Retired English vicar, author, photographer and director of registered charity Peacemaker Trust, Rev Dr Stephen Sizer is an affable, peaceful man with a gentle handshake and a ready smile.
He is also a man resigned to the fact that his declared mission of bringing about a just peace in the Middle East angers some people.
Crosslight caught up with Stephen while he was lecturing in Australia as part of a wide-ranging world trip that’s included the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Middle East, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Detractors brand Stephen as anti-Semitic, and accuse him of having engaged with Holocaust deniers and anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists.
Stephen’s initial response is that he is a follower of Jesus “who was a Jew, who taught us to repudiate racism. Both Jews and Arabs are semitic peoples”.
“I look at this through the lens of human beings,” he says.
“Human rights should be seen as impartial, which is why I defend the rights of Palestinians to a state and a homeland, to security and freedom from fear … as much as Israelis; either in one state as equal citizens, or as people in two states.
“Israel is currently practising a form of apartheid, and ethnic cleansing.”
Stephen said he isn’t surprised by the reaction to his form of discipleship.
“I have had death threats … if you follow Jesus, you have a death sentence,” Stephen said with a smile.
“There should be a health warning on every Bible – obeying the word of God may seriously shorten your life.”
“Jesus didn’t say, ‘If you get persecuted’; he said, ‘When you get persecuted, because of me… rejoice and be glad.”
It is in encouraging this dialogue and forging a just resolution that Stephen sees a role for himself.
“Jesus was criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners,” he said.
“I was criticised for going to Iran and sharing the good news of Jesus.
“Right across the Middle East, Muslims equate Christianity with US foreign policy. It’s destroying the church in the Middle East.
“We go in and say, ‘No, Jesus would not drop bombs, therefore Christians should not drop bombs’. Following Christ means repudiating the use of violence.”
Stephen is committed to pleading the cause of peace even in the midst of potentially dangerous situations. He sees an historical precedent in St Francis.
In 1219 AD, during the fifth crusade, St Francis travelled at considerable risk to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al Kamil, to plead for peace (the 800th anniversary of the crusade occurs next year).
That took courage, or holy foolishness.
Stephen can relate.
“I was in southern Lebanon, and I met a leader of Hezbollah,” Stephen said.
“He asked, ‘Stephen, what would you advise?’
“I said, ‘Release the Israeli captives. Let them go. Don’t trade them like animals. You worship a compassionate and merciful God – show compassion and mercy’.
“I hope some of my Israeli friends will realise that I advocate for Israel in ways that are consistent with the Christian gospel, not for political reasons.”
Synod of Victoria and Tasmania senior social justice advocate Dr Mark Zirnsak agrees with Stephen that Middle East combatants need to see the futility of violence.
“The church’s focus is to seek for both sides to respect basic human rights,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“A lasting peace will only come about if there is action from both sides.
“There is no military solution to this conflict. Our contribution is to try to reason with both sides; they need to abide by human rights standards and the laws of armed conflict.”
In considering the likelihood of a peaceful soloution, Stephen believes some recent moves by the Trump Administration are not helping.
“If the US does move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which looks inevitable, it’s the end of the two-state solution.”