BISHOP CHANG: The reality of violence and uncertainty is made very real for us at this moment by the absence of a child from Jerusalem. A child did not accompany Bishop Riah due to risk, danger and uncertainty, a witness to the reality of the world that Bishop Riah exercises his ministry of reconciliation.
Bishop Riah has served as the bishop of Jerusalem since 1996 and has sought to be a bridge, a healer, a reconciler witnessing to the story, the sacred story that brings hope amidst the violence and despair. May we hear Bishop Riah's words with hearts of compassion. May we hear these words prayerfully.
BISHOP RIAH: Let me begin by greeting you with salaam and convey the same greeting of salaam from your sisters and brothers in Christ back home, but throughout the Diocese of Jerusalem that extends beyond the boundaries of that mother city of our faith to include Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, who in their majority are Arab Christians and the majority of the Episcopalians are Arab Palestinian Christians.
I bring you also greetings from my family. Both my wife and myself decided that if we are to travel, one will travel rather than the two of us. And we will not take responsibility for the boy we wanted to bring with us because of the uncertainties of our times back home. I bring you greetings even from my two grandchildren. Swey, my wife, preferred to stay with the grandchildren rather than accompany me on this visit. She loves little Riah and this Riah keeps calling me whenever he gets the chance to get on the phone. And one time he called me and said, "Sido, Grandpa, where are you?" I said, "I'm in Jerusalem." He said, "Why?" And I tell to him in Arabic and said, "Mim allah, because of God." And you know what he told me? "How silly God is." God, to him, is not an abstract person. Ever since he was able to walk, I have tried to take him with me whenever I was in Nazareth or whenever he was in Jerusalem to be a member of the congregation.
The greetings of peace I brought you, as I said, comes from your sisters and brothers who are in their majority Arabs. And I know many people have also some ideas about who we are. And I want to introduce our people, myself, to you, lest you continue to be confused about the Christians, the faithful remnant of the Christian community in the birthplace of our faith.
Christianity among Arabs is not a new phenomenon and we were not imported from another planet. Those of us who became Christians, ethnically speaking of the Arabs, trace our origin to the First Pentecost. If you were to look up the Book of Acts, Chapter 2, Verse 11, you will discover that the tail end of that list of 17 nationalities are the Arabs. And I'm sorry to disappoint the Americans, you were not mentioned! And people continue to ask me when I introduce myself as an Arab Christian, "When were you converted," thinking that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs. And I tell to them and say, "Long before the Prophet Mohammed was, I am."
I kept the faith for 2,000 years from generation to generation and certainly until liberation. As Palestinians also, we've been there long before Joshua came to the land. Perhaps because you don't have what we have by way of a language, the Philistines of the old days are the same stock, the Palestinians. So we were there long before the Israelis and we continued to live with them over the years. There were certainly tribal conflicts, but there were also love affairs between the Palestinians, the Philistines, and the Israelis. You'll have to guess of whom I'm talking -- Samson and Delilah. So history was not always the history of conflict.
What we were doing -- and this might interest some of those of us who've come from a Jewish background, and I know that a number of the Christian faith in these days have converted from Judaism -- what were Arabs doing at that First Pentecost when 3,000 people converted to Christ? What were Arabs doing at a Jewish feast if they were not Jewish by faith? I'm trying to help you understand the background of this ongoing conflict in the Middle East which, God forbid, if it triggers another war, might bring an end to Christian presence in the birthplace of our faith.
