Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
The article of Danny Rubenstein, published in HaAretz newspaper on Friday, 15.9, under the title of "Who will defend the Christians?" reminds me of another, written by Dr. Fuad Haddad, entitled "The Arab Palestinian Christians" in which the author is startled at the disregard of the Western media concerning the existence of Christians in Palestine. He points out that "Christianity now in Palestine is threatened with extinction just like the bears in China or the tigers in Asia."
Returning to the report of the United States about religious freedom in the territories of the Palestinian Authority and the denial by the Human Rights Organisation of the allegations concerning the Palestinian Authority’s persecution of Christians. Everybody seems worried about us, but what is our own opinion? I see that it is essential to clarify the following matters, avoiding ambiguity, and insisting on the Arab identity of the Palestinian Christians and the fact that they have no need for anyone’s protection because they are an inseparable part of the tissue of the Palestinian homeland.
1. The historical roots of Christianity in Palestinian geography
No one can deny the Christian presence in Palestine, Christianity began with Christ (Peace be upon him), a son of our country, who commanded his disciples, saying: "Go out and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19) "and be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and all of Judea and Samaria, until the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). From that time onwards until today, there has been no break in the Christian presence in the Holy Land, passing through the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Islamic, Crusader, Mameluk and Ottoman rule, through the British Mandate, Jordanian rule and the Israeli occupation, and up until the present Palestinian Authority.
The most important witness to this is the hundreds of Christian holy places and the near 250 thousand Christians in the different churches with their patriarchs, bishops, clergy, monks and their nuns.
How, then, can the Europeans be surprised at the existence of Christians in the Holy Land? Or do they think that the churches are only built of stone and that there are no people in them?
The reason is a simple one: It is both their ignorance as such as the weakness of our own information effort. How can a few Zionist and uninvited American Christians come here in order to preach Christianity in the "Cradle of Christianity" and allege that the Palestinian Authority persecutes Christians? They are like "those selling water in the quarter of the water carriers" or, as the Jerusalem proverb would have it, "like those selling celery to the people of Silwan". This underlines their debased political aims, for they are American Christian Zionists, hiding behind the Bible and trading in American dollars in order to sow discord in the community, doubt in the faith, disintegration of the church and the dispersion of the Christians.
Thus we warn people against those visitors because they are not from among us, "for whoever does not gather together, divides", as Christ said.
Here I would like to assure Dr. Fuad Haddad and also Mr. Danny Rubenstein, that we are not disappearing and we are not becoming extinct like the bears. Rather we are staying here according to the promise of the Master, "Behold, I am with you until the end of time" and likewise, "Do not fear, oh you little flock". Our vocation is to be "like salt in the food" and "like yeast in the dough". The fact that we are small in numbers does not create within us a "minority complex" or a "persecution complex" but rather encourages us to stay and to witness to the Lord Christ in his land. This is our call and this is our mission.
2. The incarnation of the Local Church in the Arab tent and Palestinian identity
These Christians are Arabs and Palestinians at the same time. The Acts of the Apostles reminds us of the presence of Arabs among those in Jerusalem on the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost, at the beginning of the Church, when the apostles began preaching Christianity (Acts 2:11). When a foreigner asks me about my origins, I respond: "I am a successor of the apostles and have been present here for the past two thousand years". The Arab identity of the Christians was reinforced by the Islamic conquest. Christians participated fully in Islamic civilisation, in all the sciences as well as in theology. There are more than a million Christian Arab manuscripts preserved in museums all over the world, a rich treasure which has been classified by one of the German orientalists, George Graf, in a dictionary composed of six volumes and entitled "A Bibliography of the Ancient Christian Arab Heritage". Consequently we reject the common saying "Arabic cannot become Christian", rather we insist upon our Arabism and we say: "Arabic can become Christian" because not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs; there are about twenty million Christian Arabs and about seven hundred million Muslims who are not Arabs. In any case, in this homeland, we are Christian and Muslim Arabs and Palestinians, children of one people. This is the firm national and historical principle upon which we focus together.
These Christians are, likewise, Palestinians, an identity handed on from father to son. They are an indivisible part of this homeland, "citizens and believers" as is repeatedly upheld by the Patriarch Michel Sabbah. This means that they have the same rights and the same obligations, based on the principle: "Religion is unto God and the homeland is unto all".
