Fr. Fr. Firas Aridah, Catholic priest in Jifnah, in the Palestinian Territories, has presented this discourse in a recent visit in Washington, DC.
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8th of February 2012
I want to thank you for the honor of being able to speak with you today/ tonight about the situation of the Christian community in the Holy Land. My name is Father Firas Aridah from Jordan. I am a priest of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Roman Catholic Diocese of the Holy Land, serving in Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Cyprus. Our Church of believers was born on the day of Pentecost, first established by the Apostles and for a time led by St. Peter after whom St. James, the disciple of Christ, was chosen as the Holy City’s first bishop. Together the Christian community in the Holy Land is indelibly linked to the life of Christ, his death and resurrection and together they formed the first Church described in the Acts of the Apostles as the community which: “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles…was filled with awe at the many miracles…and who owned everything in common…with one heart” (Acts 2:42-46) This is the Mother Church of Jerusalem, this is the Holy Land.
It is a beautiful place, quite different from the beauty of Washington D.C, but still a beautiful place with beautiful people. It is a land sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims; all three faith communities have existed there for centuries. Historically it was home to many nations (including the kingdoms of Palestine and the kingdoms of Israel) and now, in the modern context, it is a home to Israelis and Palestinians. One land, two peoples, three faiths; each rooted in conviction and vigor for Jerusalem, each who need to be reminded that there can be no exclusive claim which will be accepted.
What I had in mind when I came to serve in Jerusalem, was to focus all my energy in performing the ‘normal duties’ of a parish priest—tending to the needs of the Christian faithful and the community at large. It was there, in the midst of my ‘normal duties’, where I became unwillingly drawn into this on-going conflict. It was never my intention to get involved in politics – and I am still resolute to leave the politics to the politicians – but my focus is the people. And in my service to the people, I dealt with the occupation. With the occupation came the confiscation of lands and the demolition of homes. With the confiscation of lands and demolition of homes came the building of walls of separation in the name of security. With the building of walls of separation came the destruction of olive orchards. These ‘normal duties’ of a parish priest have been particularly painful in Palestine.
Olive trees are a main source of livelihood for Palestinians. They are used to derive products such as: olive oil, soap and wood crafts. These trees and this livelihood are thousands of years old, handed down from one generation to the next. The groves are a lifeline with great significance and value in our culture. In the aftermath of the 26 foot high wall that now surrounds most of the West Bank and with new border enforcement, people can no longer get to their farms. Families have been divided; many have lost their jobs or have become deprived of advanced medical care at hospitals which are no longer accessible. As a priest, a pastor of souls, my conscience and my calling drive me to be “a voice for those who have no voice and to defend the weak and the oppressed.” (Patr. Sabbah. Seek Peace and Pursue it. 1998) How then can I say nothing as this tragedy befalls the people who I am serving? How can I remain silent when the Christian community I am serving is disappearing because of this situation?
The current situation we face is this: Today, we have fewer Christians in the Holy Land than we had in 1947 going from 8% to 1.6% in 2000. When at one point we numbered 27,000 Christians in Jerusalem, now we are only 9,000 Christians. Our people are emigrating, our presence is threatened and if the trend continues, our future is moving towards extinction. This is impacted by the fact that there are over 550,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many of our villages are under military control, with restrictions on movement from one village to the next, meaning that we have immediate family who have become separated from each other. Our lands are still being confiscated all around us to build more Israeli settlements or to expand settlements that already exist. Recently Israel has confiscated around three thousand acres from 59 Christian families in Beit Jala to continue expansion of the Gilo settlement and the separation wall. The recent development of clashes between settlers and Israeli civil authorities is proof that settlements are a phenomenon which has grown far beyond Israel’s grasp. They violate the laws which have been put in place to protect them and they unquestionably threaten peace and stability in the region. As the book of Proverbs says: “Where there is no hope, the people perish” – an entire generation of Israelis and Palestinians have grown up witnessing and experiencing violence, occupation, separation, and hatred. There continue to be fewer and fewer opportunities to interact. There is heightened suspicion and apprehension on both sides and so, our people deeply feel a sense of hopelessness and despair.
