For a conference organised by Saint Egidio Society in Rome on Monday, February 23rd, 2009 under the title “The Value of Christian Churches in the Middle East: A Christian Muslim Discussion”, I was asked to make a 10-minute presentation on the topic ‘A Window on the World.’ I got to my pc and printed out the last four or five articles that I have written over a number of years on Christians in Palestine and in the Arab World. I was debating myself on whether to base my presentation on personal experiences and recollections or to be more academic, and usually boring, by citing statistics, institutions, schools, printing presses, community societies, clinics and other varied contributions of the Churches in Palestine and elsewhere in the region since the Middle of the 19th Century and even earlier. Local Christians, indigenous to the Palestinian and Arab settings, usually root themselves, their families, communities and churches in the early Church and like to insist that Jerusalem was and remains, as they wish it to be, the “Mother Church.” In a recent talk I have given to a group of priests from the Philippines visiting the Holy Land, I referred to the physical limitations of the city of Jerusalem and thanked the divine wisdom for Rome’s hospitality to the Church otherwise, I asked my group of priests, how would we have dealt with the traffic if Jerusalem would have become the seat of St. Peter’s successors and Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays and feasts would have coincided with each other with millions of visitors to the Holy City? The Almighty has thankfully taken care of the anticipated traffic and population congestion in Jerusalem but much more work needs to be done on the human dimension in the city as elsewhere in the Middle East.
So what kind of a Window on the World would I present to the distinguished group of Christians and Muslims that will gather to exchange notes and reflections? Would I tell them the stories of growing up in Jerusalem with the images of a child of a Palestinian Christian refugee family of ten being hosted in two rooms by the Franciscans or better would I tell them of the experiences of school at the Ecole des Freres at New Gate with Christian and Muslim students, mostly refugees, sitting next to each other and getting a quality education in languages and other subjects. Or much better yet to share with them the experiences of the young boy who walked the streets of Jerusalem and heard prayers and saw pilgrims of a variety of countries and of both Muslim and Christian faith? Or would I impress them with the view from the two-room home looking unto the Al Haram Al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and the Mount of Olives and the voices and sounds of bells, muezzins and other religious intonations mixing with each other and providing a semblance of harmony and peace?
But the personal, regardless of how significant it is for the individual, remains rooted in the context or environment. With the impression that Jerusalem placed on me as a young boy, there was also an impression that Jerusalem is a troubled place; a place that is yet to evolve into something else. As I grew up, the academic courses, the thousands of articles, books, lectures and conferences on the city; its past, future and the unspeakable prospects presented by so many sides of interested and noninterested groups made me realise even more that Jerusalem indeed is a troubled place and not the place of hope and salvation that Christians, Jews and Muslims see and seek.
Palestinian Christians or Christians of the Holy Land, comprising Jordan, Israel and Palestine, are grouped in more than 15 churches and in their kaleidoscopic representation of Christianity; they reflect the challenges and hopes. But, as the Heads of Churches have indicated in their November 1994 declaration on Jerusalem, the city is the place of roots and the aspiration for a future of peace, harmony, free access and respect for religious freedom and practice. History of Christianity is recognised by the declaration of the Heads of Churches side by side with the history of Judaism and Islam. What is asked for Christians, pilgrims and citizens alike, is also asked for Jews and Muslims. The vision motivating the declaration is clearly a religious vision but it is also aware of the religious, historical, national and political complexities that impact the present realities of the city and its inhabitants. But these complexities are not simply peculiar to Jerusalem as they are impacting the whole of the Middle East and making the prospects for the future quite bleak, to say the least.
