Rev. Fr. Imad Twal
Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
27th May 2014
I am glad and grateful to be given this opportunity to participate in the 56th council meeting of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in this glorious city of Rome.
My name is Fr. Imad Twal and I represent the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. I bring greetings from Patriarch Fuad Twal and also from Bishop Maroun Lahham of the Latin Vicariate of Jordan, where I serve.
I am pleased to report to you the fruitful upwelling of grace and the Spirit surrounding the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Holy Land on May 24-25 when he went to the country of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Jerusalem. He strengthened the Arab Christian population in faith and hope as we enjoyed his presence in our homeland. We sensed the power of his message of Peace and Reconciliation.
The subject of my presentation today is surely an oxymoron. How can there be paths of peace and reconciliation in an area so devastated by warfare and oppression as the Middle East? We need only to mention a few phrases to bring to mind the chaotic situation there: Arab Spring, Syrian warfare, plight of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, revolt, bombings, radicals and reactionaries.
Nevertheless, I bring you a message of hope that there can be paths of Peace and Reconciliation in the Middle East. But these paths must be walked on ground that represents justice, security, stability and rights. True Peace goes hand in hand with Justice. The Lord says (in Isaiah 32: 17): “Justice will bring about peace (literally: “The fruit of justice will be peace”), right will produce calm and security”. Thus, as a general rule, “security” is impossible without justice. The first step in that path should be the recognition of a homeland for the Palestinians in their own country not in a “substitute homeland”. This will boost the process of peace and reconciliation for all peoples in the Middle East. "The fruit of anxious daily care for Justice" (Pope Paul VI).
When I speak of all peoples in the Middle East, I speak of a human mosaic (as a Madaba boy I am familiar with mosaics!). I pause for a moment to talk about mosaics because that is an art-form that has been an important expression of creativity and religious purpose in Jordan since before the time of Christ and, today, represents some of the best examples of early Christian art to be found anywhere in the world. Just as a mosaic is made from tiny pieces of different colored stone, the Middle East has many nationalities, religions, ethnicities, heritages, and political views. Just like the theme and color scheme of mosaic art tie the entire work together, our belief in one God, our prophetic heritage, our Semitic languages, and our respect for families, all unite the disparate groups of
Middle East people. We have a unity in diversity. We all enjoy the knowledge, awareness, pride and, last but not least, responsibility of being the cradle of civilization.
Part of that responsibility is to break down barriers and build bridges. Perhaps no group is as important in that process as are Arab Christians. We are people who share culture and language with Muslim Arabs, and also thirty nine holy Books of the Old Testament which we share with Jews, as well as an experience of persecution and oppression. Arab Christians can be and are bridges that open the pathways of peace and hope in the Middle East. “As Arab Christians in the Holy Land, we are called to witness to Jesus in His Land, in our Arab Muslim society as well as in Israeli Jewish society. In order to do that, we must dialogue with both Muslims and Jews.” (Sabbah, 2006)
Arab Christians in Jordan have already built significant bridges among their own Christian communities. Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and other groups freely cooperate for the good of the country. A few examples will be instructive:
- Relief efforts for refugees are shared, with direction and participation passing freely between the religious organizations.
- Dates for religious holidays in Jordan have been mutually agreed upon for the last four decades at least, so that the Christians can blend and jointly celebrate the important events of the liturgical year.
- Inter-faith councils speak with the government as a group. Holy sites, like Bethany Beyond the Jordan where the baptism of Christ occurred, are shared by all with respect and accommodation.
- Training and treatment days for people with disabilities are jointly sponsored and organized, for instance in Our Lady of Peace Centre where I work, near Amman.
- Days of Harmony in which the Muslim population is actively engaged are jointly held with multiple Christians and leading Muslim groups all participating and benefiting.
These Christian groups believe in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and believe that their actions should follow Him by working together to "go about doing good". Of particular concern are the refugees in the Middle East. The following concepts are worth our consideration:
- Immigrants move from their home country under immediate pressure and become refugees for several reasons and, therefore, we must be aware of these reasons so that we can be sensitive to the special needs that each person might have. Some of these reasons include the following: safety and flight from a war or other chaotic situation (examples: Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees), need for better jobs (example: Egyptian and Palestinian immigrants to Jordan), political differences with the government (examples: Libyan refugees).
- Needs that all immigrants (whether refugees or not) are likely to have include the following: separation from friends or family, change in occupation, health problems associated with moving into a new culture, schooling needs for their children, changes in climate, language, legal status. Families are often uprooted and sometimes broken apart, thus causing immediate anxiety and distress.
- The Catholic Church has a unique endeavor which gives the opportunity to assist immigrants and refugees. For instance, some of the ways that the Church in Jordan has been helping include: providing the stability of a religious tradition that is similar worldwide and, therefore, gives immigrants a feeling of belonging, providing comfortable emergency housing so that people do not have to live in tents, providing food, clothing and other basic supplies and some financial assistance, providing legal services to help with rent contracts and government status, providing job-seeking assistance, providing medical help, and providing counseling.
- The Church provides hope and encourages faith through the grace of Jesus Christ, thus renewing the spirits of the refugees.
