On Saturday evening, October 25, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) concluded its 10th International Conference with over 300 clergy, organizational leaders, academics, authors, and other participants from around the country and the world.

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The conference theme, A Decade of Seeking Peace: Pursuing Hope, Security and Human Dignity, reflected on HCEF's ten years of service to Arab Christian communities in the Holy Land — Palestine, Israel and Jordan.

Though HCEF's mission is devoted to a population whose very existence is threatened by military occupation, land confiscation and economic hardship, the attendants to its 10th Anniversary event reflected the diverse array of hearts and minds that this subject has touched.

Commenting on the weekend's events, which consisted of an Awards Banquet on Friday and a day-long conference of panelists and break-away sessions on Saturday, HCEF President Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS, surmised:

"As a Christian, I am heartened to see American Christians support the indigenous witnesses of our Holy Land heritage. As a Palestinian, I am proud that our voice was heard. But as a member of the human race, it moves me so profoundly to see Muslims; Jews; Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians; the religious and the secular defy stereotypes in pursuit of truth."

Rateb Rabie added, "After today, I can say that we all share a Holy Land connection."

Sir Rateb Rabie, KHCS, delivers opening remarks

Established in 1998 by a multi-denominational group of Christians to raise awareness about the plight of the indigenous Arab Christians of the Holy Land, HCEF currently has offices in Bethlehem (Holy Land) and the Washington, DC area, and over ten local committees around the United States. HCEF administers humanitarian, educational and economic empowerment programs in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The 10th International Conference was held at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, the church whose partnership with a Palestinian church in Birzeit inspired Rabie to form HCEF.

Dr. Saliba Sarsar's opening presentation

In addition to a keynote speech by H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, the conference featured over 16 internationally-recognized speakers from diverse backgrounds. Saturday's events began with a presentation, titled, "Who Are the Arab Christians of the Holy Land," presented by Dr. Saliba Sarsar of Monmouth University. While Sarsar's talk provided the contextual background for HCEF's conference, the next talk presented a twist.

Twenty-eight year-old Anna Baltzer, an up-and coming author and member of the International Women's Peace Service, presented her views and findings as a Jewish woman who had not only documented human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, but committed herself to changing American views about the conflict one city, town or academic campus at a time.

Jewish-American speaker Anna Baltzer

The next panel, "Hope for a Two-State Solution: Challenges and Opportunities from Palestinian and Jewish Perspectives," featured a similarly compelling range of views, with Dr. Ziad Asali, President of the American Task Force for Palestine, alongside Ori Nir, the spokesperson for the American Jewish organization Americans for Peace Now. The Panel was presided over by retired U.S. Ambassador Philip Wilcox, Jr., President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

(Left to right) Palestinian-American speaker Dr. Ziad Asali; Retired U.S. Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox, Jr.; Israeli-American speaker Ori Nir

A significant portion of the day then went to three breakout sessions that offered participants with practical take-away lessons, both from the non-profit and grassroots approaches.

Two of these sessions, titled, "Economic Development and Holy Land Support Programs," and Partnerships for Educational Initiatives," brought compelling perspectives on social development paradigms in the Holy Land. The first was led by Raed Saedeh, General Manager, Jerusalem Hotel in Jerusalem and William Corcoran, President of the American Near East Refugee Agency (ANERA), while the second was presented by Br. Jack Curran, FSC, Ph.D., Vice President for Development at Bethlehem University; Patricia Parma, HCEF Coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Antonio; and Kort Bassam, Education Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development. The third workshop, "Christian Grassroots Advocacy and Solidarity," consisted of Fr. Drew Christiansen, Editor-in-Chief of America Magazine, and Rev. Robert O. Smith, director of the European and Middle East Desk at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Global Mission.

Following the breakout sessions, the conference turned again to the regional subject at hand — the Holy Land. Titled, "The Identity Crisis of Arab Christians in Israel," Wadie Abunasser, Director of the International Center for Consultations in Israel, focused on the oft-neglected topic of Arab/Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship (i.e. not the Palestinian Christians of the occupied territories).

Wadie Abunasser speaks on Arab Christians at HCEF's 10th International Conference

The day's panels concluded with the riveting subject of Christian Zionism. The American Christian Zionist movement is led by Texas-based Pastor John Hagee, under the banner, "Christians United for Israel," an organization with thousands of neoconservative Evangelical followers. An apocalyptic visionary and Biblical literalist, some call Hagee the most dangerous man in the Middle East. Yet he is one of the most influential people on U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine.

Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner presents on Christian Zionism

Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner of North Park University and Rev. Dr. Stan Moody, of the Christian Policy Institute, addressed this issue with an historical and political analysis that left conference participants debating in the halls well after the panel had concluded. The panel was moderated by a vivacious Rev. Russell O. Siler, the former head Pastor of the English-speaking congregation of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.

In the coming weeks, HCEF will feature video and multimedia glimpses of its 10th International Conference.