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Analysis: 5 things Justin Welby wants you to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

After following the Archbishop of Canterbury around the Holy Land, Sam Hailes unpacks Justin Welby's message for Christians

Justin Welby's longest international trip to date has been relentless.

The Archbishop has had over 80 meetings with Presidents, pastors and people like you and me in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There's been 5am starts, late finishes, close protection security and lots and lots of hummus. 

Having observed Welby up close in the Holy Land and conducted a brief interview with him, I've come away impressed - both with his ability to listen to all sides of a conflict and the words of wisdom that he's shared along the way. 

But in looking at what Welby has (and hasn't) said, others might disagree. If you've particularly strong views on the rights and wrongs of this conflict you might be disappointed with the Archbishop. Pro-Israel Christians will be delighted to hear the Archbishop self describe as a "profound friend of Israel". But they may not be so impressed with his reluctance to go further and, for example, speak up in favour of Israel's security barrier (which despite being vilified by so many, has saved lives by keeping suicide bombers out of Israel, it is argued). Conversely, Palestinian activists will applaud Welby's visits to Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron to see the effects of what they view as Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land. But they may wonder why Welby stopped short of actually condemning any of the Israeli government's controversial policies. 

The truth is that Welby was never going to make a bold political statement on this conflict. Depending on your viewpoint, that's either a typical Anglican fudge which dodged all the important questions (comparable to the church's current position on sexuality), or its a carefully considered and helpful approach which brings wisdom to a region in desperate need of some level-headed and clear thinking. 

There can be no doubt that Welby was cautious. He admitted to me that just the thought of saying the wrong thing kept him awake at night. But he wasn't silent. He had these five key messages to share...

1. It's complicated

It's often been said that if countries had strap lines, Israel's would be "It's complicated".

Justin Welby's most repeated phrase (he said it nearly everywhere he went) was "you come here for two weeks and think you understand the conflict. You come here for two months and realise you know nothing at all". I can relate. Each of my own five visits to this part of the world have progressively complicated my outlook. Welby's "it's complicated" mantra should be read as a rebuke to anyone who believes all of the injustices are happening on one side of the conflict. 

I was moaning to an Israeli yesterday as I made my way back to the UK that whatever I write about this conflict will upset someone, somewhere (and I know Justin Welby has had similar thoughts about his own words). But this local man had some wonderfully simple advice "just write what you've seen. Write the truth".

He's right. But there's also a sense that whatever I write will be inadequate. As Welby said on this trip "Everything you say here has to be qualified with the comment 'but it's not as simple as that'". 

2. Peace is possible, and we must pray for it

Given the complex nature of the conflict, plus the fact it's been raging for decades, centuries or millennia (depending on whether you view this as a religious or political battle) many have wondered whether peace is actually possible.

But scepticism towards the possibility of peace can also be motivated by religious belief. On the way to Ben Gurion airport last night my Jewish taxi driver told me "when the Messiah comes, he will bring peace. No person can do it. Trump can't do it. The mother of Trump can't do it!" Once I got over the funny phrasing about Trump's mum, it occurred to me that many Christians would agree with this assessment. Surely we have to wait for Jesus to return until peace can be established?

I'm no expert on Justin Welby's eschatology but I don't think he would agree with this sentiment. Instead, he quoted from Psalm 122: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem". When Welby said he was "hopeful and positive" about peace and praying for it to come quickly, it didn't sound like he was referring to the second coming. His talk of a "moment of opportunity" for peace was said in the present and not the future tense.

3. Christians are suffering on both sides

Justin Welby visited a town where the inhabitants are given just seven seconds warning before Palestinian rockets rain down on them. Yet on the same day he also went to Gaza (where these rockets originated from) to meet with suffering Christians there.

He's talked to Palestinian Christians in the West Bank who've had their communities torn in two by Israel's separation barrier, but he can't ignore Palestinian terrorism which has also ripped families apart. Having visited Yad Vashem - Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum and met with the Israeli Prime Minister he knows the tragic history of Christian antisemitism which paved the way for the holocaust. At the same time, there was was a clear recognition of the plight of Palestinian Christians who blame Israel for their hardships. 

4. Reconciliation must be a priority

Two of Justin Welby's priorities during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury are prayer and evangelism (his article for this magazine on Thy Kingdom Come mention both of these). The third is reconciliation, which he defines as when "violence becomes unimaginable". 

So committed is he to this cause he was even willing to kick a football around at a project which brings Arabs and Jews together for education and fun in the name of mutual respect and tolerance. He later explained to a group of young people at the Peres Center for Peace that they couldn't control politicians, but they can change hearts and minds by reconciling with others who are different from them.

It's this grassroots level of reconciliation where, for example, 250 Palestinian doctors come to Israel to treat 200,000 Israelis in a project sponsored by the British embassy, that seems to especially inspire the Archbishop. When under pressure - especially from Christian Palestinians to respond to their grievances with Israel - Welby was forced to temper expectations and often responded by saying "I am not the government".

At times he appeared to want to leave the politics to the politicians and instead encourage the Church in its ministry of reconciliation. This might also explain his reluctance to trot out the British government's line of supporting a future two state solution. Welby might well believe in such a resolution, but he views his job as encouraging grassroots reconciliation, not drawing borders on maps. 

5. You should visit

When I asked Justin Welby why Christians should visit the Holy Land, he did not hesitate to answer. Neither did he question the premise behind the question that Christians should visit this part of the world. Instead Welby reminded me how there's a Christian tradition of valuing place (it's why Anglican vicars and bishops are given parishes and dioceses - geographical locations - to oversee.)

This, combined with the opportunity to walk where Jesus walked presents the average Christian with a good reason to jump on a cheap Easy Jet flight asap. 

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