The Anglican vows to continue speaking out against the occupation and stands by the parallels he has drawn between his people’s lives today and the hardships faced by Jesus and early Christians.
The Rev. Naim Ateek is a white-haired, American-trained Anglican priest who supports nonviolent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often speaks of his dream of a world in which Israeli and Palestinian states exist peacefully, side by side.
Ateek is also the founder of Sabeel, a Palestinian liberation theology movement based in Jerusalem, and a man whose U.S. appearances in recent years have sparked controversy among some Jewish groups.
Critics say Ateek uses imagery, such as references to the crucifixion, that vilifies Israel and they contend that the conferences he is associated with present speakers and material that are biased against the Jewish state.
Ateek spoke at a recent Middle East conference in Pasadena that was sponsored by Friends of Sabeel, an organization of American Christians. The gathering drew several hundred people to All Saints Episcopal Church for lectures and workshops on topics that included a history of the Israeli occupation, U.S. policy in the Middle East and the shrinking presence of Palestinian Christians in the land known as the cradle of their faith.
In an interview during his visit to Southern California, where he has family links and years of ties to local churches and theologians, Ateek spoke about the controversy he provokes and the emotion-charged language he uses to discuss Israel’s four-decade occupation of Palestinian areas.
As a Christian and a priest, Ateek said, he and others like him have a responsibility to speak out.
"We are Palestinian Christians," he said. "This is certainly not our only agenda, but if we are not concerned with justice and peace and reconciliation, what is our faith really about? It’s part of our responsibility as Christians — part of being faithful to the truth and to our baptismal covenant — to respect the dignity of every human being and speak out about injustice."
Ateek, 71, was born in Beisan, south of the Sea of Galilee in what was then Palestine. After the creation of Israel in 1948, Ateek grew up in Nazareth, where his family moved after Beisan was occupied. He attended college in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, a master’s in divinity from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley and a doctor of divinity degree at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Before founding Sabeel in the 1990s, Ateek for many years was a parish priest in Haifa and Nazareth and then canon of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem.
Sabeel, which is Arabic for "the way" as well as for a water channel or spring, sponsors international gatherings that draw hundreds of Christians to Jerusalem every few years. In the U.S., its support group has sponsored 23 conferences, including one in Boston last fall that featured South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Ateek said the language and positions that have brought Sabeel its most virulent criticism were sermons in which he has compared the suffering of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation to the hardships of Jesus and the early Christians. The group has also called for U.S. churches to divest from companies doing business in the occupied territories.
Ateek strongly defended both ideas but said they have often been taken out of context or manipulated to imply that he and Sabeel are anti-Semitic because they criticize the Israeli government.
In his sermons — especially around Christmas and Easter — Ateek said, he has certainly drawn parallels between Palestinian life today and the difficulties faced by the faith’s founder.
"Any time Christians have been oppressed, they look to the suffering of Christ to sustain them," he said. "That is theologically correct and I will always do it. But I have never said or implied that Jews are Christ killers, which is one of the things I’ve been accused of."
"I’ve said that we feel there is oppression and injustice in the occupation and that the Israeli government is responsible. And that I will never back down on," he said.
Sabeel has also gained notoriety with its call for divestment from companies doing business with Israel. In recent years the call has helped galvanize such efforts by members of U.S. mainline Protestant churches.
The U.S. Methodist Church, at its general conference in April, is set to become the latest to debate a divestment proposal — specifically, whether to pull church holdings in Caterpillar, which supplies the Israeli army with bulldozers. Other denominations have debated similar proposals, but all have fallen short of passage or the groups have later reversed course.
Ateek says Sabeel’s call for divestment, which has alarmed the Israeli government and some American Jewish groups, is an appropriate form of protest. "We believe we are walking very firmly on the path of justice and peace," he said.