Primate’s view of the Holy Land

Published September 4, 2009

(L to R): Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, shares a light moment with His Beatitude, Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, as Bishop Suheil Dawani, of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem looks on.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories from Aug. 22 to 30. Anglican Journal staff writer Marites N. Sison sat down for an interview with him to discuss the significance of that visit. A news story about his time in the Holy Land will be in the October issue of the Journal.

Q: What was the context for the trip?
A: The purpose of the visit was in many respects to honour the resolution of the General Synod 2007 that a solidarity visit be made to the diocese of Jerusalem and to engage in conversation with the bishop (Suheil Salman Dawani) and other Christians in the area. They knew it was my first time, so they combined visiting holy sites and seeing the diocese at work. I was there as a first-time pilgrim to the holy sites, but was also coming with a commitment to partnership. I was hopeful that this visit would move us into a deeper relationship and, in the spirit of that, we were here to listen, to learn.

I invited Bishop Suheil to our General Synod. He’s delighted to have been invited and will come. I told him we’ll give a good block of time to address the General Synod on the life and witness of the church in the Holy Land. Part of that inevitably, will touch on the political situation there. His wife, Shafeeqa, is also coming and the focus of her ministry in the diocese is women’s ministries. She’s hosting a third annual conference about empowerment for women, (in particular) taking their rightful place in education, healthcare, leadership in society, in the church and so on. I’ve also invited her to speak to the synod.

Q: What was the most important aspect of your visit?

A: The learning for me was to see how the church witnesses to the Gospel in a situation that’s highly politicized, in a situation that always has the potential to be volatile and in a situation where Christians are clearly in the minority. The number of Christians in the Holy Land is diminishing year by year. As Bishop Suheil said, “We, Episcopalians and Anglicans are a minority within a minority.”

You learn pretty quickly there that a first principle in the diocese is faith in action. (It is) a diocese that has a huge commitment to education, healthcare, hospitality, housing and peace and reconciliation. Because of a diminishing number of Christians in the Holy Land, the bishop and the diocese have a huge focus on education and so they have several schools that they oversee and operate. The idea is to enable Palestinians, especially, to get an education…and to encourage them to stay in the Holy Land. The diocese is very committed to healthcare – ‘irrespective of one’s religion, one’s ability to pay whatever, we’re here to provide healthcare for you.’ Most of the people who visit the hospital doors are not Christians….People who aren’t Christians recognize in the church a real commitment to their well-being, their health. Likewise with housing, Bishop Suheil and the diocese have been involved in housing projects, not just for elderly people but for young couples – helping them to get established so that they can remain there.

Q: What accounts for the dwindling number of Christians there? Is it mainly because of the political situation?

A: The political situation is one of the major factors. It has been difficult for Palestinians to remain there. The evidence of occupation is everywhere – the walls, the fences, the military roads, the checkpoints. It’s really quite amazing to see it and even around, not all holy sites but certainly – on Sunday morning we went to the Dome of the Rock, the great Muslim center in Jerusalem and the presence of soldiers even on that site was interesting. It was kind of unnerving. But the evidence of occupation is very real, the freedom of people to move in and out of Jerusalem itself was tight… Everywhere you go you see walls and fences and soldiers, Israeli settlements…every crest of hill around Jerusalem you see Israeli settlements. People see that as a gradual kind of encroachment even around Jerusalem.

The challenge for the church in the midst of all that – and I suppose it’s a challenge for all faith traditions – but we heard it specifically from the church (there) is visibility. Bishop Suheil’s mindset is, ‘there’s room in Jerusalem for everyone, we just have to find a way for that to be a reality that is experienced.’ When we met with his Beatitude, (the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem) Theophilos III, he said exactly the same thing and he talked about the need for continuing Christian presence; he talked about it as Christians representing a kind of bridge between Judaism and Islam.

That’s not to say that Christians do not have to think carefully about what they say and how they say it. Some people look for the church leaders to make a lot of political statements and as Bishop Suheil shared with us, “…You can’t lose sight of the prophetic role, the prophetic voice of the church. But you do have to think carefully about what you say and how you say it. And you have to pay attention to that because if you don’t, the very people for whom you’re standing up and speaking for…will suffer. The government can simply say, ‘you no longer have this privilege or no one can go there.’

He (Bishop Suheil) said that the diocese was committed to bringing about change primarily through its commitment to healthcare and education, (and in) making a difference in the lives of people, teaching as it were, a new generation. (When) children study together they can learn that ‘we can be friends, we can share this land, we can share this city.’ One of the most significant things the church is trying to do there is to shape a new generation. If you shape a new generation then you create a different kind of leadership, people who actually have hope.

Q: Was the bishop saying that some of the actions, which were intended to advocate for the plight of those who have suffered the brunt of the Middle East conflict, actually backfired?

A: I think that’s what I’m hearing. The Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem (Munib Younan) speaking at the ELCIC Convention, (who is) Palestinian, said, ‘I’m not hear to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, I’m here to be pro-justice, pro-reconciliation, pro-peace.’ I think Bishop Suheil would be in a similar position. It’s to find a way to encourage governments to say – ‘You have to stop because people are being hurt here, they’re losing their land, they’re losing their livelihood and, in some cases, their lives.’