So then an obligation falls upon our shoulders not to give in to the missed opportunities of our governments, nor is it for us to play the blame game. Rather, it falls on us to speak and remind everyone of the objective truth. In the words of our Patriarch Fouad Twal: “ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians … must work out their differences in a just and righteous manner, in ways that require painful compromises.” No, we the Christian community of the Holy Land, the people of Calvary, will not allow for our hope to die nor will we allow others to use our voice. We will not stand for a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which seeks to legitimize the infringement of Palestinian rights. We have a unified Christian message which we are able and willing to give to the world. This message can be found in the Kairos Palestine document. We are thinkers, we are theologians, we are philosophers, we are teachers, we are believers in the Bible and in Jesus Christ who “interpreted to the disciples of Emmaus the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk. 24:27) and we are rolling up our sleeves and are making a difference by shedding light in a bleak situation.
The Church in fact has found ways to give people hope and an opportunity for a better future. As an example, the Catholic Church is the largest private educator in the area which we serve, with some 70,000 children in the over 100 schools run by various institutions of the church. We run 14 hospitals in the area with 3 Universities. We serve the poorest of the poor through our orphanages, nursing homes, centers for children with special needs and centers for the pastoral needs of families and young adults. We run youth groups, scouts and we provide a safe place for children to come and play. We are doing our part in providing educational opportunities for our youth who are the future, we believe that if Christian, Muslim and Jewish children play together, they will become friends – then and only then will we have a prospect for lasting peace. Sadly, in the midst of this conflict, few are looking to serve humanity; few are seeing the human faces of children, mothers, fathers and the elderly which are violated by oppression and violence. We see these faces and we realize that we cannot do it alone.
Now, it falls upon you to realize that our governments in Israel and Palestine “are not able to (make the compromises necessary) without external intervention” because:
- There is an asymmetrical power relationship,
- There is a lack of trust in the political alliances existing on both sides,
- The forces of extremism are growing and gaining followers and supporters,
- The recent Arab Spring is a phenomenon which has caused great unrest and instability in the region. It is an instability against which no one is immune (not even Israel), and
- The possibilities for a just resolution are rapidly deteriorating.
Local government and international intervention (including that of the United States) has failed for too long to do what is necessary. It is vital that this administration realizes that time is no longer on our side and that actions to secure peace which is one sided (or in one’s own vested interests) will bring us nowhere. Prolonging the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will serve only the extremists on both sides and will weaken the supporters of peace on both sides. If you intervene you can save the prospect of peace, before it is extinguished by extremism and violence.
In our schools children learn and experience humanity, after all that is what Jesus taught: to love our enemies, to forgive those who do us harm, to be peacemakers, and promote dialogue and foster reconciliation. The Christians in Palestine are small in number, but we are doing our part to work for a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis. Time and time again we have seen the youth who graduate from our schools and universities or those who benefit from the work of our institutions – they leave with a changed mindset. Despite the despair and the violence in society, they still believe in the ability to change the world and so they become leaders for justice, peace and tolerance instead of pupils of death and destruction.
I, like those who are hopeful, truly believe Israelis and Palestinians can live together. Growing up in Jordan we were raised to accept the other, Christian or Muslim, northerner or southerner, we all belonged to one country, with one king who worked for the mutual benefit of all. This belief is not foreign to the Middle East, but in order for it to be a reality, each side must recognize the dignity of the other and be willing to unconditionally accept each other, for the sake of humanity. With great fervor and courage, we must make a renewed and genuine effort to promote peace and extend our hand to all faiths and peoples who share in the pursuit of peace, justice and liberty. This is why I stand before you today. In the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States, you stand tall before your flag and you recite the key to what has made America great: “One Nation under God with Liberty and Justice for all.”
The occupation must end because it is a sin against God Himself. Violence and terrorism must stop. There must be no more settlements built on Palestinian land. Our Christian presence must be supported and nurtured. You must support the efforts of institutions who are working to serve humanity. Use your voice and your influence to bring the prospect of peace back. If you don’t who will? Give us the chance to one day stand with you and say: Two Nations under God with Peace, Liberty and Justice for all!
On behalf of all the Christians in the Holy Land and all of us at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem thank you for your time, generosity and support. In the name of His Beatitude our Patriarch Fouad Twal, I invite you to come to the Holy Land as pilgrims, to be present in our lives and to pray for us and with us, and to support our projects, so that we can arrive together one day to the goal in which we are all interested – Peace. May God bless you all, and bless every step you take to support the dignity of human life in this world. Amen.