Indeed, they have proven their worthiness; they participated in the revolution, in the uprising and in the peace process. They participate in cultural and political life side by side with their Muslim brothers. From among them, there are those who led different Palestinian factions like George Habbash and Nayef Hawatmeh; there are those who were martyrs like Na’im Khadr and Hanna Mukbil; there are those who are diplomats like Afif Safieh; and there are those who are ministers and members of the Legislative Council like Mitri Abu Aita, Hanan Ashrawi and others. Thus I believe, that whoever plays on this sensitive religious chord in order to sow discord between the children of the one homeland is deluded.
3. The visit of His Holiness the Pope and the Christian presence in the Holy Land
If one cannot but deduce the lessons and clarify the benefits and fruits of the visit of His Holiness the Pope to our Holy Land last March, I would still like to point here to the primary and direct benefit which interest us here in the first degree: I mean the Christian existence and presence in the Holy Land and around the Holy Places.
We could have expected from His Holiness a letter of hope and encouragement addressed to the small Christian community, but his presence among us was the most distinct letter and the clearest expression to us and to the world. It was made clear to the world that the Holy Places are not just dead historical, archaeological stones which have already, with the years, turned into – as some would have it – cold museums. Rather, the Christian community, "the living stones", encompasses these places, decorates them and revivifies them. This was apparent most clearly in the popular participation of our faithful in the celebrations which the Holy Father headed in Jordan, in Bethlehem and Nazareth, and especially on the Mount of Beatitudes. When we speak of 50 thousand participants at the Amman International Stadium and 50 thousand at the Mount of Beatitudes, these being from among the "local Christians", this means that one quarter of the Christians of the country (out of a total of 200 thousand – 2% of the population in Jordan and in Palestine) gathered together at the same time and in the same place around the pastor. This participation is unparalleled even in the most Catholic countries and even in Rome. It is like saying that 10 million Catholics attended a mass of the Pope in Italy out of a total of 40 million Catholics, by way of comparison.
Here I would like to comment on a dominant mentality, which must be resisted, the tendency to call the Christians in the Orient "a minority" within "a majority" which is non-Christian. I repeat the call for the cancellation of these words from the dictionary of our relations. The insistence here is that we are not a minority at all, for this word carries with it a complex of weakness and persecution, fear, alienation and perplexity. We are not a weak, persecuted, scared, cringing minority; nor are we alien or imported or foreign. Rather we are a small, living Christian community, living "here and now" for thousands of years. We are the successors of the apostles, the heirs of the prophets and the saints. We were here, we are here and we will remain here forever. We have our past, we own our present and we are making our future, for we are an inseparable part of this history and this geography.
I would not be exaggerating if I say, without arrogance and without grandiosity, that we can hold our heads high and witness to our faith with honor and pride and courage. We must proclaim "war against emigration" and send out "a call to return" and let out a shout of "belonging and steadfastness", planting deep our roots in the land of our fathers and forefathers.
After these clarifications, I would like to make reference to that splendid article entitled: "Arabism, the space of my faith", which was written by my colleague, considered one of the most important local theologians, Father Rafiq Khoury, in his book: "Identity Cards of a Son of the Country". He considers "Arabism an inseparable part of the Holy Land Christian identity in Palestine and in the Arab world. It is even a part of the Christian Credo. I consider this "identity card" a piece of art and a summing up of our Christian position concerning this issue. As Christ the Lord says: "Let the one who has ears hear" and understand:
"I believe in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and … and … until the end of the Credo. Amen.
"This is what my brothers say and what I say too, from A to Z.
"What remains is to draw the length and the breadth, the height and the depth.
"I say it without prefaces and without introductions:
"Arabness is the space of my faith, "But you have arrived late, Arabness is an ancient myth," that is what they say.
"Be glad if you wish, but I will not rejoice with you:
"Arabness is the space of my faith.
"Brothers from the north say: He is not one of us; brothers from the east say: May God convert him; brothers from the south say: We do not understand; but I insist and say:
"Arabness is the space of my faith.
"My faith needs Arabness for it is its human depth.
"Arabness has need of my faith in order for it to be Arabness.
"Debate, clarifications, justifications, history, geography, nobility of blood, intelligence, the Bible, tradition, … all this is there, but what else, what else.
"Arabness is the space of my faith.
"When its winds blew in the desert, I said to them "Yes".
"I opened to them my lungs and all the pores of my body
" The birth was slow, no surprise.
"The birth was difficult, no surprise.
"But the birth was natural in any case.
"Arabness is the space of my faith and the depth of my mission and the document of my accreditation.
Thus ends the words of the "identity card" but I would add to them:
Palestine is the space of my faith.