Working Reconciliation in Jesus' Land

Maronite Bishop Speaks of Being an Arab Christian in the Universal Church

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ROME, DEC. 23, 2011 ( The Eastern-rite Maronite Church, which traces its founding to St. John Maroun, is the only Eastern Catholic Church that never separated from Rome. Instead of Latin, the language of the liturgy is Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic. 

The Maronite Church is one of the smaller Catholic communities numbering only 12,000 in a region where the Christian population numbers barely 50,000. The community is decimated by emigration, especially in the West Bank

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with one of the leaders of this Church, Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah of Haifa and the Holy Land

Q: Your Excellency, following the introduction of Christianity there were a number of painful schisms, but the Maronite Church never separated from Rome. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of the Maronite Church?

Archbishop Sayah: The term Maronite comes from the name of the founder, St. Maroun who died in 410. This year we are celebrating 1,600 years of the life of our Church. The Church started in Antioch and quickly, after the Muslim conquest, moved to the mountains of Lebanon and gradually it spread all over. We have 43 bishops now all over the world, but Lebanon is still the main headquarters, if you like. 

Q: Your community is geographically quite widespread, numbering about 12,000 in the Holy Land, about 800,000 in Lebanon and somewhere between 7 million and 10 million — it’s not quite clear — around the world. How do you minister to such a dispersed community and how do understand your role as a shepherd? 

Archbishop Sayah: Well, my own community is widespread. I cover Israel, Jordan, Jerusalem and Palestine in two different capacities. How do we try to minister? You have to be present. Ministering to the people means being as close as possible to the people and traditionally we have three basic responsibilities: we try to offer our people the message, we try to offer our people the sacraments and all the services they need and we try, as much as possible, to be at the service of our people at every angle, from every point of view, socially, psychologically and every way. 

Q: Arab Christians find themselves between two realities: one is the extremist Muslim and the other is the extremist Zionist. Is this a curse or a blessing that the Arab Christians find themselves between these two sides? 

Archbishop Sayah: Thank God, they are not all extremists; there are a lot of very good Jews and Muslims as well, but it is a reality actually. For the Christians in the Holy Land, whether we like it or not the bottom line is this: For Jews we are Arabs and maybe potential terrorists, for Muslims we are Christians, which means we are infidels. Fine, this is the way things are. This is the way things have been. This is the way they will be, but is this a blessing or a curse? I do not really know. As far as we are concerned, we are here. We are here to stay. We have been in the Holy Land since 600 years before Islam came and we know that our life is not easy, but so what? The cross is the cross and we have it, but there is Resurrection and this is our life and our mission and we will keep at it. 

Q: What would you say is the unique role that the Arab Christians play in this dynamic? 

Archbishop Sayah: I think we are in a position to mediate. We are in a position to witness. You have to remember that we have been commissioned to do the work of reconciliation. I think this is a very important dimension in Christian life, in addition to the work Christians have done in the field of education, medicine, social work and so forth. From that point of view we are offering a great deal of services that go well beyond our proportion of 1% to 2% [of the population], but we would like to be agents of reconciliation, of dialogue and also to project to Muslims the real Christian life. 

Q: Would you say that the tension between Palestinian and Israeli is a religious or a racial problem? 

Archbishop Sayah: I do not think it is religious at all. It has a religious dimension in the sense that you have extremists in the Jewish and the Muslim societies and extremists have a problem with everybody, but I think, basically it is a political problem. This is a problem of two peoples trying to share land and there is greed for the land and power. 

Q: But there is a theocratic desire to claim the Promised Land? How do you deal with the problem of land? 

Archbishop Sayah: Yes, we are dealing with two theocracies: Islam is a theocracy and Judaism is a theocracy, but remember that Israeli society is secular. You have many, many Israelis for whom religion doesn’t mean a great deal, but you have also extremist religious (Jews) whose numbers are on the increase. 

Q: There is a now a law for an oath of loyalty to Israel? 