You may have been unaware of the role or even the existence of Christian Arabs. They are truly, in all humility, through God’s grace, a "Hidden Treasure". Perhaps you even think that the term "Christian Arab" is an oxymoron, imagining erroneously that "Christian" and "Arab" are mutually exclusive. Conversations with many colleagues from Western countries indicate that these difficulties arise from an ambiguous understanding of what it means to be Christian or Arab. They often ask, "Is there any relationship or connection between the two?" Other questions include: "What are the origins of Arab Christianity?" or "Are Arab Christians historically Christians or are they converted to Christianity after a long period of living in other faiths such as Islam?"
The answer is found in Acts of the Apostles 2:11 which mentions Arabs as being present at the birth of the Church in Jerusalem, "…both Jews and Proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…" Here we discover Arabs present at the event of the Pentecost.
What, then, does it mean to be an Arab and an Arab Christian? The term Arab does not exclusively apply to Muslims but includes the Christian population as well. Additionally, not all Arabs are Muslims nor are all Muslims Arabs. According to last statistics, less than 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs. These facts are well recognized by the leaders of Islam in Jordan. "Arab Christians have made huge contributions to Arab culture... Arab Christians are credited for preserving the Arabic language and identity, as Christianity was an important religion in the Arab world since the time before Islam" (Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, 2011).
Challenges facing the establishment of stronger Paths to Peace and Reconciliation in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, are political, religious and educational.
1-Political: No peace and reconciliation can be achieved without justice and land for the Palestinians in their historic homeland and not elsewhere. They must have the basic prerogatives of citizenship (equality and human rights and equal respect) and, of course, the duties that accompany those rights. They are entitled to the recognition of their importance, as individuals and as a group, in the sight of God and of other humans. This is necessary to promote reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and sincere dialogue. The Arab Spring, a movement still unresolved, opened dialogues between governments and their peoples on issues of rights, freedom, and ways of life, economics, and constitutional guarantees.
1. Religious or theological: our experience of several centuries and our knowledge of “theocentric” mentalities lead us to say that the biggest and toughest obstacles against peace and reconciliation are theocratic ideas where a nation claims domination, and sovereignty over a territory in the name of God. Thus, the theocratic Jewish idea of “the promised land” (exclusively for Jews), and that of ‘The Chosen People”, of course exclusive of others, do not leave any room for concessions or reconciliation. On the other hand, one senses similar theocratic ideas in the Islamicist organizations, claiming that Palestine – and the whole Middle East- are simply “waqf islamyy”, وقف إسلاميّ “An Islamic religious sanctuary and heritage”. Such theocratic views and positions are shared, more or less violently, by “evangelical” Christian groups, due to the “Neo Cons” – conservative movements. Arab Catholic and Orthodox Christians reject those ideas of “promised land” and “chosen people” (in the singular), according to Christ’s words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not part of this world” (John 18:36). Consequently, alongside secular Jews and moderate Muslims, starting with our beloved King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, Arab Catholic and Orthodox Christians and main line Protestants have been and can continue to be wonderful bridges and elements of moderation and compromise against the hard line of religious extremism and theocracy. In this respect, the masterly Pastoral Letter of former Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah “Reading the Bible in the land of the Bible” is most instructive and useful.
As for religious liberty and freedom of cult: The guarantee of a person's ability to worship freely must be recognized and honoured even in the face of religious fanaticism and judgmentalism in the name of God that is present among many in the Region. Addressing His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, our Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Msgr. Fuad Twal, thanked the Sovereign for his tolerance and open-mindedness “while religious and extremist religious violence are devastating this part of the Middle East”
There must be a spirit of toleration even if non-acceptance. In this regard the Christian community in Jordan is an example that can be followed by other religions and regions in the area. The pressures of discrimination,even some religious killings, are felt by Christians in many countries and account for the alarming emigration of Christians from the Middle East. These pressures and problems are especially prevalent when the government officially adopts a religion. Individual freedom of religion requires a separation of religion and state. Vatican II spoke of "Mutual independence and good collaboration." (cf. GS 76)
2. Educational: The path to reconciliation is lit by the lights of education. That education has to be based on correct relationships and mutual understanding. Peace is a God-given gift, often derived from education where true principles of justice are taught. We can educate people to embrace justice. This is the central feature of peace. Without justice there will be no peace. Progress will come with people and with the values they live by. It won't come with structures or military pressure. Therefore, we, in the Latin Vicariate of Jordan, have chosen to focus on an area where our contribution can be felt by the needy and will be an example for others. Our mission in Jordan is to work with people with disabilities regardless of their religious or social background. We do this in cooperation with NGOs who share our vision, like Caritas, and believe that the hard work of awareness and support for the refugees from Iraq and Syria can build bridges of hope and reconciliation throughout the Middle East.
- The Holy Father should invite all religious leaders in the Middle East (Shiites, Sunnites, Wahhabis, Druze, Jews, different Christian Communities and so on ) to a Conference/Gathering on Peace and Justice, Reconciliation and Solidarity in a place which is open to all (Perhaps Assisi but also Athens, Amman ... are possible locations).
- To give more support to youth encounters of young people (Youth organizations like the scouts, schools, universities, festivals on arts and cultural activities by and for young people) from different religious backgrounds
- To make the life of young people and families in the Catholic and Christian community safer and more attractive so that they stay in their countries or return from emigration. This will need financial
And material support, as well as good programs aimed at young people.
The Church, following the example of Christ and quoting His words, calls us all to be peacemakers, building a culture of Peace and Reconciliation based on Justice, which is the Central to the message of the Gospel. "Blessed are the Peacemakers, they shall be recognized as children of God" (Mt 5: 9).