Tale of a troublesome bishop

Published November 1, 2000

Nazareth, birthplace of Riah Abu El-Assal, Bishop of Jerusalem.

PILGRIMS from North America to the Holy Land can be surprised to discover indigenous Christians there – perhaps the person showing crib sets in a Bethlehem souvenir shop – whose ancestors may have lived in the place almost since the time of Christ.

Riah Abu El-Assal is one such. Born in Nazareth, he is four things about which the Israeli government would prefer the world to remain ignorant: an Arab, a Palestinian, a Christian – Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem since 1998 – and a citizen of the state of Israel. This is his story – movingly, passionately, sometimes humorously told – but without the kind of overblown rhetoric that too often characterizes comment about the Middle East.

The author’s first person account shows that Israeli citizenship means different things for Jews and Arabs. The book re-tells the story of Israeli repression of Palestinian Arabs and seizure of their property. An appendix lists 440 Palestinian villages destroyed by Israeli forces.

[pullquote] His story parallels those of many like him, whose lives have been as refugees or under political occupation. Son of Christians who, when he was 12, fled Nazareth to Lebanon following the declaration of the State of Israel, El-Assal later returned on foot to reclaim his family’s home.

Educated in the European tradition and ordained, he served 28 years as rector of Nazareth’s Christ Church – as pastor, community leader, champion of Palestinian identity.

The book reveals similarities between the ministries of Riah El-Assal and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu. Both claimed freedom for their people, both sailed close to the wind in public statements about government actions, were interrogated frequently by security forces and had their passports cancelled. And like Tutu, El-Assal is seeking the way of peace, truth, and reconciliation in a land where, despite the present peace process, many obstacles remain.

Once asked during an interrogation if he was carrying any weapons, a fed-up El-Assal replied yes. Ordered by tense soldiers to move to a safe distance and to take this “weapon” out of his suitcase – slowly – he complied, and showed them his Bible: “the only weapon I have ever carried; the only weapon I have ever needed.”


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