Witness of A Christian Palestinian
Colloque Groupe d’Amitie Islamo-Chretien

Paris – France
October 25-26, 2002
Dr. Bernard Sabella

The Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches

One needs not be self-congratulatory nor justifying when one does what one believes in. The Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees that I head and which is part of the Middle East Council of Churches operates in five different areas of the Middle East: Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip of the Palestinian Territories. Our work is mostly with Palestinian refugees in camps and in other areas where they live. Education, vocational training for young men and women, primary health care and community infrastructure besides loans for small business, education and basic housing are some of the areas in which we are involved. There are over 100 of us, both Christians and Muslims, who are active in delivering these services. Our work, especially in the Palestinian Territories, is symbolized by the emblem of the Cross that joins the Crescent and which appears on our vehicles that can be spotted all over the Gaza Strip. Of significance is that the total number of Christians in the Gaza Strip is not more than 2500 out of a total Palestinian population in the Strip of 1.1 million. And because of work of people like Constantine Dabbagh, the Executive Director in the Gaza Strip, the relations of good neighborliness are confirmed again and again.

In the situation of conflict and difficult times of the last two years, our Department has generated through Action of Churches Together (ACT) of the World Council of Churches in Geneva close to one million American dollars that went primarily for emergency food and medical relief. We were able to reach 16,974 families in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; 5,865 families in the West Bank and 11,109 families in the Gaza Strip. The ACT appeals also contributed to our networking efforts with local organizations, charitable societies, governmental and municipal institutions and grassroots groups operating throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, irrespective of religious or other backgrounds. We are also aware that there are needs for generating employment opportunities at a time when the rate of unemployment is over 50% of the Palestinian labor force. We are striving together with other NGOs and international organizations to help generate new employment opportunities and we have made a new appeal from ACT for this purpose.  We do not operate in a vacuum as the Churches of the Middle East are our empowering body and they support us in our work because they believe that as part of our societies we need to identify with our people and to work for a better and different future for everyone.

Palestinian and Arab Christians: A Contradiction in Terms or An Exciting Combination of Words?

For many in the West, Palestinian or Arab Christians is a contradiction in terms. One journalist once asked me: How can you be a Christian and an Arab at the same time? I tried to explain that Arab is the nationality or culture and that the nationality and culture do not contradict the fact that I am a Christian or a Muslim or even a Jew. The question of the journalist that astonished me is nevertheless understood by me since one time I was reading about Arab Jews in an article written by an Israeli academic. I just could not understand the term and as I proceeded to read the article, it became clear that the term when placed in context makes a lot of sense. The Jews who came from the Arab world share also the culture of their Arab compatriots and accordingly they can be called Arab Jews.

But what is exciting about being an Arab Christian is that I have a rich heritage that combines aspects of the three monotheistic religions.

First, I am a Christian and hence the teachings of the universal church and my relations with the different churches reinforce my faith and belief in the message of Jesus Christ. Thus my witness to my society, its sufferings and hopes is not simply an individual act but it is an act that emanates from my Christian belief. When I am in distant lands or when pilgrims and people of good will come to visit with us in the Holy Land, I find that the common faith that unites me with them liberates me and makes me truly a person of the world and not simply of Jerusalem or of Palestine for that matter.

Second, as a believing Christian I know that my belief in the New Testament takes its roots from belief in the Old Testament. This is an important theological connection between my Christian faith and Judaism. This connection opens up my heart and mind to the religious and historical experience of the Hebrew people and hence creates common points of religious reference.

Third, as a Palestinian and as a Christian, I have had together with generations of my family excellent experiential relations with my Muslim neighbors. We have lived the same experiences, went through difficult and pleasant times, worked together and stood side by side in hours of need or crisis. In the process, our children went to school with one another; they made friends, played together, visited one another and shared together the political, social and economic environment. Most important they got to know one another as people and not as stereotypes. This experiential sharing taught me to respect Islam and to appreciate the devotion and commitment of Muslims as they go around praying and being faithful to their religion. This living together made me touch base with the human face of my Muslim neighbors and hence to me Islam has become culturally close to me. When I hear the call to prayer by the Muezzin, I feel it is a universal call and it applies to me as it applies to my neighbors. Equally, when I hear the bells ring, the same emotions overtake me. The universality that elsewhere cannot be found is found in my living side and by side and with my sharing with my Muslim neighbors.

Things in Common with Muslim and Jewish Neighbors

That I am living in a troubled region is compensated by the fact that I have so many things in common with my Muslim and Jewish neighbors. Many seem not to realize our common heritage, not simply that of monotheism but also of sharing and experiencing together. Certainly, there are religious, political, cultural and social differences that distinguish us from one another. But I always remember the teaching that says that man is created in the image of God. Accordingly, all persons, irrespective of background, are my brothers and sisters because they are in the image of God the Creator. This teaching also asks me to respect the differences and to show appreciation for the convictions and commitments of my neighbors and fellow people. When I recite the prayer Our Father Who Art in Heaven I am always conscious that Our Father refers to being the Father of everyone on earth and hence what good I ask for myself I also ask for my neighbor.

