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Peace in Jerusalem means peace for the world, Bishop Riah says

By Matthew Davies
ENS102505-04
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

[Episcopal News Service] The Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal is the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, a diocese that includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria within the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. In an interview with Episcopal News Service, El-Assal speaks about the church's role in justice and reconciliation and his hopes for peace in the Holy Land.

ENS: Will there ever be peace in the Holy Land?

EL-ASSAL: This peace process is going to be long, it's going to be sad. It has so far been bloody and thousands of people have been killed. Tens of thousands have been injured. Thousands of homes have been bulldozed. Ten of thousands of trees -- olive trees, palm trees -- have been uprooted. But in the long run, once it comes, it's going to be good. Now we are still going through the valley of death, but it's only through death sometimes that life comes, and I as a servant in the church continue to believe that part of our mission is to share hope in this hopeless situation and to share life even in the midst of death.

Since I became bishop, things haven't changed drastically. But in my opinion the way forward is to see how best we can implement the United Nations resolutions. I don't see another alternative. The other alternative would be a one binational state, which would not serve the purposes of Israel, and if Israel were to approve this they would defeat the very cause for which they have struggled for so long. The demography will change, which will not be in their interests.

ENS: Having lived with this situation day in and day out, are people not exhausted?

EL-ASSAL: Is it a frustrating situation. It is a tiring situation, no question. How people manage is a miracle, but their love to their homeland keeps them on the land. I sent my children to study in the United States on one condition, that they come back. Irrespective of all the opportunities they had in the U.S., they came back. Sometimes I wonder whether I have done the wrong thing or the right thing. As far as I am concerned I will not leave the country. I will stay here in spite of the harassment I have experienced over the years, the humiliation here and there at checkpoints, at airports, at the bridges trying to cross into Jordan to fulfill a little ministry here or there. I will continue to live here, but sometimes I wonder whether the younger generation will pack and leave. And if people continue to pack and leave it will become a disaster for Christianity. For this country to become a museum of Holy Stones, with no living Christian presence in the land of the Holy One is a catastrophe.

How do people manage, how do people continue to persevere in spite of all the humiliation that many go through at different checkpoints, making them wait for hours? I watched in pain one time when I asked a woman in her 70s how long she had been waiting ahead of us, and she said about two hours and she could not even get out of the car to relieve herself. It's so humiliating. You close your eyes and you want to shout but there is nobody to hear you. Why would people stay in the country? It's their homeland, but wherever they go it will continue to be a foreign land. They will continue to be refugees, here or there, be it in the neighboring countries or anywhere in the world ... We pray for peace, because when it comes to Jerusalem it will come to the whole world and people will start packing and coming back home.

ENS: Bethlehem is one of the holiest sites in Palestine and it appears that the vast majority of its residents are unable to leave. What is happening there?

EL-ASSAL: Bethlehem is the nativity place of our Lord. The whole Christian community in the world should rise to its feet and see to it that this wall which Israel built, which is almost 11 meters high, be knocked down. Bethlehem should be open for all pilgrims, for all people of the Christian faith. It has become like a prison, which explains why some of our people, especially the young, are leaving Bethlehem. We've lost close to 3,000 of our young people from the Bethlehem area and many of them will not come back. If the Christians of the world were to join hands with us in the Holy Land, things will start changing for better and it will not only serve the Christian community, it will serve all the inhabitants of this dear land.

ENS: You've made it an essential part of your ministry to tell this story to the international community. How important are global Anglican relations to you and to the diocese?

EL-ASSAL: Ever since I woke up to the reality of the situation, I discovered that many people are ignorant to the realities on the ground. Many people come on visits to Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Galilee, and I hear many say how wonderful it is to walk where Jesus walked. And sometimes I stop them on the road and tell them that it is much more important to walk with whom He walked than to walk where He walked.

The majority of the people in the west do not know there are Arab Christians. They don't realize that Christianity among the Arabs goes back to the first century, or that we preceded Islam by six or seven hundred years, and that we were instrumental in bringing the message of Christ to a number of places in the world. One of the ways is to reach out to people with a story; try to invite them to church services; help them to attend Arabic Christian services; invite them to your home for coffee. So I started a project in Nazareth called "Meet the Nazarene." The intention is to introduce people coming from abroad to the local community. I say that they should not just listen to the big shots in governments or municipal councils. They should listen to the local folk. So I started sending them to different homes for coffee or tea or even for a meal. I would invite students from colleges in different parts of the world and let them spend three, four or five days with our young people at their homes. And so people started discovering who we are and why we are.

I made it my mission to tell the world who the Arab Christians are, who the Arab Palestinian Christians are, who the Arab Palestinian Anglican Christians are, who the Arab Palestinian Anglican Christian Israelis are -- not all citizens of the state of Israel are Jewish. The Arab Palestinians make up 20 percent and out of those, which numbers 1.2 million, at least 10 percent are Christians. As I said, I found that many people were ignorant to this and because of this they were indifferent as a result. Once they became informed they started becoming active. This explains why the Anglican Church in the world -- the Anglican Communion -- has become quite active in the search for peace with justice. Now more and more people have become better informed.

ENS: Has there been solid dialogue with the Israelis?

