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Peaceful coexistence

By REV JAMES BHAGWAN
Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Just a few days into 2009, the United Nation's Year of Reconciliation has suffered a massive setback with the Israeli invasion of Palestinian Gaza.

Israel launched a military operation against Hamas-ruled Gaza strip on December 27 in retaliation to rocket fire by Hamas.

The attacks on Gaza, the heaviest in decades, have had a huge toll on civilians.

According to the United Nations over 300 people are dead, including 62 women and children, and at least 1,400 injured.

While I deplore the violent methods of Hamas and understand the insecurity of Israel with a militant organisation on its borders, the level of Israeli retaliation can only be described as excessive.

The number of civilian casualties is atrocious. I could not hold back the tears when I saw the picture in Monday's Fiji Times of little children killed by Israeli air-strikes (see inset).

While these civilian casualties are "collateral damage" of Israel military action against a clear present danger, the term, "slaughter of the innocents" came to mind immediately.

On the second day of this year, I received an email forwarded from a Palestinian woman named Hana, who has been involved in peacemaking programmes at the community level.

Writing in the midst of the exchange of rockets and the Israeli airs-trikes, just before the Israeli land incursion into Gaza, "What a sad Christmas, our trees are with no lights, Bethlehem is in mourning and the spirit of Christmas has gone. No Christmas hymns, no lights, no laughs and Santa Claus is fighting against the wall. Only news, sad pictures and tears. Jesus Christ, the baby of Bethlehem, is so sad about the butchering of innocent children."

The people of Gaza have been living in a virtual prison. They lack the basics of food, water and sanitation. For over a year, the Gaza strip has been under siege resulting in a humanitarian crisis.

Although Israel allowed over 40 relief aid trucks into Gaza on Monday, the United Nations says the aid is not enough particularly as Israel has committed to continue its attacks.

Our brothers and sisters who serve in the RFMF's 2FIR which is part of the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai have observation posts on the Egyptian /Gaza border.

They see the desperation of a people who last year, surged to break the border crossing at Rafah to cross into Egypt in search of essential supplies; who dig tunnels to smuggle, along with weapons, food and medicine; who, on days when the border is opened, swarm into the border towns and like hungry locusts devour everything that is for sale.

Hana writes, "How can I answer the question of my son, Fernando 12 years old when he asked me. 'Is God a Jew? If not why would He allow this to happen to my people and children of my age.'" She adds, "I have no answer, I feel so ashamed for being unable to explain this to my son." Hana ends her email saying, "There is no peace without justice," and calls for support for the Palestinians through real actions on the ground.

Although we are tens of thousands of kilometres away from this conflict, we are connected by faith (both Christianity and Islam) to this region.

We have, for the last three decades assumed a responsibility in keeping the peace in this conflict area. While our prayers are with our men and women serving in the Sinai and other conflict areas in the world, let us also remember the lives that hang in the balance of these conflicts.

The Palestine YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) will stage a candlelight vigil on January 8th to remember the innocent victims of this renewed conflict, and to once again call for ceasefire in Gaza and peace between Israel and Palestine.

Here in Fiji the appeal has gone out for us to show our solidarity by lighting a candle for peace and to "reflect from our own faith experiences the need for non-violent approaches to achieve sustainable peace - from our home and communities and throughout the world."

There will also be a "Peace Vigil" tomorrow at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Suva from 12.30pm to 2pm. It will be a time for us not only to reflect on the conflict in Gaza, but also on the need for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing political crisis in Fiji. I hope that those of you in Suva can make time to attend the vigil during your lunch break and that those outside Suva can light a candle and remember, with your families, those for whom peace is still a dream.

On Friday night, my family were fortunate to attend Radio Fiji Gold's hosting of the Fiji premier of U2's 3D concert film. As we collected our plastic 3D-specs, I could help recalling my childhood days in Lautoka when the few 3D films were being screened during a particular school holiday season.

The 3D glasses were made out of cardboard and meant to be disposable, but in the days before inexpensive sunglasses, most of the boys in the town walked around using the 3D-specs as sunglasses.

The film was amazing, it put you not only right in the middle of the concert but on the stage. U2 is undoubtedly the world's best rock band, even my son Francisco, who is adamant that UB40 is the greatest band in the universe, couldn't help but enjoy himself, although it does get a little loud for the young ones. As for my daughter, Antonia; while her mum, dad and brother were grooving away in their seats, occasionally ducking to avoid being hit by the 3D-image of a microphone or lead singer-Bono's hand, she was dancing in the aisles.

But more than the concept of a 3D-concert film, more than the stagecraft of the artists performing, I was struck by the messages of peace, reconciliation, unity and human dignity in the music of U2.

Their music is popular to those who are fans of the genre, but their lyrics resonate with all.

Bono, the lead singer of U2 has been active in the issue of cancelling Third-world Debt. The band took part in Amnesty International concerts, before it became the "in-thing" to do for bands.

The most touching part of the concert (proof that it is possible to get a lump in your throat at a rock concert) was when Bono put on a headband.

It was a plain white piece of material on which was drawn the Crescent - the symbol of Islam, the Star of David - the symbol of Judaism, and the Cross - the symbol of Christianity with the letters "O", "E", "I", and "S" in between, written thus: "ZOEYISU".

The message was clear: all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, our political affiliation, or our social status need to co-exist peacefully. We inhabit the same planet, breathe the same air and experience the same feelings of joy, sorrow, anger, injury, despair and hope. We are human beings. The majority of the planet holds to the belief that we were all created in the image of God, yet we cannot see ourselves, let alone God, in each other.

On this Sunday past, Methodists around the world observed Covenant Sunday and renewed their covenant with God. On Thursday as many around the world join in solidarity with the people of Palestine, let us light a candle as a symbol of our covenant to live in peace with each other.

May the rest of your week blessed with love, light and peace.

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an award-winning radio and television producer and writer. He is currently on leave from the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College where he is a member of the Faculty. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organization that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with.

Email: padrejames@gmail.com