But someone is likely to tell me: Oh! You are too idealistic, Mr. Sabella. Life is not as simple as you portray it from your Ivory Tower. No, I am not idealistic nor simplistic, for that matter. I know that there are issues that raise sensitivities between Muslim and Christian; some that have to do with different dogmas and beliefs; others more pressing have to do with sharing the same space or, in cases of immigrants, of possible cultural contact and subsequent discord. Yes, and there may be other areas of possible and potential sensitivities but the fact that sharing life together, in the Palestinian and Middle Eastern context and I am sure in other contexts, teaches us how not to over dramatize these sensitivities but to deal with them in their proper context. Sharing life together means also that I have to be willing not to make unauthentic accusations whenever a problem between the two groups arise but that I need to look more deeply and seek the cause of this problem. This is what I teach my students, both Muslims and Christians, at Bethlehem University.

Projection of Fears and Suspicions: The Complexities Raised by Judaism and Israel

The projection of fears and suspicions, because of difference of culture and or religion would not make life any easier. The common space that unites us in Palestine and Israel is not, at times, an easy one to manage. But to resolve problems or outstanding issues or sensitivities, we all need to look for the causes of these problems and sensitivities. If we do this in honesty then we can work out together solutions to the most difficult problems. Accusing the other group because of any of its characteristics is misleading and can complicate matters in an irreversible manner. Accordingly, the basic principle that should motivate our sharing of the same space is respect for the other’s religion, culture and heritage.

Some would argue but would this apply as well to the Jews, especially amidst a most difficult political situation and an oppressive occupation? The answer is definitely yes. We have to distinguish here between two elements in the complicated relationship with the Jews: the one element has to do with Judaism as the source of monotheism. As such, Judaism is a source of a culture that has enriched the world and it has also passed on to the two other monotheistic traditions, Christianity and Islam, many of the precepts and religious laws and traditions that continue to mold until the present our world. As a Christian and as a Palestinian I appreciate this rich cultural and religious heritage that has characterized the Jewish people and I yearn to the day when the interchange with this heritage would be done without the constraints and limitations of the oppressive current situation of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But I need not negate my appreciation of Jewish culture and religion by only focusing on the need to end occupation. Occupation needs to end, no dispute about it. But when occupation ends and I have no appreciation of Jewish culture and religion, then it becomes more difficult to establish common grounds between our two peoples. Hence the challenge, even in this most dramatic and tragic conflict that has continued for over one hundred years, is to find the common grounds. These common grounds cannot be established or worked out if there is no mutual respect between the two sides. Accordingly, my Christian Palestinian background calls on me to see the universalist side of the Jewish experience and history while absolutely opposing the Israeli military occupation and its injustices against my people.

Post September 11th 2001: Issues of Religions and Conflict

Especially after September 11, 2001 the issue of religions and conflict has come up again and again. There are some who would like to see the world divided along fighting civilizations and religious domains. To me, as a Christian and as a Palestinian, civilizations do not fight and certainly religions do not confront one another in martial arts and sports. Those who argue otherwise have their own narrow agendas that would invite eventual turmoil, destruction and loss to all of us. Using religion as a crusading movement against other religions and cultures is wrong. History has proven that crusades, from whatever source they come and for whatever purpose they are launched are doomed to eventual failure and to legacies of mistrust, enmity and negation.  Using violence in order to justify selective interpretations of religious guidelines and directives goes counter to what is best in each and every religion. September 11th and the events that have taken place since requires all of us to go back to the religious roots that call on common human bonds and that emphasize that mankind is created in the image of God, irrespective of culture, religion, nationality, color or any other identifying characteristic. My modest experience as a Palestinian Christian sharing with my Muslim neighbors the vicissitudes of life has taught me that this is possible. Hence, I am optimistic of the applicability of this model to the larger context of our world with its many different religions, cultures and nationalities.

Model of Muslim – Christian Relations in Palestine

Again some would cast doubt on what I am saying; others would argue that not all sides think in like manner and, accordingly, what I am saying remains but a dream or wishful thinking. This may not be so if we realize that we need to understand the other in his/her complexity and to look out for a balanced view rather than a selective biased one. My experience with my Muslim neighbors taught me to consider the good in Islam and in my neighbors. It also taught me to resolve outstanding issues with my neighbors not on the fact that they are Muslims but on that of the merit of the issue under discussion. My experience also taught me that when I serve or teach or do whatever in the society, I do it because those whom I serve are all created in the image of God. Spreading this message is an important task because it helps make me a better Christian as I hope it makes my Muslim and Jewish neighbors better Muslims and Jews.

So we have a challenge and it appears these days quite a formidable one. But if we do not stand up to this challenge, then we may perish together instead of living side by side in harmony. We can no longer live in isolated niches of whatever sort. We are destined to live together and we have to learn to live together. The alternative is too disastrous and if we allow it to happen then there is a serious question about the level of our intelligence as human beings. In order to ensure the survival of our world, we need then to learn how to respect others, particularly those who disagree with us and whose ways are seen as counter to ours and even blasphemous at times. Respect for others does not mean acceptance of their ways but it is up to us to convince them of the wrongness of their ways without violating their basic rights to exercise what they believe in.

The message then of a Palestinian Christian is a simple one. I myself keep reminding myself of what I just placed in front of you. It is difficult at times as each one of us is prone to stereotyping and to blaming the others and to exercise self-justification. But it is the challenge of living one’s faith in the city and in the community and the world at large that places a special responsibility on educators, religious leaders, political personalities and all those who serve as a model to keep preaching for mutual respect and understanding and to serve without prejudice or discrimination.

If we succeed in setting such a model or at least presenting it for the consideration of the others then perhaps we would have planted the seed for the needed transformation among many of all religions and backgrounds.

Dr. Bernard Sabella

Executive Director

Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees

Middle East Council of Churches - Jerusalem

Associate Professor of Sociology

Department of Social Sciences  - Bethlehem University