Living the Faith: Promoting Peace and Human Security in the Holy Land

Dr. Saliba Sarsar

Secretary, HCEF Board of Directors

Professor of Political Science, Monmouth University



“When do peace, human security, doing business, and doing good intersect?,” you may ask.  The answer: When people of good will meet to make a real difference—share their values and views, expertise and experience, and commitment and support. That is what happened at the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) 12th International Conference that was held at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC on November 5 and 6.

Over 250 people participated from around the United States, Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere listening to myriad presentations and engaging in discussions on the main theme of “Living the Faith: Promoting Peace and Human Security in the Holy Land.” Presenters included a distinguished group of religious leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—educators, political thinkers, journalists, bankers, and business executives.

Two panels were held on Friday afternoon.  The first was moderated by Brother Jack Curran of Bethlehem University, with Rabbi Gerald Serotta of Shirat HaNefesh Congregation and Imam Yahya Hendi of Georgetown University, both members of “Clergy Beyond Borders,” and Fr. Drew Christiansen of America Magazine, as panelists.  They spoke of interfaith dialogue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and agreed that the common roots of their monotheistic traditions can and should serve as a path toward finding understanding where purely secular-based past initiatives have failed.


As Rabbi Serotta held, “particularity does not signify exclusion.”  “People of faith,” Imam Hendi added, “need the other to complete their own faith.” In order to reach the Promised Land, “we must get rid of egotism and be a prophetic voice of love, forgiveness, and humility.” While there are multiple forms of dialogue, the presenters agreed that the aim of dialogue is not to win an argument or a debate but to listen carefully and with respect to the voice of the other in order to arrive at an understanding of the other.  Fr. Christiansen cited the examples of Pope John Paul II praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey as powerful moments and giant steps forward in interfaith relations.


The second panel, “A Prophetic Call to End Violence in the Holy land: Kairos Palestine,” was moderated by Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University and Secretary of the HCEF Board of Directors.  Berlanty Azzam, a recent graduate of the School of Business at Bethlehem University, spoke of how barely two months before graduation, she was arrested by the Israeli military and deported to Gaza.  After numerous appeals by Israeli and international human rights organizations, she was able to leave Gaza.

Examining the profound implications of Kairos Palestine—A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope, and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering, Fr. Jamal Daibes of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, explained that “violence is not the way to peace.” Peace is “the fruit of justice.” The Bible cannot be used to “justify injustice.” After all, “God is not a landlord, and the Bible is not an ideology.” As the authors of Kairos Palestine agree, “the occupation is evil, the occupation is a sin” and “it must be resisted with love and nonviolence.” He asked all people of good will to a new moral purpose and requested of churches everywhere to reflect upon and take a stand on what the document is and what is taking place in the Holy Land.

Dr. Judith Mendelsohn Rood of Biola University responded with suggestions for making the declaration more universal and appealing to a wider audience. Basing her analysis on the theological views of Miroslav Volf, as expressed in his Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, she argued that “memory must be truthful if it is to serve as an instrument of reconciliation and peace.” Moreover, “loving our enemies” is essential, not only because Jesus said it, but also because unless enemies embrace each other, violence will only intensify as the human capacity to harm others grows with technological and sociological advances.


On Saturday morning, four Christian leaders addressed the HCEF Conference participants.  The speakers—Fr. Peter Bray of Bethlehem University, Fr. Drew Christiansen of America Magazine, Fr. Emil Salayta of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Most Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custos of the Holy Land via video—reviewed the current situation of the Holy Land, its impact on the churches, and the challenges faced by the Christian community there. They agreed that the conditions are far from perfect and urged all present and others around the world to become informed, take interest in, and work toward peace and human security in the Holy Land.

The focus of human security is on people.  It is a prerequisite for “freedom from fear,” “freedom from want,” and “the freedom to live with dignity.” In the Holy Land, where life is constantly endangered, there is a strong need to invest in people.  This requires expanding cooperation at all levels, not only aid.  


