Toine van Teeffelen is doing a series of interviews in collaboration with the Jerusalem Times. The first interview is with Dr Bernard Sabella, director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches and lecturer at Bethlehem University

Dear friends,

The organization of which I am a board member, Arab Educational Institute, has launched an interview series together with The Jerusalem Times about the religious identity of Palestinians.

The series is introduced as follows:

“Given the enormous pressures under which the Palestinian community presently lives, including those of fragmentation and isolation, there is a need to reflect upon what brings and keeps Palestinians together as a living community with its own identity. What role does religion play in this, and how are or should the religious aspects of Palestinian identity be expressed or communicated in major societal fields like education and the media? How should it be effectively communicated to an uninformed audience abroad?
These and related questions are explored by Katharine Maycock, a British scholar who worked as a Quaker Peace and Social Witness volunteer at the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem.”

The first interview in this series is with Dr Bernard Sabella, director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches and lecturer at Bethlehem University.
Toine van Teeffelen
Interview with Bernard Sabella
The Jerusalem Times, March 7, 2003

“I actually believe we have a heritage of Christian-Muslim coexistence. We share with one another the culture, the language, the music, the food, the geography, the environment and the Holy Places. We have a common history, we have a common heritage and a common experience. In this context our experience as Muslims and Christians is different from the experience of Muslims and Christians let us say in Malaysia, or Nigeria, Indonesia or the Philippines, or even in Australia, or Canada or the USA or Europe. It is a unique kind of experience on which we need to capitalise. Because it is very important to spread a message to the West about this kind of experience that the West doesn’t know about. This is especially important now, because there are politicians in the West who are using Islam and especially militant Islam as a justification to attack and to spread stereotypes. The Muslims we know are not the kind of Muslims that Western politicians are talking about.

“I’m not exaggerating, we have a beautiful picture of coexistence. I was in Australia for a month and when I mentioned that, some Australians couldn’t understand it. I said ‘but this is our experience of living in peace in good neighbourliness with our Muslim neighbours’. And I told them that the National Authority encourages this kind of pluralist orientation. And that President Arafat keeps insisting on having Muslims and Christians together especially at events and social, cultural and other developments. And they were surprised and said ‘we didn’t know that’. And I think the West doesn’t know that. This experience that shows Islam in the colours of living together with other religions is unfortunately missing in the West nowadays.

“After September 11th, I got a French journalist who said ‘Dr Sabella, aren’t you afraid?’ ‘Afraid of what?’ I said. ‘Of the Muslims doing something bad to you.’ ‘I answered: You must be kidding. What do you mean? They are my Palestinian brothers and sisters. We grew up together, we live next to one another, we go to school together. What are you talking about? This is your mental idea of things, it is not my experience, not my cognitive view of the world around me. So don’t tell me about this.’
“In this context, to be a Palestinian Christian simply means that I’m living here as a Palestinian, and my religion is Christianity. So the two mix together and I feel that I belong to the Land and the Land belongs to me as much as any Palestinian. This is what it means to me. I see no complexity or conflict between the two. Period. Never, never in my Palestinian life, history, experience was there any problem with my Christian identity. And this is something that I think speaks of the openness and magnanimity – in this case – of Islam, of the Islam we have experienced in Palestine. So I feel completely a Palestinian.

“This is not to say that there are no problems in Palestinian society. Basically Palestinians are a very religious group, extremely religious. And sometimes I tell my students at Bethlehem University that I wish that all the religiosity of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, were put to good practice. We are fantastic, we are a people at prayer, but often we do not apply the spirit of the prayer. And because we are so much under pressure, all of us, then we start infighting and become insensitive. So I think we need to transform the solidarity that comes from us as a people at prayer into a kind of social solidarity that reflects the best in Palestinian culture and society.

Can you elaborate on some of the problems between the communities?

“Sometimes you get sensitivities over the fact that you have a real estate at a certain locality and that there is a conflict over it or there is a business and there is conflict over who has the right to be there or not to be there. And if it happens to have Christians and Muslims involved then some people read into it automatically a religious dimension, which in fact doesn’t exist. It is exactly like someone from Nablus having difficulty with someone from Jerusalem, then it doesn’t have to become a problem between Nabulsis and Jerusalemites.

“Religious labelling has social, economic, political causes in each locality and the more you have the meeting of religions as in Bethlehem or Nazareth, the more that meeting of religions becomes prone to religious labelling on both sides. I think the less understanding we have of the causes the more likely we are both, Muslims and Christians, to use religious labelling. If we want to understand the dynamics of relationships in a town like Bethlehem or Nazareth we have to understand the root causes – economic, social, family and other root causes. We cannot just simply say they are doing this because they are Muslims or they are not doing it because they are Christians. That’s really simplifying matters and really confusing them at the same time because then the religious dimension becomes the cause of the problem while the cause of the problem is not religion. It is using or abusing religion to explain or to hide the real causes.