So how do you say that in such a way that there won’t be action that feels like retaliation? That’s the challenge. The other thing that’s a challenge is that the peace process discussions are strategic. I just got a sense from my listening to people there that it just requires patient determination and a commitment to be in this conversation for the long haul because it feels to lots of people there like every time they get to a point when they think that there’s a breakthrough, then something else, there’s another obstacle put in place. As Bishop Suheil said, “This is our reality. We live with this.” Nobody wants to live like that with checkpoints and all that every time you go in and out of certain places, but this is it. It is our reality and we must deal with it. It doesn’t mean that we are not hopeful. We’re always hopeful but it’s hard at times to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Q: So what type of advocacy would be helpful to them?

A: Let me give you a simple example. If we’re going to respond to a situation in Palestine and we would write a statement or a letter to the prime minister or whoever, a courtesy, and a very helpful thing would be to send a draft to the bishop and say to him, ‘Here’s what we’ve heard and seen, here’s how we’re responding. Is this helpful?’ In the interest of trying to be helpful we, in the West, we like to make statements and that sort of thing. (But) before you issue the statement, perhaps you should consult the local church…we need to be sure that what the church in Canada is saying to the federal government is, in fact, helpful to the church in Jerusalem.

Q: Were there actions that were specifically damaging to their cause?

A: I can’t really comment on that and I’m not going to. I don’t know the history about statements that have been made. All I’m saying is that when we are considering making statements that it’s probably a good idea to have a conversation with him. If he has a point that he wants to finesse then I think we need to be humble enough to hear that.

Q: How do you intend to deepen the partnership between the national church and the diocese of Jerusalem?

A: We talked about everything from prayer cycles, where we support one another, to parish to parish relationships. We talked about a diocese or two or three in Canada that might want to be a companion relationship with the diocese of Jerusalem. We talked about the possibility of volunteers in mission, which has been a strong component of partnerships for us….We also talked about the international internship program for theology students, the possibility of placement there. We also talked about support for particular projects, say the hospital in Gaza City or in Nablus; staff were quite specific there that if there were any possibility of Canadian-Anglicans helping them to buy a new piece of equipment, they would welcome that.

We also talked about (Bishop Suheil’s) visit to General Synod. We talked about how we, in Canada, can be advocates for the situation that Palestinian Christians find themselves in and how can we in a helpful way, speak to the government of Canada. One of our hopes is that, when the bishop comes next year, he’ll be able to meet with the Canadian foreign minister.

We also talked about St. George’s College, (whether it can) somehow be in a relationship with theological schools across the country under the guise of continuing education. I had a sense from the bishop that we never had a sort of plan for how we would be in relationship and in solidarity with the diocese. We were hearing that as Bishop Suheil put it, ‘we’ve sown a bunch of seeds and now we need to each do what we can to water those seeds and help them blossom.’ I told him that my deep hope is that by the time he comes to General Synod in 2010 we would actually be celebrating a couple of things that would have been accomplished between now and then in terms of our relationship and that we would be launching at least one or two initiatives.

Q: Can you describe what it was like to visit Gaza?

A: It was a bit unnerving going through a checkpoint to show your passport and to answer questions as to why you’re there, how long you’re going to be there and where you’re going while you’re there and what time you’re leaving… What’s unnerving about that is that there’s a kind of tenseness in the checkpoint. We’re not accustomed, for instance, to seeing soldiers standing all over the place with machine guns and their hands on the gun at all times…We went in by car and not a lot of vehicles go through Gaza like that. A lot stand in long lines and wait to be processed before they’re given permission to enter and then they walk through the security or checkpoint.

The first images that I saw once we were cleared were on the right side of the road, a series of bombed out buildings, and on the left side, a huge refugee camp. You drive into Gaza City and you talk about a mixture of sights and emotions. Parts of the city look like life is going on, the markets are there, the kids are out, people are roaming the streets, you look at one end of the street and there’s the Mediterranean. You turn a corner and all of a sudden you see bombed out buildings.

We spent most of our time in the (Al Ahli) Hospital…We went in St. Philip’s church which is on the hospital grounds – it wasn’t severely damaged, but it was clear that it was struck. We had a Eucharist in the midst of the dirt and dust… It was amazing to be there…just to hear the deep, deep commitment on the part of the medical staff to the people’s healthcare. No matter who comes to the door, they’re there for them. There was a doctor, and his son worked with the ambulance services when Gaza was attacked in January, and while he was in the middle of a surgery, he got word that his son had been killed on an ambulance route. He said, ‘What could I do? I couldn’t leave to save him and so I stayed to save another life.” …You read the Gospel and you read about Jesus’ ministry of healing and the amount of time he spent with the sick and you hear this. In that place that’s faith in action.

Q: What was it like to visit the holy sites?

A: There were two places that were really special to me – one was Galilee. It is so beautiful. You go up a long, long hill to the Mount of Beatitudes where they believe Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount…There’s a peace there that’s beyond imagination. We went to the Church of St. Peter’s primacy. There was something about that place that really drew me in.The other place I wish I could have spent more time was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth…it’s literally built over what they believe to be Mary’s house.


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