In a panel moderated by Mr. Youssef Habesch of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group, Dr. Juan-Jose Daboub, former Finance Minister of El Salvador posed the important questions of how do we support investment in people and how do we enable them to flourish and reach their full potential.  An obvious necessity is freedom because “humans need to be free in order to succeed in life.” He urged participants to act and to invest in Palestine.  Despite the challenges, the availability of natural resources, the readiness of the government to partner, the entrepreneurship spirit, the growth of the private sector—all make for a hospitable climate for investment.  He concluded that “the best part of worship is the actual conduct of our day and how we contribute toward justice and peace.” 

Dr. Howard Sumka of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) discussed the agency’s effort to build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to govern and to improve the daily lives of Palestinians.  Using around $400 million per year, USAID creates “an environment conducive to prosperity and stability, one in which sustainable development can occur and in which investment can take place.  Obviously, needed are prerequisites or co-requisites, including a security regime that generates confidence; a strong rule of law regime; a solid commercial law and regulatory milieu; basic services that meet the need of people and investors; health; and education.  While challenges remain, progress is being made. 


Mr. Hashim Hani Shawa, Chair and General Manager of the Bank of Palestine, spoke of the positive aspects of a healthy economy and investments.  For him, “with a vibrant economy, with jobs that create stability, people stay where they are and believe in a future, believe in the future of their children for generations to come, believe in taking risks, expanding their horizons, achieving their aspirations, developing their businesses, and innovating….” Despite the ongoing occupation and the systematic stifling of the economy, Mr. Shawa emphasized that the Palestinians remain steadfast.  After all, freedom and prosperity starts from within.  “You have to keep hope, to be brave, to persevere,” he added.  Palestinians are creating their own facts on the ground, creating their own destiny, “getting ready for the rendezvous with freedom,” as Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad calls it. Mr. Shawa explained that the Bank of Palestine is expanding access to finance throughout Palestine, establishing a mortgage system, initiating green loans to enable people to access water, and developing a private pension system as a pillar of social security.  Overall, “it pays to be good and to align one’s business with the community interests and with the environment,” he concluded. 

Ambassador Maen Areikat, Chief of Mission of the General Delegation of Palestinian Liberation Organization to the United States then presented the Palestinian perspective on the peace process. He suggested that “we need to move beyond the issue of settlements to address larger, more important issues such as borders and security.” For Ambassador Areikat, “the settlement moratorium was not a cessation but a slowdown.” Moreover, the settlement buildup continues in Jerusalem. The U.S. role is crucial, but the U.S. has shown a lack of decisiveness. The U.S. must not adopt the Israeli position, but it should instead “adhere to its principles and hold Israel responsible.” The U.S. must realize that Israel is “playing around the clock to make peace more elusive. The Palestinians,” according to Ambassador Areikat, “cannot be the party that keeps making compromises.”

The Ambassador’s address was followed by a workshop on the investment environment and business opportunities in Palestine.  The Presenters included Mr. Faris Hadad-Zervos, an official of the World Bank; Mr. Hashim Hani Shawa of the Bank of Palestine; Mr. Youssef Habesch of IFC; Dr. Samir Hazboun, Chairman of the Board, Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry; and Mr. Ammar Aker, Chief Executive Officer of the Paltel Group. A special focus was put on investments, job creation, and international development.

The main message is: “Palestine is ready for business.” Why? Real economic growth is taking place.  There is a steady increase in long-term financing and an expansion in construction and retail. Declared capital is on the rise.  Moreover, there is a highly regulated banking sector and a budding stock exchange. Investing in Palestine is safe. It is “an investment in justice, in peace.” This transformation in the business environment results from the resilient spirit and entrepreneurship of the Palestinian people, a supportive government authority, and international donor assistance program.  Sources that are yet to be properly tapped are the Palestinians living in the Diaspora and tourism.  Imagine the tens of millions of tourists visiting the Holy Land each year instead of one or two millions. Wouldn’t that be in the best interest of Palestine and Israel?

