President’s Message At HCEF banquet in honor of His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah at Peachtree Presbyterian Church Atlanta Georgia June 15, 2001

President’s Message – Banquet Remarks
At HCEF banquet in honor of His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah
at Peachtree Presbyterian Church
Atlanta Georgia
June 15, 2001

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

On behalf of Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation I am delighted to extend to you a warm welcome to this Banquet as we gather to develop bonds of solidarity with our Brothers and Sisters in the Holy Land.

The theme of this Banquet is “Jerusalem, the Mother Church of Christianity,” and it is given in honor of his Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Archbishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem.  This Banquet is part of a continuing effort by HCEF, through the Holy Land Christian Support Network, to alert American Christians to the real possibility that the descendants of the original Christians will become extinct in their ancestral homeland in the very near future.

First, I would like to thank all of you for coming to this ecumenical Banquet.  I would also like to thank Patriarch Michel Sabbah for coming here all the way from the Holy Land.  All Christians can be grateful for his active support of an ecumenical approach to the issues in the Holy Land, and his tireless efforts there on behalf of all Christians.

I would also like to thank our other speakers tonight, the Most Reverend John F. Donoghue, Archbishop of Atlanta, for accepting our invitation to address us this evening in spite of his busy schedule hosting the U.S. Bishops Conference here in Atlanta.  I also want to thank the Rev. Dr. Victor Pentz, the Pastor here at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.  Rev. Pentz and his congregation have expressed their commitment to the mission of HCEF by sponsoring 300 children in Beit Sahour,  and establishing a partnership with the church in the embattled town of Beit Sahour with Fr. Majdi Siryani, and for sending a Fact Finding Mission to the Holy Land in July.  Also our appreciation to Rev. Fr. Joseph Samaan, Rev. Margaret Rose, and Fr. John Azar for  participating in our Program this evening.

A special thanks also goes to Rev. Rebecca Burton for her professionalism and patience in furthering HCEF activities in Atlanta, including this Banquet. 

I turn now to the issue of the Christians in the Holy Land.  Experts predict, based on the current declining Christian population in the Holy Land, that without major changes, by the year 2020 the holy sites, where Jesus lived, walked, and taught, will become museums, without the loving care of living Christians.

This is not just a Middle Eastern question; American Christians have a vital interest in supporting our Sisters and Brothers in the Holy Land, as well as sustaining the very foundation of our common Christian heritage in the Holy Land.

This Banquet calls to mind the central role of Jerusalem and its continued relevance to Christian Americans.  Christians from the Holy Land and the United States come together here today to break bread and discuss the important issues related to the survival of Christian society in the Holy Land.

Due to Israeli occupation, Christian Palestinians are in danger of losing their ancestral homeland, livelihood, and holy places.  Current violent events in the Holy Land are a reflection of the frustrations experienced by the Palestinian people and their efforts to protest continued Israeli occupation.

Thus, Palestinians are denied the basic human rights enjoyed by their Israeli counterparts.  They suffer the indignities of an apartheid regime that denies economic opportunity, provides inadequate housing, insufficient education, limited medical care, neglect of civil and social infrastructure and restriction of travel.  The most worrisome indignity is the infringement of religious freedom for our Brothers and Sisters in the Holy Land.  The Israeli occupation has marginalized the indigenous Christian community to the point of extinction.  They have systematically, and time and time again, targeted Christian towns such as Beit Sahour.

HCEF was founded a little over two years ago as an ecumenical endeavor by a handful of Christians of different denominations to build solidarity between American Christians and their forgotten Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters of the Holy Land.  At that time, we sought to breathe new life into the continued presence of Christian society in the Holy Land.  Our goals at that time were grand.  We sought to help maintain Christianity in the Holy Land by improving the living conditions of Christians, through employment programs providing outlets for artisans, through housing programs that would relieve the housing shortage, and through a child sponsorship program to assure that as many children as possible could attend Christian schools, and thereby continue the faith in the land where Jesus lived and died.

I have just returned from a two week pilgrimage and fact finding mission to the Holy Land with other HCEF board members.  We saw firsthand how grand our original goals were two years ago.  Rather than a significant underemployment problem that we sought to relieve, there is now full unemployment for a majority of the population.  As a result, Christians now face the very real prospect of malnutrition and other health problems. 

The small contributions we have been able to make, to address the housing shortage that Christians face, are insignificant when contrasted with the dozens of houses we saw rendered useless by tank rounds and U.S. helicopter rockets. 

And the worst.  The worst that we saw were the children.  Our child sponsorship program in its short time has sponsored over 200 children.  But when we went last month to the kindergarten class of one of the schools, it was clear that maintaining the Christian faith was not the priority of these young native Christians.  I was astonished.  There was none of the spontaneity, the chatting with friends, or the unrestrained joy of a five-year old.  Instead, there was lethargy, indifference, and the distant focus in their eyes of burning fear.  Fear about whether they would be shot, or their brother would come home without an arm.  Fear because their father was stranded in another town while looking for work, and had not been home in three days.  Or perhaps worst of all, the fear that only a young child can have, of seeing their mother die in front of them while preparing dinner due to an exploding shell, or caught in a cross-fire while at the market trying to barter for food.

By an invitation of His Beatitude, my wife and I had the privilege and honor last year to witness His Holiness Pope John Paul II, in Bethlehem, where he sent an encouraging message to the Palestinian Christians by saying:

“Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the Savior was born.”

The native Christians are doing their part.  I am here tonight to ask each and everyone of you to not be afraid to preserve our Christian presence and heritage.

I urge you to open yourself, your church and your organizations to the spirit of this Banquet.  Get Involved!  The joint efforts of Christians of all faiths are needed, and can have a real and immediate impact on the terrible conditions facing our Christian Brothers and Sisters in carrying out their daily life in the Holy Land.

You can be part of the solution, by being part of the Foundation’s efforts to replace despair with hope, fear with security, and humiliation with human dignity.  I urge you to consider ways in which you can participate in this vital effort, before the passage of time eliminates the Christian voice in the Holy Land.  One simple way of doing this to join and participate in the Holy Land Christian Support Network.  By doing this, we all can share responsibility for some part of this overall effort. 

Together, we shall overcome the very real threat to Christian survival in the Holy Land in the new millenium. 

Finally, I would like to note that Luke identified the role for Christians today, when he said in his Gospel, Luke 4:8:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

We each are now called upon to do our part.

God bless you and thank you for coming.

Rateb Y. Rabie
Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Inc.