EL-ASSAL: We have found that, as a result of our endeavors, it is not easy to dialogue with the Israelis. They have their set agenda, they have their policies, so in trying to reach out to them is like crying in the wilderness. But we cannot underestimate the contribution of the peace camp in Israel. It was much stronger in the past. Far more than what it is these days, perhaps because it did not receive the attention it deserved from the international community. Where are the peace activists in the world? Why are the people allowing themselves to be hostage to a certain agenda or a certain group and not be free to act in a manner that will bring an end to this pain, this suffering, to the occupation which is the root cause of all this conflict and help bring healing and forgiveness and reconciliation?

ENS: Do you believe there will be a viable Palestinian state?

EL-ASSAL: If the international community were to pressure Israel to comply with the United Nations resolutions -- in the way it pressured Iraq -- and get out of the West Bank in as much as they tried to get out of Gaza, I believe the state of Palestine would be viable. The Palestinians are known to be hard working, and in my opinion they will build up Palestine. Once the occupation is over I am sure we will have many in the world who will come to our support and many in the Arab countries who will come to help us build up the infrastructure of the state which will ultimately become not only viable but able to contribute to changing the course of history in the Middle East for the welfare of future generations.

ENS: Israel claims to be a democracy. In your opinion, is this a fair assessment?

EL-ASSAL: The claim is one thing, the reality is another thing. There are all sorts of proof that shows it can't be a democracy. Being Jewish and being democratic is not possible. It is like an Islamic state. It can't be an Islamic state and a democracy at the same time. Over the last 50 years Israel has exercised all sorts of discrimination against the Arabs. If you visit an Arab village and a Jewish village or settlement or city, you can tell the difference. When it comes to budgets, what is given to the Arab towns or cities is far less than what is given to the Jewish cities.

ENS: How important is education for the Palestinian people?

EL-ASSAL: In my ministry over the last 40 years I have endeavored to promote education, to educate people in life and dignity. I also helped initiate and establish educational institutions, like the high school in Nazareth. Now we are busy working on a kindergarten in Shafar Amr. I have helped establish a high school in Jordan and a number of kindergartens here and there because I believe that education does help people to see life in a different way and help people also to become independent in their decisions that count for a different style of living. So I helped add to the number of educational institutions in the Diocese of Jerusalem and now the number of institutions is about 37, most of those have to do with education. I am keen to see that every child is subsidized if they do not have the means.

ENS: Muslim/Christian relations appear quite healthy. Is there an inclination to evangelize?

EL-ASSAL: In our schools, we do not serve only the Christians. We serve the Muslims as well. In our school in Jerusalem, 90 percent are Muslims and in Nazareth 65 percent are Muslims. The relationship between us and them is a cordial one and credit goes to those who started those schools a hundred years ago and who paved the way for a better understanding of the other. Those Muslims who graduated from our schools have a great respect to the church and they know that when we welcomed them and admitted them to our schools the intention was not to evangelize them. We share our faith; we don't impose our faith on people. When we share our faith the intention is to share Jesus Christ the way we've seen him.

ENS: What message do you have for people around the world wanting to express solidarity with Palestinians?

EL-ASSAL: Our people in different parts of the world need to be better informed of the situation, so that when they try to express solidarity with us they know what they are expressing solidarity for. Many people say we are with you or we pray for you. This is wonderful, but it's not enough. We expect them to join hands with us. We expect them to share the stories that they hear when they come to see us and meet us with their own people. We can't reach the whole world. They can reach the world on our behalf. They can adopt one of our projects. They can drop a line to the authorities in their countries. They can hold vigils in support of peace and justice. Special days that will focus on Palestine, the Palestinian people, the Palestinian cause. The way many have been remembering the Jewish cause around the world. The way people remember the Armenian community. I think we need to have special days to remember our people, reminding ourselves and others that the Palestinians are created by the same God that created all human beings -- the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian. And we wait for the day that we will cease to be a cause of worry and people do not need to be anxious about what is happening in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

ENS: What is your passion? What really drives you?

EL-ASSAL: What drives me is a desire to see an end to this conflict. To wake up one morning and see the separation wall broken down, the barriers being knocked down. People shake hands across the boundaries. Reaching out to each other with the message of healing, with the message of forgiveness. Becoming more conscious that we have so much in common and that we are capable of leading a different life; that we are capable of presenting a different example to the example that is presented now. That Jerusalem becomes what it was meant to be -- a vision for peace. Believing that once peace comes to Jerusalem, peace comes to the whole world. Now Jerusalem has become the focus of international politics. Once peace has come to it, peace will come to the whole world and the whole world is under obligation to join hands with us to see that peace comes to this city. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

  

LSN : LIVING STONES NETWORK
An informal network of friends and supporters of the indigenous Palestinian Christian community drawn from the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem
http://Jerusalem.anglican.org, Friends of Sabeel www.sabeel.org, the Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust www.livingstonesonline.org.uk and the Scottish Palestinian Forum . For more information on these organisations and others promoting justice and peace in the Middle East check out www.sabeel.org/links/index.htm. If you wish to subscribe or unsubscribe to the LSN please reply to .

"Thus says the Lord God of Israel: You shed blood, yet you would keep possession on the land? You rely on your sword, you do abominable things...yet you would keep possession of the land?... (Ezekiel 33:25-28) 

   
 
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