Those of us who were living in Jerusalem, ethnically speaking Arab, were Jewish by faith. We came to a Jewish feast. Shavuot in Hebrew, the harvest. We listened to Peter. We believed in Christ and ever since, we became the new Israel. We held our faith. By the sixth century there was real confusion in the church in the Middle East. Need I remind you that the headquarters of Christendom were in the Middle East and not in Rome or in Canterbury? Need I remind you that the first martyrs were Middle Easterners? Need I remind the English people that their patron saint, St. George, did not come from somewhere near Kent or Canterbury? That he's a Palestinian from Libya, the old Libya? Need I remind you that St. Nicholas is not Greek, he's an Arab? Need I remind you that the first Pope, the first official Pope in Rome came from Carthage in Tunis. That St. Augustine came from Africa? That George of Damascus came from Syria? That Paul found refuge in Damascus and reclaimed his sight in a country that has been described lately as "part of the axis of evil?" We kept the faith, irrespective of the suffering, the persecution, and the pain.
The sixth century caused the drifting away of 75 percent of all baptized in the name of Jesus because of two reasons. The first, our theology. What reached Arabia in the sixth century was the triad and not a trinity. They never heard of the Holy Spirit. That's why they thought it was godfather, godmother, godson. When we cross ourselves these days in the Middle East, we do it differently from the way you do it in the West. We say, "In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit," one god, because Islam came with one emphasis which we all believe in. "We believe in one God," we testified in our creed. But to the simple folk of Arabia this was not the case. One plus one plus one, how come equals one. Even a first grader will get a spanking if he says "one.” Today we also, if we want to have our faith bring forth children, we need to reexamine our theology. We need to have sound theology. As far as we are concerned in the Middle East, we are greatly disturbed at the way people continue to interpret, misinterpret, use, misuse and abuse the Bible. (Applause) We are saddened to see how some in the United States and in Europe, the so called "Christian right,” continue to confuse people about the present situation back home, as if we did not inherit the promises, as if the land was not given to Abraham and -- I stand to be challenged -- tell me where in the Bible Abraham is spoken of as a Jew? He's the father of the faithful. Sound theology will guarantee the bringing forth of children in a Middle Eastern situation.
The other reason that caused the drifting away of many Christians is the relationship that was between the so called "Byzantine Western Christian tradition" and the Eastern, basically Arab, Christian tradition. There was a conflict between the two. They didn't recognize them as sisters and brothers in Christ. And this caused many Arab Christians to say good-bye to their faith. As a result, we lost 75 percent of our children. And when people woke up and discovered that they were joining a new religion called Islam, they tried to come back into the church, and the church leadership, the hierarchy, which is often the root cause of much of our pain and suffering in the church at large, said, "You are infidels. You have no right to come back into the church. You are not worthy of the salvation of Christ. You are worthy of the fire of hell." Those of us who remained Christians, 25 percent, we lost the majority. Can you imagine today if the church was the church, if the church in the West behaved in a manner that was Christ-like? Can you imagine Libya being -- Libya is the home country of Simon the Cyrene who carried the cross of Christ. Can you imagine the whole of Egypt being Christian -- Tunis, Algiers, Iraq, Syria, all the Middle Eastern countries? We, because of the failure of the church, we caused as if we have cause Christ to fail and Christ did not fail. The gates of hell will not overcome.
