Subject: At the invitation of the Lutheran Church, Palestinians dance for peace in the USA
From: PLO Mission - Washington, DC
Al-Raja Debka' Dance Group is now touring several cities and states until August 1, 2006. Their schedule may be found at: http://www.holyland-lutherans.org/news.htm .
Palestinians dance for peace
A student troupe from Ramallah on tour in the U.S. is using dance to share their culture and help ease tensions in the Middle East
By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
June 16, 2006
For generations, Saba Nader's Palestinian ancestors have ushered in harvests, marriages and new babies with the traditional dance steps of "debka."
As a student at the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Nader, 17, now hopes her folkloric footwork will usher in a new era of peace in the Middle East.
Launching their first American tour at Concordia University in River Forest earlier this week, Nader and other members of Al Raja, the school's traditional dance troupe, presented Palestinian love stories of courtship, betrayal and reconciliation through song and dance.
"We want to show the world that Palestinians can love," said Nader, a Muslim who has attended the Lutheran school for six years. "The big message is peace and love. Although we have a bad situation back there in Palestine, we're trying to keep our faith alive."
The invitation to Al Raja from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is part of a churchwide campaign called "Peace Not Walls," one of several attempts by mainline Protestant denominations to engage in the Middle East. The Presbyterian Church USA will decide next week, for example, whether to continue its process of divesting stocks in companies that they say enable Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. Episcopalians also are weighing options this week at their General Convention.
Divestment plans have drawn criticism from U.S. Jews, who welcome the churches' efforts to promote peace in the Middle East but question whether some of the chosen methods, divestment in particular, will achieve that effect.
The Evangelical Lutheran campaign does not include a financial component but does denounce the concrete barrier built to separate Israeli and Palestinian territories. Church officials say the wall keeps patients from entering the Lutheran World Federation's Augusta Victoria Hospital, which provides basic health care to Palestinian patients. The wall also has impeded children from attending Lutheran schools in the region.
The campaign addresses the fate of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land by funding a housing project that will provide affordable apartments to Palestinian Christians.
Currently, Christians make up only 2 percent of the Palestinian population and emigration continues to deplete that number, said Palestinian Bishop Munib Younan, leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. In fact, most of the dancers will be able to connect with relatives during their U.S. visit.
It is important for the dancers to show Americans how they benefit from Lutheran ministries and how they can co-exist with people of other faiths, Younan said. The dance troupe includes both Muslims and Christians. It does not include Israelis, Younan said, because Israelis do not attend schools in Palestinian territory.
"After 20 years, if there are no Palestinian Christians, we will ask [Americans]: `Why didn't you help us stay in the country?'" said Younan, who was in Chicago for the dancers' American debut. "What is a Holy Land without Christians who have been there for the last 2,000 years?"
Christoph Schneider-Yattara, the church's associate director for companionship, education and advocacy for the Middle East, said altering the U.S. perception of Palestinians is one of the church's global missions.
"For us, bringing people to share their stories, share their art and their dance with us is a way to give people an opportunity to engage and give Americans a chance to know Palestinians," he said. The message is not pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, he said. It is pro-peace.
Emily Soloff, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee, applauds the tour as a celebration of Palestinian identity and culture. She also emphasizes the importance of preserving the indigenous Christian community, but she questions how helpful it is to portray the Palestinian dancers as victims of Israeli-imposed restrictions.
If Israel has limited their freedoms, that is because Palestinian leaders have not reined in terrorists, Soloff said.
"Innocence gets caught up with the guilty, and that's the great tragedy in this conflict," she said. "If the goal is to find peaceful solutions, then we have to find ways to bring Palestinians and Israelis together. ... On neutral ground, they can do that in ways that are difficult to do in the Middle East."
Delbert Leppke, a retired engineer who serves on the Chicago Lutheran synod's working group on the Middle East, said he thought it was important to encourage the dancers' talents and expose them to another part of the world.
"The young people who are going to the Lutheran schools over there need some help to see the rest of the world a bit because they really are isolated under the occupation," he said.
Nader is an exception. She has studied in Italy, where she lived with a Roman Catholic family, and traveled to Norway with the dance troupe last year. She does not see these opportunities as a way to escape the gunfire and curfews.
"It's a way to show the world the many faces of Palestinians," she said.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
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