Sad State of Affairs

Nov 08, 2002 03:00 AM EST

JERUSALEM - During his bittersweet journey home, the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel kept
hearing the same message: Times are bad. Worse than ever.

It didn't seem to matter whether he was talking with ordinary folks, clerics
or political leaders. Everyone said the same thing: Palestinians are sick of
the killing, weary of the brutality. They want the violence of the Israeli
occupation to end. And they want the United States to drop its plan to attack
Iraq, which would only bring more death and despair to a civilian population
not unlike their own.

And they want Abu-Akel, the moderator of the General Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church (USA), to use his voice and influence to pass those
messages along to anyone who will listen, including U.S. President George W.

Abu-Akel, a native of Palestine, recently visited his homeland and much of
Israel with a delegation of 10 Presbyterians, listening. Listening to all who
wanted to talk. Listening to people from his hometown on the Lebanon border.
Listening to refugees in squalid camps in southern Gaza.

"It was a time to connect with my roots and celebrate," he said at journey's
end. "At the same time, it was very sad. To go to the place where I grew up,
that is a very spiritual journey for me to be with my people, to be in that
Orthodox church. That welcome, it was uplifting for me."

The people of Abu-Akel's hometown, Kufr Yassif - including throngs of
relatives - turned out to greet him, inviting him to a worship service in a
tiny, stone church on a hill. A panel of dignitaries welcomed him home. And
there was plenty of food.

"But it was sad," he said later, "the situation of the Palestinians on the
West Bank and in Gaza. The occupation is choking them completely. The
question is, basically: 'How will the Christian community and the
Palestinians as a whole continue to survive under military occupation?'"

Indeed, that was the question. Everywhere he went.

"Please, don't justify violence and oppression, occupation, with Biblical
arguments. God does not kill," the moderator heard from Father Elias Chacour,
a Melkite priest who hosted a reception for Abu-Akel.

Chacour, a Palestinian priest and author who builds schools, community
centers and youth clubs in the Galilee, had hard words for Bush, and only
slightly softer ones for the global church.
Life is getting worse, not better, for Christians in the Holy Land, he said,
noting that more than 60 percent of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have
emigrated in the past 20 years to escape the occupation and intolerance.

Unless the political situation changes soon, Chacour said, Christians who
make pilgrimages to Israel will see empty shrines and very few Christians.

"The wolf is massacring the sheep, and the Christians are disappearing," he
said. "Unless there is Christian solidarity, we cannot hope for survival."

Even at the negotiating table the Palestinians are at a disadvantage, Chacour
said, describing the "Bantu-style" breakup of the Palestinian territories,
where Arab towns are sequestered from the Israeli population.

"Will there be a Palestinian state?" he asked. "Will we exchange land for
peace? There is no land to exchange. All the land has been taken."
He said of the president: "I hope and pray that (Bush) is not creating more
terror, more destabilization in the Middle East. If you have any influence
with the man, tell him the truth. Don't flatter him."

Chacour said he once had high hopes for the Bush presidency. "But I am sorry
I was so happy," he added. "He (Bush) seems to have no plans for peace, but
war. I pray God he will not continue this madness (of invading Iraq)."

He urged the Presbyterians and U.S. churches to stand with the Palestinians
against violence of any kind. "God does not kill, number one," he said, "no
matter what. Say that, Fahed, to our American friends."

A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr. Emile Jarjou'i, of
Jerusalem, expressed similar sentiments during a meeting between Abu-Akel's
delegation and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

"We want peace. We are against violence Stand with us, please," Jarjou'i
said, standing in the ruins of Arafat's compound in Ramallah. "Give this
message to the people ... and the government of the United States. When our
president says that he is against violence, believe me, he means it."

Arafat, sallow and weary-looking, greeted Abu-Akel in what was once his
conference room, a windowless, white cube. Since the Israeli army demolished
his headquarters a few months ago, it serves as his office, dining room and
bedroom; he simply rolls out a mat there at night.

Fatigue-clad soldiers had stuffed mattresses and cardboard into holes in the
one of the two partial buildings still standing. An open door on the corridor
revealed a makeshift dormitory.

An aide said there is some concern about that the building may collapse,
adding to the rubble in the compound, which is already littered with cars the
army has bulldozed and buildings it has razed.

"I beg you what we are facing in this Holy Land (needs) to be known to the
whole world, especially the American administration, the American people, the
American churches," Arafat said. "Can you believe they are completing a wall
around Jerusalem to prevent Christians and Muslims from going to pray in
Jerusalem?" He was referring to a security fence and wall now under
construction along the invisible line that separates the West Bank from
Israel itself.

"Unbelieveable," he muttered.

The president told Abu-Akel that the Israelis have declared the Oslo peace
process dead, although an agreement was signed by a number of international
parties. He said the cities and towns on the West Bank are like cantons in
South Africa. He charged that churches and religious statuary have been
destroyed by Israeli troops, and said Israel owes the Palestinian Authority
more than $2 billion in sales taxes that the government collects and is
supposed to return to the Palestinian leadership.

"You see the small place we have left?" he asked with a wave of his arm. "Can
you imagine ... what is destroyed around me?"

Arafat also mentioned the open talk about deporting Palestinians to other
nations, and his worries about what will happen in Palestine if the United
States attacks Iraq, seizing the world's attention. (See VIDEO)

When the Rev. Marian McClure, the director of the PC(USA)'s Worldwide
Ministries Division, asked Arafat about his hopes for the future, he said he
wants the agreements already reached, including the U.S. Mitchell Report and
several United Nations resolutions, to be implemented.

"We're not asking for the moon," he said.
Abu-Akel told the Presbyterian News Service that he intends to remind
Presbyterian congregations that Palestinian Christians exist, and that they
are suffering.

He said the denomination's Washington Office has tried to arrange for him to
meet with the Bush administration, but so far has been unsuccessful.

"How do I lift up the needs of Palestinians to my superpower country that
can kill or save my people?" he asked, noting, "We as a superpower have a lot
to do with the salvation of the Palestinian people, with really doing healing
between Jews and Arabs."

(See web page for video clips)

Abu-Akel said the plight of the Palestinians is affecting America's
credibility in the Arab world, and will continue to "haunt" the United
"We have zero credibility on the issue of Palestine and this is a gut issue
in the psyche of Muslims and (others) around the world," he said.

By Alexa Smith