Thursday, February 25, 2021

Zababdeh priest seeks peace through interfaith dialogue

By Elizabeth Jenkins - April 09, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Christians ] [Jews] [peace] [Palestinians]

Zababdeh is a small, predominantly Christian town tucked away in the rolling green hills just south of Jenin. In this town, one can find parish priest, Father Abouna Firas Khoury, living with his family in a modest house adjoined to the Melkite Catholic church.

This same church remained closed for 22 years between 1980 and 2002, as a result of the raging violence in the years prior to and during the first and second intifada. When Firas Khoury was ordained in 2002, he determined to reopen the church and rebuild a community. Today, he looks back with pride, having succeeded in this endeavour and overcome many obstacles.
Every month, Khoury welcomes three to five groups from around the world. He is intent on “building bridges” and on showing people that Palestinians are not terrorists, but rather, “men, women and children,” he told Palestine Monitor. These groups come from Norway, United States and Germany, amongst other countries, and stay with families “to hear the Palestinian, Arab, Christian story,” Khoury explained.
Aside from building bridges with groups originating from places beyond the Holy Land, Khoury strongly believes that bridges need to be built with Israelis who also want justice, reconciliation and peace. “We want to convince Israelis that we are not Jewish-haters, unlike the vision in media where Palestinians hate Jews and are terrorists,” he said. “I love [Jews], I wish them all the best. What we hate is the killing, the destruction of homes,” he emphasised.
History is Khoury’s source of hope. Pointing to years of peaceful coexistence, he sees the current situation as recent history, part of a much larger story. “We lived together for centuries and centuries in peace; look at Haifa, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad!”
The particular history of the Melkite Church also plays a role in his vision, Khoury explained to Palestine Monitor. Indeed, the Church has a history of strong ties with different denominations and religions. Splitting from the Orthodox Church at the time of Constantinople over a theological disagreement over Jesus’ nature – was he man and God, or just man? – the Melkites preserved Orthodox traditions. Later, during the Caliphates, the Melkite church benefited from close relations with the Muslims, earning the nickname 'the Church of Islam’. Finally, in the XVIII century, the Melkite church joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Anchored in an interpretation of events through the frame of religion, today Khoury is passionate about interfaith dialogue, which he envisions as an effective means of returning to a lost history of peaceful coexistence. To this end and at Khoury’s invitation, 150 Palestinian Muslim and Christian leaders – from Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem amongst other Palestinian cities and villages – came together on April 5 to discuss how to strengthen inter-religious ties.
At this meeting, the religious leaders discussed plans for a conference to be held in the summer, pursuing this same logic of strengthening ties. “Maybe we will do it in Akko, so that our Jewish brothers can come,” Khoury told Palestine Monitor. However, there is a possibility that such a location would limit the ability of all interested religious leaders from the West Bank to attend, who would have to apply for a permit. Khoury spoke of his own struggles with the Israeli administration to acquire a permit every time he goes to Israel, which is regularly as his bishop is based in Haifa.
Although most people have welcomed his vision of peaceful coexistence, Khoury admitted that not everyone has taken to his message. “Some people can’t jump the psychological barrier: they associate Jews with soldiers and settlers.” He paused, then added: “I used to be like that too.” By way of explanation, he referred to the destruction of people’s homes and the killings of the Second Intifada.
Such violence naturally spawns hatred. However, today Khoury’s vision has evolved. He is convinced: “we need [Jews], we need their help to destroy the wall,” referring to the Apartheid Wall. “They also suffer from the occupation,” he said, echoing an argument made by feminists who claim that patriarchy – as a system of oppression – also harms the oppressors.
Groups from abroad that come to Khoury’s parish are thus told: “For God’s sake, go and offer your friendship to people in your Jewish community. But also build a friendship with Palestinians.” If you are one-sided, Khoury tells foreigners, “you are reducing yourself to being one more enemy. And we don’t need that, we need one more friend.”
Although political interests and ambitions are arguably at the core of the colonial project underway in the Holy Land, a fundamentalist religious interpretation of holy texts undoubtedly serves as a justifying narrative. It is in light of this consideration that a counter-religious narrative is all the more interesting. Indeed, regarding Jewish, Christian and Muslim claims to the land, Father Khoury insisted: “This land belongs to God.”
“I was not born Christian, we were all born babies. (…) We need to stop thinking so narrow-mindedly,” he finished. 

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