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The shortest route to peace… is through Jerusalem

An interview with the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem

Of all those who campaign for justice in Palestine and a recognised homeland, few are as uniquely qualified as Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal.  As an Anglican Bishop since 1998, he is the self-professed ‘five in one’; a Palestinian, an Arab, a Christian, an Anglican, and an Israeli citizen serving one of the most conflict-ridden communities in the world: Jerusalem.  “Not the easiest of Anglican Dioceses in the Anglican communion”, he says.

After 41 years serving a ministry that covers Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, living as a “tiny minority” within a minority – a Palestinian Christian among a majority of Muslims, an Israeli Arab in a nation of Jews – he has endured the longest international travel ban ever meted out in Israel, he’s been accused of anti-Semitism (despite the Palestinians being Semitic) and of being a threat to national security, andy he’s watched most remaining Christian’s in the Holy Land pack and emigrate abroad.  Yet his solution to the generation of conflict is beguilingly simple.  In a meeting with Tony Blair in September, Bishop Riah challenged the British government for a second time to take up the cause of Jerusalem; “The shortest route to peace in the Middle East,” he said, “is through Jerusalem.  Once peace comes to Jerusalem, peace will come to the whole world.” 

During a visit to London in October for a series of talks on the conflict, Riah admitted that his mixed identity gives him an unusual ability to “form a bridge between the two communities”.  However the challenges, he says, “are way beyond the means available within the church, or even within you as an individual.  You are there as a pastor; you are there as a socio-political person; you are there as a bridge; you are there as a fundraiser to keep the church and its institutions going, and you are there with others to continue the search for peace, for justice and for reconciliation.  It’s not easy.”

Ever since the 1970s his intimate knowledge of the conflict has led to invitations from different parts of the world to speak on the causes of the war, his views on the solution to a peaceful settlement, and the role of the Church and religion in the search for peace.  “And now, because of the recent development vis-à-vis Muslims and the rest of the world, I have often been asked to speak on the topic of co-existence or confrontation,” he says.  “I am for co-existence, I am not for confrontation.  I don’t think that confronting the other will bring quiet to the world.  On the contrary, this world which (President) Bush thought that by going to war would become a safer place, it’s no more that place.  We see it day in and day out.”

When asked if he has always been involved in campaigning for justice in Palestine, Bishop Riah replies that at the age of 11, after fleeing to Lebanon in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war that resulted from partition, he decided to walk home without his family “because I believed this is my human right”.  Even at that age, he says, “my eyes were opened to the reality of the situation.”  Walking for miles on foot with his young sister, crossing borders illegally under a false name, he reclaimed residency in Nazareth and has kept a home there ever since.  Almost overnight, he says, Nazareth was transformed from “a sleepy little town of about ten thousand souls, all of whom were known to each other,” to a ‘city’ of nearly 60,000. 

To understand the universal importance that Bishop Riah ascribes to Jerusalem, it requires an appreciation of the city’s unique status under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan.  Whilst border lines were carefully defined for proposed Arab and Jewish regions, Jerusalem was declared a corpus separatum or ‘separated body’, a supposed international city not part of either the planned Jewish or Arab state.  This was intended to preserve what Riah calls “the beautiful mosaic” of all the major faiths and their shared religious history; the eastern part of Jerusalem, or the Old City, is surrounded by a wall separated into four quarters; one for the Muslims containing sacred mosques, a Jewish quarter with several famous old synagogues, an Armenian Quarter to the west, and the Christian Quarter enshrining the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

After the war ended in 1949, however, the plan was never implemented and Jerusalem found itself split in two with the western part controlled by Israel, and Eastern Jerusalem taken over by Jordan.  All Jewish residents were immediately expelled from the Old City, many synagogues destroyed, and the Jewish Quarter bulldozed.  At the same time, many refugees from West Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods fled into East Jerusalem. 

Bishop Riah describes it today as “a divided city”, a melting pot of distrusting factions with stark differences between the comparatively wealthy and Israeli-funded western side, and the economically-deprived eastern area  that is renowned not only for its tourists and pilgrims, but also for its high unemployment, its poverty and open sewers, and a late history of discord and violence.  “Very few Jews come to East Jerusalem,” he says, “and very few Arabs go to West Jerusalem.  There is also a psychological separation between the two.  The Old City is sometimes crowded when things are quiet, and tourists and pilgrims visit.  But every time there is a war, even for a few days, cancellations come from all over the world, and tourism drops to nothing… people become bankrupt, they use their reserves, they have to pay their municipal tax on their hotels and the like, and this affects the whole community.” 