As if we didn't have enough in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, the Crusades came. Recently a group from Europe came and they described themselves as the Reconciliation Walk. They came to apologize for what those who took part in the Crusades, for the harm they've done to us as Middle Easterners. And when they came to Nazareth, I met with them and they came and said, "Sorry for what we have done a thousand years ago." And I said, "I forgive you and our people forgive you for what you have done a thousand years ago." I don't know how we will respond if you start again another crusade. God forbid that there should be a war in Iraq. It will bring an end to Christian presence in the Middle East. They do not view our leaders in the West, without mentioning their names, as simply political leaders. They view them as Christians. When Mr. Tony Blair addresses the nation in '98 or '99 with a Christmas tree behind him. When people see our leaders going on Sundays to churches, they question us whether we are of the same family. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to call upon you to continue to join hands with others to see to it, at least for the sake of Christ, at least for the sake of Christian presence in the birthplace of our faith, in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in Damascus, in Baghdad. What is left of Christian presence? We lost over a million Iraqi Christians since '91, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Catholics. Our church in Baghdad and our church in Musin is without congregations now. We have the buildings. Are you aware that we lost 1.7 million children as a result of leukemia since '91, many of whom were the children of your sisters and brothers in Christ in Iraq? The Crusades caused greater harm to Christ and to the Christian community in Jerusalem than Islam. Thanks to Salah ad-Din, the Moslem leader who preserved a Christian presence in Jerusalem, who welcomed Francis of Assisi. I should also say thank you to Islam for preserving Judaism in Spain. They saved the Jewish community from the Inquisition. This is not told to you. Then came the missionary enterprise with the missionary enterprise rather than making us Christ-like, they made us in the likeness of whoever the missionary was, and recently, with all due respect to the Baptists, the Southern Baptists who came to Nazareth and from where I graduated from their high school, they continue to insist even these days on calling themselves "Southern Baptists in Nazareth" and I keep asking them, "Tell, me Southern what?" They caused us an identity crisis and our people, our children don't know who we are, who we are. Greek Orthodox? We are not Greeks. How can we help our people understand that they are Arab Christians? That we have a mission to the Arab nation of 250 million people? We are Roman Catholics, what comes first is Rome. We are Anglicans, Church of England. That's why we started calling ourselves Episcopalians. And this caused many of our children to leave. They left to the West and they're no more, and they came here in thousands, not to mention the 2,000 who left Bethlehem area over the last two years, 2,000 young people of the church. If this goes on, we're going to end up with a museum of holy stones, no living stones. Will our faith have children? Certainly, if we continue to be there.
There is a proverb, an African proverb, that speaks of our relation to the Earth, "Treat the Earth with goodness, it was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children." And that's how I understand also the church in the Middle East. It was loaned to us by our children. That's why, as Anglicans, as Episcopalians, in spite of what happened between '48 and now, in spite of the fact that we have lost the greatest majority of our members in places like St. Peter's in Jaffa, Tel Aviv area. Out of 800 communicants on Sundays, we are left with six people today. Out of 23 percent of a population of Palestine, what is left of the Arab Palestinian Christians is 1.5 percent. Out of those, out of the seven-eight million people now in Palestine and Israel, about 170,000 Arab Palestinian Christians. Within our community, and I don't want to go at length, but I want to tell you what we are trying to do to preserve this wonderful image of Christ in our people. Regardless whether they be Muslims, whether they be Jews, whether they be Christians, your church, and I invite you to come, have courage to come. This is a time when we want you to be with us. It's different when things are quiet back home. When you come, we don't want you to come and visit the Holy Stones; we want you to be with us, the living stones. And I want to thank you for first keeping us in your prayers certainly. The Diocese of Jerusalem, with 31 parishes and 31 priests -- you will be happy to know that. Out of those priests, six are in their 20s, ordained over the last three-four years, deacons and priests, two of whom, two of whom I knew them when they were five years old. And I used to hold them with the hands and bring them to church. Then when I came from India, coming from the subcontinent of India where thousands of people line up for holy communion, I came and found people were greatly depressed, disappointed, hardly any people in church. The older folks were there, yes, but no young people around. So I visit myself with the young people, among them those two who were ordained priests last year. You know what the people told me? They said they spoke of me as the priest of the small, not the young; of the small. I introduced the youth fellowship and it grew in numbers. Last Christmas we had a little event. Hundred-and-eighty of them, hundred-and -eighty of the young, they filled that church. And if you were with us for Pentecost 2000, you would have been among those who would get tired dancing with young people. Pentecost was not a one-hour service; it was one day, all day in Jerusalem. That's why I cry these days when I see our young people leave us.
We contribute ourselves with 6,000 children in our schools, most of whom are Muslims, but you'll be happy to know that in a number of our schools we stick to the good Anglican tradition of chapel services every morning. At Christ Church School in Nazareth, we have this year 1,040 students, 68 percent Muslims. They all line up for chapel. And I want to tell you they even do better in singing when we sing our own songs. And they do better in Christian education when they sit for exams. The only problem I have with the Muslim community is around Christmas for the nativity play. Every member of those families come to me and say, "Isn't my daughter nice enough to be Mary?" We don't impose ourselves on them. If you want to have children of the faith, share your faith with them.