While at every juncture of the long history of conflict in the Middle East, blame is put on this side or that for the absence of peace, it is clear that the exercise of basic rights whether religious, civil, political or just human is dependent on an environment of peace. With no peace in the city and the region, there is no clear vision of a different future for Jerusalem or the region. Crystallising the clear vision is the responsibility of everyone and in particular the spiritual and religious leaders on all sides. The tragedies that befell our Palestinian people in Gaza recently and the fear, injury and stress caused to Israeli citizens because of the shelling of rockets are a reflection of the tragedy in which all of us live at present. It appears that at present so many people in the Middle East but especially in Palestine and Israel have turned their backs to each other and find it normal to opt for confrontation rather than compromise. The Churches and the faithful cannot be comfortable with such a situation, irrespective of the partisan feelings and emotions that are continuously generated with new rounds of conflict and war. At the moment, political developments do not bode well for the future of peace in the region. On the contrary we may be in a new cycle of vicious violence and counter violence that will lead all of us into the abyss of despair and hopelessness.
The Churches with their Window on the World must work and act to touch the pain of all people in Jerusalem and the region and to actively engage in peace efforts, either through influencing politicians or through mobilising their own faithful to work for a different future. This cannot be done without the involvement of all in the region: I and other Palestinian and Arab Christians are often perceived as too controversial, or too marginal and hence unimportant, to be involved in peace work and intellectual exchange as we like to bring out the sensitive issues, the injustices committed against our people, the historic tragedy of the disintegration of Palestinian society as a cost to the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the Jewish exiles. Often people who want to work for peace, particularly in the West, seek unconditional forgiveness on all sides but especially on the Christian and Arab sides. For whatever reason, these well intentioned Western people believe that if the Arabs show willingness to forgive and to make peace then the Israelis will be forthcoming. But there are also many counter arguments and examples that prove when Arabs are more forthcoming the Israelis become less willing to compromise. But this is not the issue and for fear that I would lose the intended conclusion in this short presentation, I would go back to the major argument that PEACE is the essential task of Middle East Churches and their faithful as well as of Judaism and Islam and their faithful. Accordingly, for all of us who seek the Peace of Jerusalem and the region, we have to work together to formulate a comprehensive framework of Peace:
First, each religious community is entitled to continue to live in the dignity and pride of its own religious tradition and history and to attend to its own holy places, without interference from any outside source. This applies to all countries of the region.
Second, each national community feels that it is secure in its territory in terms of the sovereignty that guarantees the fulfilment of basic needs of political community life and continuity with acknowledgement of mutual rights and obligations. This is specifically applicable to Palestine and Israel.
Third, the wounds inflicted on the parties to the conflict must be recognised and addressed. This could be most difficult but we cannot recognise the pain of one party to the exclusion of the other. Pain is pain, regardless of who is feeling it.
Fourth, while recognising the pain of the conflicting parties, we should work to steer away from the “victim” mentality. So many of us in the region have grown accustomed to presenting ourselves as victims. Unfortunately, some feel comfortable with this victim mentality and keep perpetuating it for various reasons. We need to do all to get away from this mentality and to overcome it through work of healing and eventual reconciliation.
Fifth, we must be very careful not to abuse our religious traditions and teachings. It is disheartening and saddening when transgressions against neighbours are justified by religious leaders of different faith communities in the name of religion. What makes these “religiously” based justifications even more reprehensible is the fact that some of those religious leaders participating in inter group and inter faith encounters are the ones who are making these statements. It is the obligation of all to remind all of expected standards and obligations: we cannot be for dialogue here and for justification of war and conflict there!
Sixth, the Churches of the Middle East with all their heritage of caritative, social, educational and religious work done in harmony with their neighbors and for the purpose of community and society building should be courageous to speak up and work for the sake of peace and be uncompromising on this. Without peace and harmony among the different religious and national groups, there will be no future in the Middle East irrespective of victor or loser in intermittent wars and battles.
Our Window on the World as Churches of the Middle East is a window that has so many contrasting tales; sad and happy experiences; marginal tendencies and openness to others; let-downs and hopeful expectations. While we feel our limitations we also can value our potential. But without action and without engagement, this potential can never be accomplished. It is at this particular juncture that much is demanded from Christians and Churches in the Middle East so as their Window on the World would influence as well the Window of the World of their Muslim and other neighbours.