We are a people of hope’

Published June 6, 2010

Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem, with his wife, Shafeeqa. Photo: Art Babych


The bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, today urged members of General Synod to continue the Anglican Church of Canada’s support for the peace process in the Middle East. He said that continuing violence and the “rise of extremism” is forcing more Christians to leave the Holy Land.

“You have the opportunity to provide hope,” said Bishop Dawani, addressing members of General Synod gathered here for their triennial meeting. “…Challenges to Christian ministry throughout the five regions (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Syria) are ongoing. The rise of extremism borne of increasing frustration…about the stagnation of the peace process continues.”

Bishop Dawani lamented how the Christian presence in the Holy Land has been diminished as more and more Christians flee in search of peace and better opportunities. “We are losing so many young people who don’t find any future in that land. They leave the country and look for better places to continue their education and unfortunately, they don’t come back.”

And yet, in the face of these challenges, said Bishop Dawani, his church dares to hope. “We are a people who overcome challenges with the love of Christ…Jerusalem is the city of Resurrection (where) death has been defeated and eternal life given to all who believe,” said Bishop Dawani. “We are a people of hope and your commitment in keeping that hope alive is as important now as it ever was.”

In a speech that was met with wide applause and a standing ovation, Bishop Dawani talked about how the ministries of Christians in Jerusalem have become “a bridge” for Muslims and Jews and have helped stem the growth of extremism.

Diocese-run schools that are open to anyone regardless of gender, race and religion have become “signs of hope,” he said. The diocese runs 13 schools with 7,000 students, 70 per cent of whom are Muslim and 30 per cent Christian. These institutions offer a rigorous educational program that train the next generation of leaders in business, religion and politics. More importantly, they teach “tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence,” said Bishop Dawani. “…Peace will start from the children.”

The diocese plays an active role in inter-faith relations, and is currently preparing a new school curriculum focusing on peace education.

The Kids for Peace summer camp, started by the diocese in 2002, continues to draw children from the three Abrahamic faiths who get an opportunity to get to know and learn from each other, he added. “I hope Canadian children will join us in this program” in Jerusalem, he said.

The diocese provides “compassionate witness” through its hospitals in the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Gaza, which are considered some of the best in the region, he said. Staff “work under the most difficult circumstances but they provide hope for the people they serve,” he said. Healthcare is provided without regard for politics, gender and religion.

“The presence of local Christians in the Holy Land is critical for the future of the Middle East,” said Bishop Dawani. He noted that both Muslims and Jews both acknowledge that Christians offer “a vital voice of tolerance” and their presence is “so important for the peace process…”

But the reality is that total indigenous Christian population in the West Bank is now only less than 2 per cent of the population, said Bishop Dawani. Before the UN plan to partition Israel and Palestine in 1947 Christians comprised 27 per cent of the population, he said. “In 20 years, it will be hard to find a local Christian. None of us want to see it happen.”

Bishop Dawani said that his diocese is looking forward to a “closer partnership” with Canadian Anglicans, citing a newly-forged companion relationship with the diocese of Ottawa.

He thanked Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who paid a solidarity visit to his diocese in August 2009. Archbishop Hiltz “came as a friend and pilgrim” and witnessed firsthand “what it means to live in a troubled land,” he said. “He was faithful and honest to reveal the real picture and the need to work a just and genuine peace in the land of the Holy One.” Archbishop Hiltz witnessed the toll that Israeli “checkpoints, humiliation, war and poverty” have exacted on ordinary people, he said.

Bishop Dawani also thanked Bishop Michael Ingham and his Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster, for its support in rebuilding Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, which had been badly damaged during an air strike in 2009.

Bishop Dawani presented Archbishop Hiltz with an icon depicting The Last Supper calling it “a symbol of unity and fellowship” between the Canadian church and the diocese of Jerusalem.

Archbishop Hiltz, for his part, described Bishop Dawani’s presence at General Synod a “wonderful and sacred moment.” He described Bishop Dawani as “a gentle, loving chief pastor…a respected ecumenist [and] bridge-builder.”

Archbishop Hiltz noted that resolutions that aim to strengthen the Canadian church’s partnership with Jerusalem and its commitment to the peace process will be presented to members of General Synod in the course of their meeting.

Shafeeqa, the bishop’s spouse, also addressed the Synod and talked about projects that she and her church have initiated to help empower women in the region.

She noted how, in her 31 years as a priest’s wife ,she had moved to many places, including Galilee, West Bank and Jerusalem and “sensed the needs” of women, who for the most part were focused on taking care of their families and children. One goal was simple, she said: teaching them how to “beat their shyness,” and provide them with better communications and other skills. Women have also become engaged in volunteer work, she said.

In a press conference, Dawani spoke about the impact of the ongoing conflict on women and children. She said some women have left their jobs or don’t come to church anymore because that meant having to line up in checkpoints for two to three hours each way.

Women are also “feeling insecure about their children when they leave early to schools,” she said. “They wait for them until they come back and they will feel at ease… It’s very hard when your child crosses the checkpoint and sometimes there’s shooting over their heads.”


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