Many examples were cited to illustrate the improved state of affairs.  Seeing beyond the economic challenges, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group has been working collaboratively with the management of the Bank of Palestine (BoP) to create a solid risk management system, an essential component that ensures the sustainability of any bank.  Through IFC involvement, the BoP has opened 10 new branches in Palestine, providing countless Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza with “their first opportunity to save money safely, obtain small business loans, and afford higher education for their children.” Palestinian products are exported all over the world, with the principal outlets being Israel, the Arab World, the European Union, and the United States.  The Paltel Group is contributing on average 12% to the Gross Domestic Product of Palestine, and is Palestine’s number one employer among the private sector with over 3,000 employees in the West Bank and Gaza. The Chilean Palestinian community is on board and will be accessing the Palestinian Stock Exchange from thousands of miles away….

A concurrent workshop—chaired by Dr. Judith Mendelsohn Rood of Biola University and introduced by Mrs. Harriet Fulbright, former President of the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center—featured three women from Jerusalem.  Ms. Reem Mustafa, a Muslim Palestinian; Ms. Ruth Hiller, a Jewish Israeli; and Ms. Marianna Khoury, a Christian Palestinian—all shared their personal and very poignant experiences.  Speaking from the perspective as mothers, wives, and daughters, they shed light on the continuing human toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conference culminated with a panel of experts titled, “Israel and Palestine: Are the Choices Peace vs. No Peace?” which was moderated by Ambassador Philip Wilcox, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.  The panelists—Mr. Ori Nir, Spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now; Ms. Amira Hass, correspondent for Ha’aretz Newspaper; and Dr. Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine—reviewed recent political developments in Palestine, Israel, and the United States. 

Mr. Nir suggested that although there have been positive developments in Palestinian-Israeli relations, “we are stuck in the peace process.” This inertia enhances the obstacles standing in the way of peace, and hardens positions on both sides of the conflict.  Nevertheless, a state in the making is materializing in Palestine.  A consensus around the two-state solution is developing in Israel.  In addition to the need for positive actions on the part of Palestinians and Israelis, the U.S. President needs “to assert himself in a decisive way” and push for a solution.  American citizens have to become engaged in pressuring their elected officials to push for peace.

Ms. Hass, however, is not hopeful about Israel’s intentions.  She believes that the Israelis do not want peace.  They are satisfied with the status quo.  Voices in Israel are heard about the transfer or expulsion of Palestinians from the State of Israel.  Even some rabbis are involved in advocating for discrimination against Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. As for the Palestinians, Ms. Hass thinks that the influx of international assistance has created an accommodation with the status quo, with the “enclave mentality.” Also, the assistance or donations given to the Palestinians actually strengthen the status quo and, in turn, help the Israelis. There must be a conscious struggle against the occupation by the entire Palestinian population. 

According to Dr. Ibish, the developing American and international consensus regarding the two-state solution has changed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a zero-sum equation to what can and should be a win-win solution—Israel and Palestine living alongside each other in peace and security.  Ending the occupation and peace with Israel still constitute the main Palestinian national goal.  Unquestionably, it is also clearly in the national interests of both Israel and the United States. Alternative scenarios to the two-state solution are “fanciful, analogous to science fiction.”  Diplomacy must be strengthened.  The U.S. is advised to redouble its efforts in support of the Palestinian state-building project, more diplomatic recognition for the Palestinians, and working with the Arab states to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative. Failure to do so will only strengthen those against peace.  What is needed is a national coalition for a two-state solution….

HCEF’s 12th International Conference pointed out that living the faith in the Holy Land, like elsewhere, is not an abstraction and does not occur in a vacuum.  It is reaching out to God and all creations with respect and love.  It is working with others to reduce obstacles and enhance opportunities.  It is promoting peace and human security for all.

To hear the sessions of the 12th International Conference and the Investment Forum held in the Context of the Conference, or to learn more about HCEF and its programs please visit us at




HCEF’s 13th International Conference


October 28-29, 2011

The National Presbyterian Church

4101 Nebraska Avenue

Washington, DC  20016