Why we continue to busy ourselves with schools and kindergartens, hospitals, and I want to recognize here the wonderful work done by Mrs. Griswold, Phoebe Griswold, and the team and our dear presiding bishop who initiated this project of Jerusalem 2000. Their endeavor to raise some money to keep those institutions going, thank you, Bishop Frank, thank you, Phoebe, on behalf of all of us back home. We do not ignore what we have been also called to do, namely, the question of reconciliation. Between '48 and today, we have experienced the war in '48, '56, '67, '73, '78, the Gulf Crisis, the oil war of '91, '98, and we fear that there will be another war. We could have kept busying ourselves with our church services and say, like some people say, "This is none of our business." In the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 5 and verse 19, we read that, "God was Christ reconciling the world to Himself and He entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation." We are called upon to reconcile those in conflict. Peace in my understanding in the Middle East will guarantee Christian presence. Peace in the Middle East, if it is brought about by people in the States, by the Administration, and by the government of Britain, will have greater impact on the majority of people in the Middle East than anything else we've been able to do over the last 2,000 years. Can you imagine if Mr. Bush and Mr. Tony Blair will change direction and reach out to the people? That's what we've been trying to do as Christians.
We went, as heads of churches, invited Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat to accept an invitation from two people. In fact, we said, "We can bring several people to invite you, from His Holiness, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury. We mentioned the presiding bishop of the United States as well. If you are ready to meet somewhere in Rome, in the Vatican or at Lambeth to start anew to negotiate a peaceful settlement lest we continue to see people being killed on this side and killed on the other side." It's a risky business. When Netanyahu tried to impress us at the Christmas reception and said that he will make peace and disappoint all the cynics in the world, my turn came to speak, I said, "Let me remind you of what another member of your family said 2,000 years ago, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.'” Thank God, he didn't say, 'Blessed are the peace talkers. Go do it.’"
And in '85 I found myself sitting face to face with Chairman Arafat with three Jews, and two Muslims. It was then when I proposed to him that we start a dialogue in music, five Palestinian musicians with five Israeli musicians. I said, "Let's invite them, have them somewhere in Vienna, give them two-three weeks, perhaps they'll come out with an anthem for peace." I came back, believing that I brought good news to Israel and, mind you, I'm an Israeli citizen. By the way, I'm an Arab, I'm a Palestinian, I'm Christian, I'm Anglican, and I'm also Israeli. I'm the five-in-one. Rather their welcoming this gesture, they banned my travel. They said, "Your travel abroad threatens the security of the State of Israel." I served the longest travel ban in the history of the State of Israel, which is spoken of in America and in Europe as the "oasis of democracy in the Middle East.”
But I did not keep quiet. We continue to do our best, and I want you to remember a number of bishops, among them colleagues of ours from this country tomorrow. But I want you to keep us in your prayers tomorrow. We are scheduled to meet Tony Blair about war in Iraq. You promise that you'll pray for us as many as are able to be in London, the same delegation that visited Germany and Russia and France and they hope to get back to Mr. Bush. We are called to be peacemakers. That's how we can have some impact on the people around us. Thank you for your patience, for listening. I wish you are able to come and visit with us and, as I tried to say it, next time in Jerusalem, where peace will over-reign between us Palestinians and the Israelis. We have so much in common, so much in common, you don't know how much in common we have. They've been in Diaspora and we've been refugees. They are known to be hard working. The Palestinians have been nicknamed the "Jews of the Arabs.” They were ready to die for Israel and the Palestinians have been ready to die for Palestine. Why wouldn't we, the church?
