I am a Christian Arab-American

Honored guests -¦ Esteemed Members of the Panel -¦ Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like to start with a brief story, about the time when I was a young manager working for the U.S. oil industry in Saudi Arabia. My employer, Aramco, sent me to take an advanced management-training course at the University of Pittsburgh. I probably learned a lot from that class, but what I remember the most is the young professor who showed up one morning to teach us one of the subjects. As he came in, he went straight to the board without any introduction and proceeded to draw a large square. Then he cut it up several times vertically and horizontally, turned to the class and asked, as if challenging us, “How many squares do you see?” Out of the twenty young managers in the class he got around a dozen different answers. Then, without any further comment he proceeded to erase the board and start the lecture; but we stopped him with the question “What is the right answer?” He turned to us and said: “You all had the right answer. I asked how many squares do you see, not how many are there. You see what you see, regardless what may be there. That is your perception; your challenge is that others may always see a different number of squares; you have to find a way to let them see what you see.”

This evening, it is likely that you have come into this Forum seeing a different number of squares. I hope that by the end of this Forum we will have reduced the differences in the number of squares that you see and brought your perception of this evening’s issues a little closer to my perception. The challenge is for all of us to work together so that eventually we all see the same number of squares.

As you heard in the introduction, I am a Christian Arab-American -” I am Christian and I am Palestinian.

What does it mean to be a Christian Arab?

In the Arab world, A Christian more likely belongs to the Eastern Church. The Byzantine Empire under which the Easter Church thrived was referred to by the Arabs as the RUM Empire. So we came to be known and proudly call ourselves as RUM Orthodox. But there are many among us who are Catholics and Protestants, and Melkites who are Rum Catholics.

It is likely that my ancestors were converts to Christianity during the first century. Actually, they may have even converted to Christianity from Judaism.

In the Arab Middle East, a Christian has an Arab culture and lives in a tradition of Islam. An Arab Christian understands Islam, respects Moslems and respects Islamic traditions. In that part of the world, a Christian understands that at a time when the world was less civilized, his Christian ancestors could have been forced to abandon their religion and become Moslems, but Islam gave them a choice and a banner of protection with inscriptions engraved in stone with the Arabic Islamic saying ‘La Ikraha Fiddeen’: Religion must not be forced upon anyone. So unlike what most Christians in the West believe, Christian Arabs, or Arab Christians if you prefer, are not new converts to Christianity; our beliefs survived the Islamic conquests by the grace of God and because of the tolerance of Islam.

I was born in Jafa, present-day-Israel, a city which figured prominently in the history of Palestine. I left Jafa when I was seven years old as a refugee. My family settled in Ramallah on the West Bank. Later in my life, after I came here – went to school, worked and became a US citizen – I went back to work for the US Oil Industry in the Middle East and lived there for 22 years.

Although my family and I never felt threatened while living and working as Christians amidst Moslems in the Middle East, I did on occasion run into Moslem zealots who did promote division and prejudice against others. This kind of Moslem, with his ignorance, did not discriminate in his prejudice against Christians or Jews, or even other Moslems who practiced tolerance and understanding in general. He is from the same mindset as those who exist in every religious and ethnic group; they hate and justify their hate through religious manipulations.

Among us Christians we too have people who fill both ends of the spectrum. We have those who are appreciative of other religions and promote harmony and understanding; those are the Christians who turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and forgive their brother as many times as seven-times-seven.

Especially in this free country we have those Christians who educate the American public about the need for peace and harmony in the Holy Land. They have coalitions of churches who “seek to help members of [their] organizations advocate in a knowledgeable, timely and effective way their concerns about justice and peace for all people and countries in the [Middle Eastern] region” (Quoted from the web site of CMEP – Churches for Middle East Peace). They respect other religions and their beliefs and do not comment on such beliefs; they mind their own.

However, there are many Christians who are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of them are politically motivated and use their Christian beliefs toward that end. They spew poisonous criticism of religious principles and promote fear from other religions. While their leaders may seem to have singled out Islam to bash, and Israel to befriend, I say “with friends like those beware of your potential enemies.” History tells us that hatred of any kind, if allowed to flourish, can not be contained and ultimately spills over to all areas no matter how unintended. History has taught us that lesson in Anatolia under the Ottoman Empire, and in Europe, and continues to teach us the lesson every now and then.

My first encounter with Judaism was through the Bible as the foundation on which Christianity and later Islam were established. I regret I was too young when I left Jafa to remember much, but my father always told me pleasant stories about a different time, a time when he lived in harmony with his Jewish and Moslem friends as brothers in Palestine before the conflict. Now, that seems so long ago. Today, peace and harmony seem to be such elusive goals.

