Saturday, December 4, 2004
The Christians of Palestine, a living presence
Monday 29 November, 2004
Father Raed Abu Sahlia, 38 years old, is the Catholic Parish Priest of Taybeh, the last Palestinian village that is entirely Christian, numbering Catholics, Orthodox and Melchites among them, situated at the outskirts of Ramallah. Taybeh is the ancient Efraim, the place where Christ went to rest before his Passion (John 11, 54). Father Raed receives us after the mass on sofas carved from the walls in the large salon where every year hundreds of visitors are welcomed. Father Raed has been up until two years ago special Secretary to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Mons. Michel Sabbah. Tireless man of the cloth, he is also journalist, small businessman, social operator and he speaks Italian perfectly. He promotes the inter-religious dialogue and non-violence as the solution to the Israelo-Palestinian conflict. In this encounter, he speaks to us about Christian Arabs, about the Palestinian society and about the future of peace in the Holy Land.
Why hasn't the "Palestinian cause" found a solution after tens of years of military occupation?
"We Palestinians have got to disprove three false myths. A theological one, an ideological one and a historical one. The theological myth consists in the fact that the State of Israel is hiding behind the Bible in order to affirm the right of return for God's Chosen People. But God can not be discriminatory, he does not prefer one people over another. It is a messianic and millenaristic reading of the Bible for the creation of the State of the Chosen People. It is not an accident that groups of intransigent American Christians ("Fundamentalist Christians") unconditionally support the State of Israel, seeing it as the beginning of the Reign of the End of Times, in which the Messiah will return. According to these groups, Christ will destroy the mosques. The presence of Fundamentalist Christians is a danger in this conflict. The Israelis themselves have had to "contain" them because they wanted to organise a bombing at some mosques."
And the ideological falsehood?
"The ideological falsehood was forges in the Zionist Congress of Basil in 1897, when Theodor Herzl spoke of a "land without people for a people without land". In the beginning, they thought of Argentina, then they came here, thinking that there wasn't anyone. Herzl send a delegation of Rabbis to the Holy Land in order to verify and check out the reality, and when the Rabbis went to the Arab cities, they replied: "the maiden is beautiful, but she has already been promised to another groom". Herzl became furious, and then he went to Pious X, asking that he bless their return in the Holy Land, but the Pope refused, worried as he was about the Palestinian presence. Herzl then directed his attention to the Ottoman Sultan 'Abd el-Hamid II declaring that he was willing to pay, and the Sultan refused him by responding: "The price is very dear, and it will not be paid but by blood". Unfortunately, that was a prophecy. It was the declaration of the British Foreign Minister James Balfour in 1917 who opened the door to the Zionist project, but "without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities resident in Palestin". This clause was not respected.
In 1948 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed, it was a true operation of ethnic cleansing. 800,000 refugees fled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Today the refugee camps number 66. Israel must recognise its historical and moral responsibilities so that a solution can be found. Israel sustains that the Palestinians left of their own volition. This is patently false. They fled because they were afraid that they would be attacked and killed. The Zionists made some boats available right there in the port of Haifa so that they went into Lebanon. In order to hide the Palestinian villages that were destroyed, they planted forests, or they opened agricultural kibbutzes or settlements. The international campaign, "Plant a Tree in Israel" served in order to hide the villages that they destroyed. Today, to learn where there was once a Palestinian village, one needs to search the cactus plants, with which the Arabs loved to surround their own inhabited areas."
The price was very high….
"Yes, and we are paying the price for that for which we have no responsibility over. This is the false historical myth. Jews and Palestinian lived together, until the 40s we shared a common Arab-Jew currency, the Ghinea. The Palestinian question is a European problem, it is a consequence of the Jewish question, of the anti-Semitism of the British Mandate. We have the right to ask for compensation from Europe, and in particular from Great Britain, for the suffering that we have had to undergo. Europe has the historical responsibility and it must assume a decisive role in the solution to the question.
Sooner or later Israel will collapse in on itself. To save it, the truth will have to re-emerge. To save Israel, peace needs to be made. Ghandi said: "If you love someone, don't encircle him with enemies". Israel will continue to survive by oppressing us until the the United States keeps supporting it and the Arab States sleep…. But this situation will not last long. I love Israel, and for this reason, I am ready for peace."
What is the role of the Vatican in this question?
"The Vatican has a strong role to play, and it is very diplomatic. Until now, it has not used all of its potential weight. A clera and strong initiative of the Vatican would be very useful in this moment. The relations with Israel are not serene. In 1994 an accord was signed between the Vatican and Israel in order to commence full diplomatic relations and to regularise the system of visas. But Israel did not do much of anything to render the relationship more relaxed, and it continues to attack the local churches, accusing them of allineating themselves with the Palestinians "against" the State of Israel."
What solution do you foresee?
"The ideal solution would be one State for both populations, that could call itself Canaan, but I am aware that the road is still very long. God wanted all of us here, in order to learn how to live together, because there simply is no other solution. We will live together, or we will remain in conflict for eternity. And Jerusalem should become the international spiritual capital, so that it respects the mystery of the encounter between earth and sky. One city, two peoples, three religions. Maybe we will get there through the "two peoples, two States", that could then change in the future into a confederation between Jordan, Palestine and Israel."
Do you think that the adhesion of Israel into the European Union could facilitate a solution to the conflict?
"I think that Israel should rather ask to be admitted to the Arab League, in this way it would obtain the recognition of the entire Arab world, and it would become the economic motor of the entire region."
Is the heart of the human conflict in Jerusalem?
"Jerusalem is the gateway to peace and the gateway to war, not only for this region, but for the entire world. The conflict between 6 million Israelis and 6 million Palestinians is disturbing the stability of the whole world. We are losing time by going in Afghanistan or Iraq. There will be peace in the world only when the Palestinian question has been resolved. Recently I have been in France, upon invitation of some French Rabbis, and I told them: "If you want to live in peace in France, you have to help us make peace in Israel" In the Holy Land one finds the heart of the conflicts of the entire world, bringing about peace and a just peace here will be a sign of maturity and an extraordinary factor of stability for the entire world."