Archbishop Sayah: Yes it requires every Israeli citizen to pledge allegiance to Israel as a democratic as well as Jewish state. If you can reconcile both, you are OK. The 20% who are Arabs, obviously, do not want to hear this. The other problem for Israel as a country, for the Jews, is the Palestinian refugees. There are 3 million to 4 million refugees in the world and under international law they should be able to return. How many of them will return to Israel? I have big doubts, but this is another big issue as many countries like Lebanon and Jordan, who have hundreds of thousands of refugees, would like the Palestinians to go back to their land. If you declare Israel as a country for the Jews, you are telling them that whoever is not a Jew is not welcome. 

Q: I want to come back to the question of the initiatives that the Catholic Church is doing with regard to reconciliation. You started a project called Encounter where you invite Christian, Jewish, and Muslim young people to dialogue. What inspired you to do this and what fruit do you see as a consequence of this endeavor? 

Archbishop Sayah: I feel that reconciliation, dialogue, and bringing people together are an integral part of my ministry. I believe a lot in young people. I’m an educator by training and I think young people can make a difference. They are ready to change. They have fewer prejudices. They are more flexible. We started with four Christians, four Muslims, and four Jews from the Jerusalem area. We had a corresponding group in London, in the Chelmsford Diocese, which is an Anglican diocese and it was an exchange program. The main objective obviously was to expose the young people to each other, to train them, to discuss the actual problems that society is facing. Suppose there is a row between Palestinians and the Jews. We take what the newspapers say: «Folks come, let’s see, how we deal with this problem?»

Q: How did they respond?

Archbishop Sayah: An immense change was created within the young people. We had an ongoing evaluation, listening to them, asking them to write how they felt and how this affected them. We had a young Jew who initially said: «All Palestinians are terrorists.» But when he sat with young Palestinians, he thought: «Gosh, we can live together. We can work together. We can do a lot of things together.» This was the same thing from the other side. So, from that point of view you can see how important it is to allow young people to come together. When I started, some parents had misgivings. I said: «Look, I am the bishop.» I did use the weight of my office and two years later the parents came to me and said: «Why don’t you do something for us, now that our children are doing so well?»

Q: Is the separation of religion and state a possible answer for those Arab Christians living under a theocratic state? 

Archbishop Sayah: If we want to live in peace, we have to learn to respect each other. You can’t impose a way of life or a conception of a state in which religion dictates. We are not saying a secular state shouldn’t have religion in it, but religion has its place;
everything else has its place. In Islam and Judaism, politics is not separated. Yes, we would like to see less emphasis on religion and politics being one and have these societies live and respect all religions. 

Q: Is this a big responsibility placed upon the Christians in the Middle East? 

Archbishop Sayah: This is not just for the Christians in the Middle East. This is a very important dimension of the universal Church. The message is: The universal Church is telling the Church of the Middle East, you are not alone. We are one Church. The universal Church is with you and you are part of the universal Church. We support you. You have a mission. You have something to offer us as a worldwide Church, but we are also there to help you. Don’t feel you are alone. This is a very important message. We feel it’s a great privilege to be in the Holy Land. It is a privilege for me to be a bishop serving my community and the worldwide Church. When I receive pilgrims, I am doing my ministry. I may happen to be in the Holy Land as a bishop and this is a great privilege, but at the same time, I am not there for myself only, I am there for the Church at large. The Holy Land is where it all started and it belongs to everybody. It does not belong to us as local Christians. We are the custodians. We are there to keep this and keep the Christian life going and alive for the whole world to come and to make that special experience of really walking on the stones of Jerusalem, and walking in Galilee up and down the hills where Christ himself walked. 

Q: What can the universal Church do? 

Archbishop Sayah: Firstly, come to the Holy Land. I think by coming you are helping us a great deal and helping us financially and we feel that we are of service to you. Secondly, talk about the situation in the Middle East. The locals did not create the situation in Palestine. The international community created this. The international community should really put its act together and do something about it. The locals will never be able to solve this problem. Thank God, there are initiatives and now in particular the USA seems to be serious about it and Europe has always tried. Thirdly, keep on helping us as you help us with our projects. I would not have dreamed of building a pastoral center, which cost hundreds of thousands of euros, if I were to rely on my own people. So, I think basically, this is how I see the role of the universal Church as there to help us to keep the place, not just for us, but for the universal Church.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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