You mentioned problems of real estate. What would be the source of this?

“You may have someone who argues this land is ours because we have been here for a long time or because of this or that reason. Now a small family has the land and has deeds for the land. It happens that the tribe or a group who is more powerful numerically does not believe that. They may be right or they may be wrong. That is why it is important to have a system of law. It is important to have a working court system and it is important to treat the individual Palestinian as an individual Palestinian and not as a Christian or a Muslim belonging to this extended family or to this nuclear family.

“I am not saying that the cause of a Christian or Muslim family who claims they are being discriminated against, or being forced to relinquish property that belongs to them, is not a just cause. What I’m saying is that there is power politics here that is not religiously based. It is based on human nature and social relationships and not on religion per se. And now that gets confused with the religious principle and with the religious background of the contestants to this piece of land.

Do the expression of a Muslim identity and a Christian identity support or weaken the case for Palestinian national unity?

“I think we have some questions here concerning the relationship between an Islamic identification of the Palestinian cause and a nationalist identification. And both are present. It is clear that for Palestinian Christians, the preference is for the nationalist presentation because the argument is very simple from our point of view. When you talk about the nation, you talk about the people – Christian, Muslim, whoever. When you talk about the religious identity, then you talk about the broader identification, which in a sense puts the non-Muslims or those who do not belong to the particular religion in a corner or aside. He or she is put in a position to ask, ‘How do I belong’ and that was the dilemma in which some Christians were living and still are living. As a Palestinian and as a Palestinian Christian I have nothing against the Islamist political ideology. I may have some reservation on some [issues], for e.g., justifying the use of force – because my Christian faith teaches me not to use force. If I am a true Christian then I have to subscribe to that. But it doesn’t make me less Palestinian. There are also Muslims who subscribe to the same methodology. Islam is not a religion of violence. Here again in our specific context you are talking about resistance and about ending occupation. But resistance could be effectively non-violent; it may take longer time to achieve the objective of ending occupation but it will achieve it. So we must not altogether disregard the importance of non-violent resistance. I have no problem as a Palestinian Christian with the Islamic parties that exist in Palestine. But my preference is definitely for a secular nationalist identity that would put me on par – on balance with my Muslim compatriots. This is my preference and I don’t hide it.

Would you encourage activities or projects that actually serve to develop inter-religious relations?

“I feel we should publicise more the grounds, the current grounds that unite us as Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews. I think this is very important. I think we have to have a kind of comprehensive vision together of what we want to do. We cannot be exclusive. So I encourage all kinds of activities that promote openness to one another. I would welcome Jews who would join this effort and who would champion the cause of justice. We either do the future together or we perish together. I think what is happening now is that we are going into a path of such exclusivity that in the final analysis we may really end up in disaster after disaster in dealing with one another. Therefore we have to open up, talk, participate, look at the good things, the good heritage, the common grounds that unite us Muslims and Christians, and wherever is appropriate, also Jews. This is a struggle. We want our liberation, we want our independent state, we want East Jerusalem as our capital.

“Important is also real life experience. Look at the private educational system – it has been going on so long. Muslims and Christians studying together. What better project do you want? This is the best project because it teaches us how to be together. It is a beautiful project, a live project. I am talking about the experience of going to school together, having Muslim and Christian teachers, Muslim students and Christian students intermingling with one another, living our lives out together. It teaches us how to respect one another, how not to censor one another. When my children bring their friends home and they introduce me to them, I really do not know where to place them, in terms of their religious background, and that is wonderful. Going into our sitting room one evening and finding over eight youngsters together identifying each in his first name as a person is a natural thing to do. If you would have asked me to tell you who is Muslim and who is Christian, I would definitely be at a loss. This means that we are a healthy society and we are interacting with one another as people and not as stereotypes and it is rewarding to see our kids doing this sort of interaction among themselves, thus reinforcing our traditions of good neighbourliness. I think this is beautiful. I cannot say we should come up with projects [for developing relations between Muslims and Christians]. We are better off by experiencing life together and by respecting one another not as Muslim or Christian but as a person who has a firm belief in his or her religion, and therefore we grow to appreciate one another better. I am not for artificial projects and programmes. We are living the experiential life projects every day: how to go by checkpoints, how to avoid tear-gas, how to manage the curfew, how to end occupation and achieve our independence.

Next interview with educator Sana’a Abu Ghosh