Palestine Homecoming is Occasion for Pleasure and Pride

Nov 08, 2002 03:00 AM EST

KUFR YASSIF - It was a huge celebration, in a tiny village.

Everybody turned out when "a son of the town" came home.

The Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, who left Kufr Yassif at age 22 to study in the
United States, returned recently as the moderator of the 2.5 million-member
Presbyterian Church (USA).

He had visited before, but this time was different, full of pomp and
ceremony. The next morning, he would be admitted to the canonry of St.
George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem. With him there would be his wife, Mary
Zumot, and all his sisters and brothers.

So, this afternoon, the sisters - there are five - were all weeping.

And one of the nephews never turned off the video camera.

Abu-Akel's great-nieces were munching on pastries; his great-nephews were
trying out the candies and fruits that lined the tables at the outdoor
pavilion of the Greek Orthodox Church and back home, in the stone house where
Abu-Akel was born and where his stepmother still lives.

"We are very proud of him, happy that he has this position in the United
States, happy and proud," said Amirah Farah, a daughter of Abu-Akel's sister,
Naomi. Farah was warmly greeting guests at the celebration, which had begun
with a worship service in the tiny stone Orthodox church, then moved outdoors
for speeches from Abu-Akel and town dignitaries, including the local sheikh.

It was a day for friends and family, but for friends and family that have,
together with all Palestinians, known the fear and frustration of the

Anyone who has heard Abu-Akel speak has heard his story: How, back in 1948,
when he was a 4-year-old boy, his father and his oldest sister, Miriam, then
15, led the other children to a Druze village on the Lebanon border to avoid
the Jewish military units occupying Palestinian villages.

In his candidacy speech during the General Assembly, Abu-Akel told how he
scanned the crowd and the countryside, looking for his mother, but couldn't
find her - until finally he spotted her, waving to her family from the flat
roof of their house, which she refused to leave.

When the family came back, it was to an occupied land.

In his remarks to the gathered community, Abu-Akel told how his parents'
Christian faith and the care of two Scottish missionaries shaped his life,
and how he learned about love and truth in Sunday School lessons at the
Orthodox church. At the same time he was learning about respect for others,
which would become the basis of his human-rights work.

"Today I pray for the rulers of the land," he said. "I pray for the Israeli
people, Jewish and Arab; and at the same time I pray for the end of the
occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

"I pray for the healing of both people. I pray for peace and love among both
people. I pray for mutual respect among people. If we lose the gift of God's
love, we lose the meaning of our humanity, regardless of where we live
America or here."

The moderator asked everyone in the audience to shower children with love.
Then he committed himself to "seize every opportunity" - with God's help - to
raise awareness in the world of the struggles of the Palestinians.

It was a promise that had been extracted from him repeatedly during his

A local priest told Abu-Akel and his delegation to tell Presbyterians that
the "tiny Body of Christ" that worships in the Holy Land has been "forgotten,
for years" by Christians who come as tourists "interested in the Biblical
story" but ignorant of "the Christians and Muslims who live in this land."

Another speaker told the moderator that he is now "an ambassador for our
people" in "America, the strongest nation in the world."
"But we see that America is tilted in its policy toward our neighbor," he
said. "Your president has called for the establishment of a Palestinian
state. ... What we'd like is peace, with justice. We want independence,
yes; but we want peace. With justice."

The same point was made to Abu-Akel by one of his nephews, Father Jacob
Abu-Akel, a Greek Orthodox priest from Jerusalem who had made the trip to
Kufr Yassif for the celebration. "Be the faithful ambassador (you) have
always been," he told his uncle. "We want you to remain stubbornly committed
for the sake of truth and justice."

The woman that Abu-Akel affectionately called his "second mother" - his
oldest sister, Miriam - sat nearby watching, eyes aglow.

Yes, she said, she remembers ushering the younger children to the safety of
the mountain village. Some Druze men offered to hide the boys, she said, but
she angrily refused, offended by the implication that girls didn't matter. So
she sat with her brothers and sisters, cradling her arms around as many as
she could hold.

As she looked at her brother, come from so far away, and come so far, she
said: "I washed by hand all of his clothes. There was no machine. He was a
good boy, and I love him."

By Alexa Smith