This situation dates back to the Six-Day war in 1967 when Israel captured and administered sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, even though the international community and a UN Security Council Resolution declared this a violation of international law.  The final issue of the status of East Jerusalem should be determined, they said, by future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  Nevertheless, in 1980 Israel set down its Basic Law declaring Jerusalem to be the “eternal, undivided” capital of Israel, thus enshrining the status of a united Jerusalem.  Almost all member states withdrew their diplomatic representation from the city and relocated their embassies to Tel Aviv as a show of non-complicity, although key Israeli government buildings like the Knesset still remain inside Jerusalem, and most Jewish writers today only refer to East Jerusalem with a lower case ‘e’.  The unification of the city in 1967, meanwhile, remains a celebrated Israeli national holiday.

Jerusalem’s unresolved status is therefore at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The Palestinian National Authority insists that East Jerusalem must be the capital of any future Palestinian state, but Israel has rejected this possibility outright, declaring Jerusalem “one indivisible city under Israeli Sovereignty” and “Israel’s eternal capital”.  In 1998, Israel announced a controversial plan to expand Jerusalem by annexing nearby towns.  The only alternative so far offered to Palestine as a capital city was Abu Dis in 2000, a deprived village also used as a municipal rubbish tip by Israel. 

“Jerusalem is closed now with the separation wall,” says Bishop Riah.  “Less people are able to come.  There is nothing called free access for whoever wants to come.  So East Jerusalem is left to die, as it were.”  The controversial Israeli wall, constructed from 2002, set a divisive barrier between the Arab and Jewish districts in Jerusalem and around the West Bank.  With hundreds of Palestinian farmers and traders cut off from their own land, and with an estimated 210,000 Palestinians living between the wall and Israel cut off from services, schools and places of work, the UN condemned the barrier as illegal and tantamount to “an unlawful act of annexation”, whilst the International Court of Justice declared it a breach of international law. 

Describing life in the West Bank today as “terrible” and conditions in Gaza as “frightening” – with many refugees facing starvation, and the average income in Gaza of one dollar a day – Bishop Riah spoke of “humiliating checkpoints”, torn roads and complete destruction, orchards uprooted, power stations knocked down, border stations closed, and his Ministry hospital in Gaza that is running out of even powdered milk “whilst the world watches and does nothing.”  He says; “They are a community of poverty-stricken people.  Some of them start saying death has become more worthy than life.  Why live when you live this kind of life.”

Many of the Bishop’s stories conjure a sense of the daily degradations faced by Palestinians in the West Bank.  One young man in the church, he says, was refused entry at a checkpoint and never made it to his own wedding day.  On the way to another marriage ceremony in Ramallah, Riah was unable to make it past an army of tanks and the threat of nearby fighting; he only made the service, he says, by abandoning his car and pretending to be a sick man in the back of a wailing ambulance.  “And this is somebody with diplomatic status, a VIP,” he says.  “What do you imagine happens to others?” 

Only in this context is it possible to understand Bishop Riah’s straightforward exegesis; “The whole conflict in the Middle East is over the land of Palestine, and its centre is Jerusalem,” he says.  “If we manage to find a way whereby the Jerusalem question is resolved, the whole conflict is resolved.  And once resolved in Palestine and Israel, it will be resolved throughout the Arab world… (Then) Palestine will become the bridge to the Arab world, the Arab world will become the bridge to the Muslim community in the world.  That’s why I say peace in Jerusalem will bring peace to the whole world.”  In his opinion, there is only one solution which lies in the hands of Israel; “Pull out from the occupied territories.  Hand over.  Live and let live.  That’s the way forward.  No other way.”

The first step towards peace requires Israel to pull out to the boundaries of the 4th June 1967, says Riah – in other words, to the land occupied by Israel before the Six-Day War that brought the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem under their control.  “Some Jews may decide to continue to live in Palestine.  They can apply, become Palestinian.  I’m an Arab Palestinian, but I’m an Israeli citizen, and there are 1.3 million Arab Palestinian citizens in the state of Israel.  So if some Jews wish to continue to live in what becomes Palestine, what’s the big deal?”

The second step, he says, is for a team to examine the possibility of a federation or a confederation between Israel and Palestine.  If this happens, they “can become the Switzerland of the Middle East,” two nations with open borders.  Otherwise the Holy Land, at the very least, will soon become empty of indigenous Christians, he says, and the “living faith will be represented only by dead stones and their imported custodians.” 