That's how I view the church today back home and in the world. We are the hope for the future generations. Let us be that hope in that hopeless situation. Don't underestimate how much we can do. This group, those who came before us, were far less in numbers and had no means whatsoever, but they managed to change the course of human history. It's time that we, too, follow their good example. And I pray God's blessing upon you and upon the church in the United States that it may carry that wonderful image of Christ lest we hear others, like the great Mahatma of India, say, "Take your Christianity away. Give us your Christ." Thank you.
I want to share with you a story. This is a true story. A boy was caught throwing stones at an armed vehicle in the West Bank. Two soldiers run after him and they beat him, but a journalist from England managed to save his life. Turning to him, from somebody who must have been translating, asked him, "What are you doing here throwing stones at people? You should be at school," he said. "What school? All our schools have been closed down because of curfews and closures." "You could be helping your brother." He said, "What brother? My brother was killed." He turned to him, "Do they teach you throwing stones at home?" He said, "No. I learnt it at Sunday school. I learnt it from David." The story goes on to say, "Suppose you manage to hit the new Goliath, would you do what the old David did?" And the Palestinian boy says, "No. I'll wake him up and ask him to help me build our home again with the stones of the home that was destroyed." This is part of our mission back home, trying, in spite of the pain, in spite of the suffering, to help people project to a future different from the present in which we find ourselves in. I want you to pray with me and ... the response, "We thirst for you in a thirsty land. We thirst for you in a thirsty land." Let us pray.
"Oh, Lord, our hearts are heavy with the sufferings of the ages, of the thousand years, the blood of the victims is still warm, but cries of anguish still fill the night. To you we lift our outspread hands, we thirst for you in a thirsty land. Oh, Lord, who loves us as a father, who cares for us as a mother, who came to share our life as a brother, we confess before you our failure to live as your children, brothers and sisters bound together in love. We thirst for you in a thirsty land. We have squandered the gift of life. The good life of some is built upon the pain of many, the pleasure of a few on the agony of millions. To you we lift our outspread hands. We thirst for you in a thirsty land. We worship death in our quest to possess evermore things. We worship death in our hankering after our own security, our own survival, our own peace as if life were divisible, as if love were divisible, as if Christ had not died for all of us. To you we lift up our outspread hands. We thirst for you in a thirsty land. Oh, Lord, forgive our life-denying pursuit of life and teach us anew what it means to be Your children. Amen."
Finally, a song which our youth love to sing, "Lord, You are my way, You are the way. Even in this troubled life, Lord, You are my friend even at the moment of death. To You I call and in You I have my hope. You are my destiny and You are the source of my joy. Hallelujah." The second verse. "You are the fire in my heart, but you are also the breeze of my morning. You are my leader. You are my dawn. We continue to believe that the darkest of moments in any night are those that receive the dawn. We continue to pray for that dawn."
BISHOP CHANG: We began our pilgrimage in this room. We began with a sense of excitement and anticipation and I remember the first evening I invited each of you to continue the commitment that you've made to be here. But now the challenge is before us. We have gone on a journey, a journey that has taken us to the valleys and to the heights, a journey that has given us experiences that we probably will never have again, and some of us have sought to capture this experience by taking photographs. Some of have sought to capture the experience by taking paper home and packing 'em up in FedEx boxes, but I would hope that all of us would take the experiences we have and tell the story of what has happened here. About a month ago my wife and I went to a birthday party for Francis Woo to celebrate his 93rd birthday. And we had met Francis two years earlier when we had attended the birthday party for his older sister when she celebrated her 101st birthday. Francis is not the youngest of the family of 16 children. And in the course of dinner my wife asked Francis, "What is your secret to long life?" And Francis said, "Three things. Good food, exercise, and keep breathing 'cause if you stop, you're in trouble.”
We need to keep telling the story, our story, your story, the sacred story, for if we stop telling that story, the story which we've experienced here in the breaking of bread, we'll be in trouble. Our faith will have children from generation to generation if we continue to tell the story and, as that young girl said in the video, "That's my song. What's your song?" Sing that song and tell that story.