Christians in Palestine

Episcopal News Service has an interview with the Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem on Hamas’ victory in the recent Palestinian elections, and on its potential impact on the Middle East peace process and the lives of Christians in the region.

You can listen here, or have a look at the transcript below. Keep in mind that the interview was conducted before The New York Times broke the news that Israel and the United States are discussing ways to destabilize the Hamas government. (The Times’ editorial on this initiative is here.)

ENS: Turning to the recent Palestinian elections, how do you feel about Hamas’ victory?

EL-ASSAL: Well in the first place let me say that this vote was a vote against and not a vote for, and what I mean by this is that it was a vote against the American Administration, the Government of Israel and partly the corruption of some of the leaders of the previous leadership in Palestine.

ENS: How will this impact the Christian community in the Holy Land?

EL-ASSAL: In my opinion — and this is my personal opinion — it will not make a big difference. On the contrary, now that the ball is in their court, it’s much easier to challenge them. This was a democratic election. The international community, including also Israel and the American Administration, insisted on elections, and these are the results. Either we accept the results of democracy or stop talking about democratizing the Palestinian community or the Middle East at large. It will not affect our institutions. Perhaps we will have an easier way to them now to challenge them that we are here to serve the community at large, and the community in its majority is of the Muslim community. We may find it easier to speak to them about issues of common interest for the Palestinian people. Certainly, we will ask them also and encourage them, now that they have won the election, to invest their victory in promoting all that would serve the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people and on top of this agenda should be the question of peace and justice and freedom, and security for all.

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ENS: What is the mood in Jerusalem right now?

EL-ASSAL: Before I left, we had a little meeting, both Christians and Muslims, but Muslims of the Fatah group and my strategy was that we are coming here to say, “Mabruk; congratulations; you won; now what’s next. In what way can we bridge the gap? In what way can we contribute to not beautifying your image but to you trying to beautify the image of our people and become serious about the search for peace, justice and reconciliation.”

ENS: How do you regard Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist?

EL-ASSAL: I think it’s a strategic mistake. Israel came about in accordance with a United Nations resolution. The same resolution spoke of a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel. I would understand if Hamas were to say we are to implement the United Nations resolutions, whereby Israel would have its share, the Palestinians would have their share. That would be understood and appreciated. But to say that Israel has not place, in my opinion, will not serve the cause of the Palestinians or of Hamas.

ENS: There has been some talk of enforcing sanctions on Palestine if it does not renounce terrorism. Is this a fair course of action?

EL-ASSAL: Sanctions. We have those sanctions. What kind of support does Palestine or the Palestinian people receive? Very little. The majority of people live on one dollar a day. It’s a poverty stricken community and if they make them poorer than what they are today, then I fear for the future. What we need to do and share with them rather than sanctions: let’s see how best we can work together.

ENS: You recently signed a joint statement with patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem. Is this a testimony to strong ecumenical relations?

EL-ASSAL: Yes, we are strengthening the ecumenical relations, but not only the ecumenical relations with Christians, the ecumenical relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews … to see how best we can promote what is spoken of as co-existence or co-living.

ENS: Is it fair to say that Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land have, for the most part, maintained healthy relationships?

EL ASSAL: Indeed, for many, many years. Most of the Christians in Palestine are Arabs, so the Arab Christians have something in common with the Muslims of Palestine: both are Arabs and both are Palestinians. Whether they are Muslims or Christians, the relationship has always been a good.

ENS: How do you view the future right now?

EL-ASSAL: As long as things continue to be the way they are on the international level, it’s a hopeless situation. The United Nations is not as active. The Christian church, in its majority, is not as active as it should be, the way it was with the apartheid system in South Africa. There are few Elijahs. Where are those Elijahs; who will stand against the prophets of Baal, who will endeavor to change the course of human history?

ENS: When you dream dreams, what do you see?

EL-ASSAL: I dream about a morning when I wake up and hear the good news that the Israelis have resolved to put an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories and that the Palestinians would rush to shake hands the way they did when the Israelis pulled out the first time in the early 90s from Gaza. There is so much in common between the Arab and the Jew. If they are Semites, we are Semites. If they’ve been in the Diaspora, half of our people are still in the Diaspora. They’re in refugee camps and spread all over the world. Is it not time for both communities to learn to live for a greater cause than Israel or Palestine? A cause that will bring about the Holy Land that we all desire to see?

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