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Elizabeth Sanders taught English at this Roman Catholic school in Zababdeh.  The school attracts Christian and Muslim students from throughout the northern part of the West Bank.
Forgotten people
Albany Democrat-Herald
February 14, 2004
Les Gehrett

Although their history goes all the way back to the early church, Arab Christians are often the forgotten people in the Middle East.

Missionaries Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are hoping to change that. They have lived since August 2000 in Zababdeh, a mostly Christian village in the northern West Bank. The couple served the churches and schools in the area and did a lot of filming for a documentary they are still working on.

Now they are traveling throughout the United States trying to deliver a message from Arab Christians to their western brothers and sisters.

"The number one thing we heard was 'Tell Americans, American Christians that we are here,'" Marthame Sanders, 33, said.

The Sanders will make two stops in the mid-valley next week to do exactly that.

Their first appearance is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the First United Methodist Church, 1165 N.W. Monroe Ave., Corvallis. They will then be the featured speakers at a breakfast at 7 a.m. Wednesday at the United Presbyterian Church of Albany, 330 Fifth St. S.W.

Marthame Sanders, a Presbyterian minister, serves with Greek Catholic, left, and Roman Catholic priests at the Church of the Visitation in Zababdeh.
There is a $2 charge for the breakfast, and guests are asked to reserve a place in advance by calling 926-5551.

At each of the events, the Sanders will show completed segments of their documentary, which is called "Salt of the Earth: Palestinian Christians in the West Bank."

Marthame Sanders says the title comes from Jesus' saying - "You are the salt of the earth."

"That has meaning for them as a minority community," Sanders said.

Arab Christians represent roughly 2 percent of the population in Israel/Palestine.

They worship in a number of different Christian traditions, including Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic (Melkite), Greek Orthodox and Anglican. They have freedom to practice their faith, but this can be hard to do in a predominantly Muslim setting.

"The Muslim culture respects them, but does not understand them," he said.

As an example, many of the churches in the region meet on Fridays. That is the Muslim day for prayers and so people already have time off. No one bars Christians from meeting on Sundays, but it is difficult because people who are fortunate enough to have jobs have to go to work.

But these problems are trivial next to the larger problems of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A situation that has been tense, even deadly, over the past several decades has gotten much worse in the past three years.

The continuing advance of Jewish settlement and the new construction of a massive separation wall have outraged Palestinians. Wave after wave of Palestinian suicide attacks have had a similar effect on Israelis. Day after day, the problem seems to deepen.

The Sanders have seen these latest events firsthand from their village of Zababdeh in the West Bank.

A woman and child sit in the rubble at the Jenin refugee camp in spring 2002.
"Life has become next to impossible for the vast majority of people, Christian and Muslim," Marthame Sanders said. "Their lives are very, very difficult, if not frightening."

Elizabeth Sanders, 31, said that recent statements by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about pulling out of some settlements has not done much to improve the situation.

"Palestinians are very dubious that real concessions will be made. They perceive Sharon making statements on concessions as a smokescreen. It's more of a bargaining chip," she said. "Palestinians know that according to international law, all the settlements are illegal. Why does Sharon think he is getting brownie points for dismantling a few of them?"

Marthame Sanders said that all of the negotiation attempts in recent years have failed because they do not account for the human suffering on both sides.

He said 20th century Jewish history, especially the Holocaust, weighs heavily on the minds of the Jewish people, who are very concerned about their security and their future.

On the other hand, Palestinians have seen their land and property dispossessed, first at the creation of modern Israel and even today as Israel builds the enormous wall of separation.

"Until both of these realities are taken seriously, then the conflict is going to perpetuate," he said. "This won't stop until basic human needs are met and basic human dignity is given," he said.