But since those days I have come across many Jews and Jewish religious and secular organizations that have been active in promoting peace and Justice for all peoples of the Middle East. For them, I have the deepest love and respect. I can never be able to name all of them that I love; but I can not resist the temptation of mentioning a few; among them: Rabi Michael Lerner and his Tikkun Community, the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Jews for Justice in the Middle East, Jews for Justice in Palestine, and all the Israeli peace organizations.

But like their Christian and Moslem brothers, Jews are not immune from having those elements among them who manipulate religion and promote hate and violence so they may gain at the expense of their larger community or other communities.

So — recognizing that none of us are perfect what are we to do if we are to live in peace and harmony?

If we are to co-exist, we must all respect the beliefs of others. We must try to understand the other beliefs so we don’t fear and so we don’t hate. Ignorance breeds fear; fear breeds prejudice and hatred, and hatred promotes violence. Each of us must see the others also as the children of God, and be tolerant when we don’t share their beliefs. No one faith has a monopoly on the prescription to our salvation.

If we are to co-exist, we must have respect for the human dignity of all sides. We, all of us, must denounce policies and practices that demean or diminish people, immediately and without hesitation. I must emphasize that this is something one does not negotiate -” we cannot justify evil under any circumstances. I am reminded of the saying: Evil will flourish if good men do not speak out. We must have the courage to speak against evil especially when it is practiced by our own people, the side to which we belong. This means speaking out against targeted assassinations and suicide bombings among other forms of violence, and against intentionally imposed economic hardships and other practices which make everyday life for any people difficult, even unbearable. We should remember that despair in itself also breeds hatred and violence.

If we are to co-exist, we must all have the same rights. We can not claim that some of us are chosen above the others and therefore deserve more. We are all the children of Abraham; we believe in the same God and we are all chosen just as well. But even those who are not the Children of Abraham are not lesser beings. Our teachings and practices must be tolerant and inclusive; they must not be exclusive.

How would this translate into the practicality of living together in the Middle East, among Israeli Jews, Palestinian Christians and Moslems, and other Arab Christians and Moslems? I believe it translates as follows:

(1). End the Israeli Occupation: The land of Canaan does not belong to any of us; we belong to the land of Canaan. We must share. We can negotiate and we can haggle, but we must not be violent. Violence in any form, from any side and for any reason must be condemned whether organized, targeted or indiscriminate.

(2). Recognize The Right of Return: If a Jew has the sacred Right of Return, then a Palestinian must have that same sacred right whether Christian or Moslem, or anything else. Practical concerns about this issue are numerous, but they are manageable if all sides work together to find a reasonable solution for the good of everyone.

(3). Advocate Equal Rights: If anyone, Israeli, Palestinian or other Arab, is entitled to live in freedom, with justice and in a democracy, that entitlement should never be exclusive to one over the others. This means that all sides must be entitled to the same water ration, the same use of roads, the same freedom of movement, and the same right to build a home and live in peace.

Once occupation ends, and these principles are implemented, relations should be normalized among all countries of the Middle East, diplomatically, economically and in every other way.

In the meantime, it is not enough for us present here to advocate these principles silently. We cannot remain on the sidelines. We must all be on the side of peace and justice, and must speak out clearly.

As a Christian Palestinian, this is what I believe co-existence means. This is what I believe it translates to in practical terms.

I challenge our community and this esteemed Panel to continue to work together and adopt a declaration that outlines these principles and calls for peace and justice for all faiths and all peoples of the Middle East. Many communities have done that and I believe it is good for the soul of our community.

I leave you with this, a different number of squares than you may be accustomed to seeing. I hope we can work together so we can narrow the difference in the number of squares that we all see.


* This speech was given by the author during an Interfaith Forum on “The Opportunities for Peaceful Co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews” in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 15, 2005. The Forum was sponsored and organized by the Arab American Heritage Club of Southern Nevada and was hosted by the Islamic Society of Nevada. Other Panelists included Ms. Deanna Arnbruster, Executive Director of the American Friends of Neve Shalom -” Wahat Al Salam (Sherman Oaks -” CA), Dr. Aslam Abdullah, Director of the Islamic Society of Nevada (Las Vegas – NV), and Rabbi Richard Schachet, Valley Outreach Synagogue (Henderson – NV). The Moderator of the panel was Dr. Souheil Elia, Chairman of the Arab American Heritage Club of Southern Nevada.