted some 5 million Iraqis. By some estimates, up to 70 percent of the Iraqi Christian community left the country since the 1991 and 2003 wars.
- When we arrived in 2007, as many as 700,000 Iraqi refuges lived in Jordan, seeking resettlement to third countries. While the number of Iraqis in Jordan has decreased to tens of thousands, more than 560,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in their place. UNHCR estimates the number could swell to 1.2 million by year end, severely straining Jordan’s infrastructure.
- As a result of the Arab Spring, four governments in the region have been toppled in the past two years – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A major civil war rages in Syria.
Long-simmering tensions between the minority Bedouin tribes of Jordan and the majority Palestinian population, which arrived as refugees in Jordan after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, are now threatening to split the country apart.
- When we arrived in Amman, a large construction site near our flat was a patchwork of large holes in the ground. Today tall buildings are rising from the ground, comprising the new Abdali downtown.
MCC has also seen major changes. A strategic planning and re-structuring process known as Wineskins has resulted in MCC Canada and MCC U.S. now jointly administering MCC international programs. MCC has also adopted a more rigorous planning, evaluation and monitoring system for partner-implemented projects around the world.
The Common Lectionary readings this week offer still timely reminders about the connections between confession, forgiveness and restoration.
The prophet Nathan confronts King David after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband killed. To David’s credit, he acknowledges his sin. While God forgives David, the long-term consequences of his actions haunt him for the remainder of his days (II Sam. 11:26-12:15).
Reflecting on this experience David writes: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. . . . Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Ps. 32:3-5)
In the Epistle reading, Paul acknowledges that we cannot be made right with God by “doing the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16), but by placing our faith in Christ who loves us and gave his life for us (vv. 16, 20).
In the Gospel reading, Jesus commends a sinful woman who has demonstrated her repentance by washing Jesus’ feet, while he criticize a religious leader who neither shows hospitality nor recognizes the depth of his need for God’s forgiveness. “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love,” Jesus observes, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Luke :47)
It will be special to arrive in Virginia in time for Father’s Day. We plan to spend time this Sunday with Holden, Heidi and granddaughter Sydney.
Thanks again to all who have journeyed with us!
Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 9, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
This week we continued to wrap up loose ends in the MCC Amman office and introduced Carolyne and Gordon to MCC Jordan partners. On Monday we visited partners in Amman and on Tuesday we traveled to Irbid, Addasiyeh, Wadi Rayyan and Salt — all in the north of Jordan.
We also had a wonderful lunchtime discussion with Jordanian alumni of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute and continued to receive meal invitations from friends.
The Common Lectionary readings this week are about second chances.
In both the Old Testament and Gospel readings widows lose their only sons to death, only to have them restored to life.
When a widow’s son becomes ill and dies, Elijah cries out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” (I Kings 17:21) The Lord answers Elijah’s prayer and Elijah “gave him to his mother” (v.23). Similarly, when the adult son of a widow in Nain dies, Jesus commands, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Luke 7:14). Immediately the man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus “gave him to his mother.” (v.15) What happy reunions these must have been!
David praise God who, at a time of disease and distress, healed him, restored him to life and brought up his soul from the Pit (Ps. 30:2-3).
In the Epistle reading, Paul recounts his former life of violently persecuting the church (Gal. 1:13). But through the grace of God, Paul is given a second chance to “proclaim the faith he once tried to destroy.” (v.23)
With all of our short-comings and the many mistakes we make as human beings, it comforting to know that we are loved by a God who gives us second chances — sometimes more than once!
Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 2, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
This week we traveled to northern Iraq to introduce Carolyne and Gordon to MCC Iraq partners; then on to Istanbul to meet with Iran partners and Amela Puljek-Shank, MCC’s area director for Europe and the Middle East.
Jim and Deb Fine, MCC Iraq program coordinator and English teacher, respectively, did a wonderful job of hosting us in Iraq. We traveled to all corners of the Kurdish region of Iraq, meeting with partners who have become close friends across the years. It was a great opportunity to reminisce about changes during the six years we have lived in the region.
Cindy fulfilled a long-term wish by attending the kindergarten graduation at Kids House in Ankawa, May 29. In previous years we have always been speaking in Canada or the U.S. during the first-rate kindergarten performance. Kids House – a MCC Global Family partner – is operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The Common Lectionary readings remind us the God cannot be contained, constrained or controlled by one people group. Rather, all nations are to worship God and examples of active faith are found in every community.
At the dedication of his magnificent temple, Solomon offered an insightful and inclusive prayer: “When a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you. . .” (I Kings 8:42-43).
Similarly, the psalmist has a broad understanding of the reach of God’s glory and grace. “Declare (God’s) glory among the nations,” the psalmist urges, “his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (Ps. 96:3)
Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s slave after the centurion says that he trusts Jesus to perform this miracle without even coming to his home. “I tell you,” Jesus marvels, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9).
During our six years in the Middle East we have experienced God’s goodness and blessing in the relationships with people from many nations and faith traditions. Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday (May 26, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
On Tuesday this week Cindy taught her last English class with Iraqi students here in Amman. Her students threw a party in her honor. For nearly a year now Cindy has been teaching ESL classes for children and adults at the Chaldean Catholic church near the MCC offices in Jabal Webdah.
On Wednesday we hosted a lunch for young adult staff from several MCC partners here in Amman. Daryl made West African Groundnut Stew (More-with-Less Cookbook, page 172) for the occasion. We have been inspired by the vision and commitment of many young adults who work with NGOs in Jordan.
On Thursday Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen finished their four-month formal Arabic language training. We now begin a three-week orientation period as they assume the MCC Rep role here in Jordan in mid-June.
Saturday morning we fly to northern Iraq to introduce the Epp-Fransen’s to MCC Iraq partners; then on to Istanbul where we will meet with one of MCC’s key Iran partners. Getting visas to Iran is not possible due to the upcoming presidential elections.
In the region this week:
- UNHCR announced a temporary lull in the arrival of Syrian refugees to Jordan due to intensified fighting on the Syrian-Jordanian border, making it difficult for refugees to cross. On Thursday the World Bank announced that it will provide $150 million of economic support to Jordan to assist with the cost of hosting the refugees. Jordan is currently hosting 540,000 Syrians.
- Syrian opposition leaders began three days of talks in Istanbul, seeking a political solution to the conflict which has taken the lives of some 80,000 Syrians and uprooted an additional 5 million.
- Iran’s Guardian Council approved 8 candidates for the June 14 presidential elections, excluding former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in his bid to return to elected office.
- Hundreds of Jordanians demonstrated outside the Iraqi embassy in Amman after reports surfaced that two Iraqi embassy staff had beaten pro-Saddam Hussein Jordanian activists at a recent function at the King Hussein Cultural Center.
The Common Lectionary readings for this Trinity Sunday highlight the interwoven relationships between members of the Trinity.
God, who is Creator and Sovereign, gives humans dominion over creation (Ps. 8) and shares everything with Jesus Christ, God’s son (John 16:15).
Jesus Christ is co-creator with God (Prov. 8:22-31) and mediator between God and humanity. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul declares (Rom. 5:1).
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” Paul continues (Rom. 5:5). In addition to being the channel of God’s love, the Spirit guides humanity into all the truth, glorifying and bearing witness to Jesus (John 16:13-15).
Such collaboration and unselfish interaction are rare. Indeed, the relationship between the members of the Trinity is a powerful example of the kind of unity that God desires for the human community as well. In a world torn by divisions and fighting, may such unity be so!