Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East long ago reached “an understanding” that they would not try to convert each other, Dr. Bernard Sabella, an Associate Professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, told an audience of about 100 at Georgetown University on April 23.
Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East long ago reached "an understanding" that they would not try to convert each other, Dr. Bernard Sabella, an Associate Professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, told an audience of about 100 at Georgetown University on April 23. Instead of working directly to convert non-Christians, Dr. Sabella stressed, Arab Christians in the Holy Land bear witness to the love of Christ by giving good example in words and actions, and "by providing schools, hospitals, and other services" to the society at large.
Dr. Sabella is a Christian Arab resident of Jerusalem, and an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia, and he is a senior official of the Middle East Council of Churches.
His presentation at Georgetown was sponsored jointly by the Office of the President of that university, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Dr. Sabella stated that it is not true, as is sometimes alleged, that the continued exodus of native Christians from the Holy Land is due in significant part to "Islamic extremism." He cited a recent poll in which over 90% of Palestinian emigrants said that they had left due to oppressive political and/or economic conditions, while only 8% agreed that Islamic extremism had been any sort of factor in their departures. He added that many thousands of Israeli Jews had also left Israel recently for political/economic reasons, and he reported that a friend in Berlin had told him that some 60,000 Israeli Jews now live in that city.
Asked if he thought that a Christian leader like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could emerge from the ranks of Palestinians to lead a non-violent liberation movement in Palestine, Dr. Sabella replied, "Probably not." While the Christian role in Palestine is influential, one should not exaggerate it; "If a charismatic leader is to emerge to lead a non-violent movement, it will probably have to be a Muslim," Dr. Sabella opined.
The Islamist party Hamas must be part of any solution in Palestine, Dr. Sabella stated; the recent discussions between former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Hamas leaders can help that happen. Dr. Sabella believes that Hamas must be helped to evolve into a "Turkish style, secular Muslim party," which can happen in an atmosphere of peace.
Despite the lack of visible progress in recent months towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Dr. Sabella said, he remains optimistic that something meaningful will come out of last year’s initiative of U.S. President George W. Bush. But progress toward a two-state solution must come fast, the professor insisted; if nothing concrete is achieved by the end of 2008, moderate Palestinian leaders, and moderate secular institutions like the Palestinian Liberation Organization will be overwhelmed, with hardliners in Hamas likely to "take over" Palestinian political life. However, Dr. Sabella stated, if real progress toward peace is made this year, "We’ll be able to achieve a secular Palestinian state."
Dr. Sabella argued that the most important step Israel could take to ensure its security and prosperity would be to "build good relations with Israel’s neighbors" in Palestine. He thought that the idea of a unitary state of Israelis and Palestinians was "not practical," even though some people are calling for that out of despair that a viable Palestinian state can now be built.
In response to a question as to how Americans might contribute to a positive outcome in Palestine, Dr. Sabella said that Americans should support the peace process, and should seek ways to encourage and assist Palestinians to remain in their country.