For this reason, the much coveted ‘Road Map’ to Peace introduced in 2003, which makes no mention of the importance of Jerusalem, and which gives no right of return to an independent Palestinian homeland, is in Riah’s opinion a “road without a map, and a map without a road.”  If an autonomous state is returned to Palestine, he says, then more than 83 per cent of all Palestinian settlers abroad will return home immediately.

Listening to the Bishop speak in his purple shirt of office, wearing a large sparkling crucifix that hangs to the waist, it almost seems incongruous for a clergymen to hold such forthright political views, but Riah remains adamant that the Church and religion has a central role to play in campaigning for human rights.  “We can’t stand afar and watch people being crucified,” he says in reference to those in the Bible story who silently watched the death of Jesus.  “(The Church is) called upon to be directly and positively involved in the search for peace, in the search for justice, in the search for truth, in the search for healing, and the search for reconciliation… We have a completely different mission from the politicians (who) think that wars may bring about peace.  In our opinion, only peace brings peace.  The way to peace is peace… (There is) no other way.” 

If the Church is to help people realise this, he says, it must “share with them the reality on the ground” and help them understand the complexity of the situation.  “What are the facts?  People don’t hear them,” he says.  “In the Western part of the world, there is hardly one square inch (written in a newspaper).  Sometimes when thousands are killed, perhaps yes.  But otherwise – yesterday 17 people were killed in Gaza, nobody heard about that, or the day before, etcetera etcetera.… and I believe this is part of the mission of the church, to tell the world what is happening, so that the world will change its opinion about the situation, and will help bring about an end to this conflict, this pain and this death.”

If we really “mean business for a peaceful world”, says Riah, then we must start with the education of children.  In 1996 he started an inter-faith high school in Nazareth that accommodates Muslims alongside Christians, and where teachers constantly stress that students must deal with the issues facing their country through peaceful means.  The Bishop Riah High School has become so successful, growing from 170 to over 1,400 students in a decade and ranked the highest academically compared with schools in Israel, that his new dream is to start the first school of its kind in the Middle East where Christians, Muslims and also Jews all begin their education together from the age of three.  

“Up till now, education is segregated,” he says; “Jews alone, Arabs alone.  Christians and Muslims are maybe in some schools, otherwise the Jews are on one side and the Arabs on the other.  If we allow them to grow up until they are 17 or 18 and come to university with established ideas, they are not in a position to normalise relations.  We want to bring them when they are little ones so we acquaint them with the others, help them to recognise the ‘otherness’ in the other, and in so doing we are involving the families.”  The school will be situated, he says, between the “two Nazareth’s”; the Arab district and the Jewish region.  “Children of three do not come to school alone, they bring their parents, and at the parents fellowship, the parents meetings, the parents day, all will bring the adults from the different communities to meet with each other, to celebrate the feasts of the other.”

Another project that Riah began as early as 1968, called ‘Meet the Nazarene’, was started as an antidote to the ignorance of so many pilgrims visiting Nazareth as to the existence of fellow Christians who live there.  By inviting pilgrims from all over the world to visit their church and to meet local Christians, more people are able to carry the message of the crisis facing Galilee.  Even many of his fellow clergymen in the West didn’t realise, he says, that “Nazareth was no longer the sleepy little village that Mary and Joseph knew, but was caught up in a modern-day turmoil that threatened our very existence.”

It is easy to forget when talking to someone as politically charged and passionate as Bishop Riah, a captivating man in his late 60’s who speaks with an oft poetic command of the English language in a pithy Middle-Eastern accent, that he is in fact a high-ranking Christian cleric related directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  His words are infused by the questions of identity, belonging and ethnicity at the root of so many present-day wars, although his solutions maintain a basic humanity, simplicity, and lack of vitriol and rhetoric that never wavers from his insistence on the need for “co-existence, not confrontation.”  He no longer refers to the Holy Land, he says, “unless I speak of it as a land with many holes!  There will only be a holy land when there is peace, justice and reconciliation.  This is not just the desire of the people (of Palestine), but the people throughout the world.”  Until then, he says, it can only be called ‘the land of the Holy One’.  He agrees that the conflict might seem to be getting more terrible by the day, but adds; “the darkest of moments in any night are those moments that precede the dawn… It is becoming very dark now, and I fear that it may become a little darker before the dawn comes.  But I never lose hope. Never, we can’t lose hope.”

Interview by Adam Parsons,

Bishop Riah was a lead speaker in a conference on ‘Causes and Hopes for a Peaceful Settlement in the Middle East’ held by the Muslim Parliament on 18 October 2006 in London




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