By Christie L. Chicoine
Special to the Catholic Standard

Depicting the work of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) as “a beacon of light,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl pledged his prayers as he applauded the organization for promoting an “explicit call to peace in the Middle East and in our world.”

The cardinal made his remarks at the HCEF’s recent 13th annual International Conference and Awards Banquet in Washington.

The convocation provided “a platform for interreligious dialogue focused on building community, together with the promotion of investment and business opportunities in Palestine,” the Cardinal said.

In his address to attendees, Cardinal Wuerl reflected on Pope Benedict XVI’s May 2009 visit to the Holy Land. He recalled how the Holy Father emphasized the importance of the next generation’s upbringing and education. “Our history, our culture, our faith – all is passed on through the family. That was the message of Blessed John Paul II, the message repeated by Pope Benedict in his visit, and why it’s so important that this foundation focus on supporting all the efforts that provide stability and a future for the next generation of young persons in the Holy Land.”

The conference, continued the cardinal, was about coming together to “thank God for the opportunities that are ours,” recognizing “the challenges that all in the Holy Land face, the Christian community, in its effort to continue to flourish and to grow. But we thank God for the opportunities that we have to support that community.”

In welcoming the conferees to the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl assured all they “have friends here who truly appreciate all that you’re attempting to do.

“May God bless you, may God bless the work of the foundation,” he said.

“The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation today is a beacon of light for the future. When we turn our attention to our young people … to their hopes and aspirations, we’re turning our attention to the future for all of us,” concluded the cardinal.

The conference, which drew 500 attendees and carried the theme, “Investing in Our Community, Building Our Future,” included an information technology sector forum, an America-Palestine Youth Conference and an investment and business conference.

The youth conference, as well as numerous panel discussions and workshops, were held at the National Presbyterian Church in northwest Washington.

In an acknowledgement of Cardinal Wuerl’s continued diligence and support of Christians in the Holy Land, and for his advocacy for peace and reconciliation, HCEF representatives conferred upon the Cardinal an honorary key to the Holy Land and personally invited him to make a pilgrimage there.

The representatives who made the presentation to the cardinal were Rateb Y. Rabie, HCEF president and CEO, and Hashim Hani Shawa, the Bank of Palestine board chair and general manager.

Rabie said the HCEF offers help to those “who suffer under occupations…. Our faith asks us to help regardless of … whoever is oppressed.”

Rabie, a Jordanian Catholic immigrant to the United States, was born in Palestine and raised in Jordan. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus and a knight commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a fraternal organization dedicated to supporting the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and to responding to the needs of Christians in the Holy Land.

Among the awards conferred at the banquet was the Path of Peace Award, to James J. Zogby, founding president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.

At the awards banquet, the HCEF also acknowledged the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who died this past July 27. Archbishop Sambi was honored by the HCEF in 2009 when he was named the Path of Peace award recipient for his lifelong commitment to the cause of peace in the Middle East.

According to the HCEF, Archbishop Sambi promoted peaceful reconciliation among Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Holy Land.

Conveying his admiration for Archbishop Sambi, Rabie said in a statement: “The HCEF Path of Peace Award was also a heartfelt expression of HCEF’s appreciation for his work, dedication and truly remarkable personal contributions he made toward building peace in a world troubled by unbelief and indifference.

“This world has lost a Godly man, great friend and true advocate for peace.”

The Path of Peace honoree is an eminent statesman, clergyman or citizen of any country who is, locally or internationally, recognized as a visionary and humanist.

Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout, a newly minted member of the HCEF advisory board, led the banquet’s invocation. Invoking the intercession of Christ, the Prince of Peace, Bishop Knestout prayed: “Make all men and women – all of us gathered here … all those who support the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation – witnesses of your truth, justice and love. Banish from our hearts whatever might endanger peace. May all people of the earth, especially those in the Holy Land, become as brothers and sisters. May the longed-for peace blossom forth and reign always over us. Bless this evening’s conversation…. May each of us manifest the peace Your Spirit gives and be bearers of that Good News in even the most difficult circumstances.”
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led the benediction at the close of the banquet. “Lord … we give you thanks for the good work of HCEF in favor of Palestinians. We give you thanks for the presence this evening of so many generous people – clergymen and lay people, Muslims and Christians, businessmen, politicians, supporters – who came from the U.S.A., Palestine and other countries….

“Lord, give Palestinians and Israelis what they most need: more than money, projects and compassion, they need Your peace.

“Lord, make Israelis understand that their security is in giving to Palestinians dignity, statehood and … rights, based on justice. Make Palestinians understand that reconciliation between themselves first, and the Israelis, is an important component of peace.”

Bishop Shomali also prayed on behalf of “our brothers in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Libya. May they enjoy what we ask for ourselves – peace and reconciliation.”

“Lord,” continued Bishop Shomali, “You are the Prince of Peace, our providence and our security, the God of Jewish Christians and Muslims, You who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.”

According to the HCEF, the unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 22.9 percent, the second largest after Gaza. To promote the HCEF/Reach Call Center in Bethlehem – estimated to create approximately 100 jobs there – the HCEF conference in Washington provided an IT Sector Forum. There, IT professionals from Palestine, the Middle East and the United States discussed the dynamics of strengthening the IT sector in Palestine. The meeting encouraged networking and the development of partnerships among IT professionals, NGOs and numerous others. Through their collaborative efforts, participants shared ideas and concepts about new initiatives and endeavors to develop the IT sector in Palestine. Plans were subsequently developed to achieve that goal.

The convocation’s first youth conference stemmed from the first national HCEF program, “Know Thy Heritage,” developed to preserve the Arab Palestinian heritage, and to highlight Palestine as part of the Holy Land by connecting youth of Palestinian ancestry, who live in the United States and elsewhere, with their roots in Palestine. This past summer, 33 Palestinian-American youth in the Diaspora “visited and lived Palestine.”

During the youth conference in Washington, the delegates, now ambassadors of peace, highlighted and discussed how the Palestine journey personally affected them. They also strategized how to assist the HCEF in enhancing the 2012 “Know Thy Heritage” sojourn.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, Bareeq Albarqawi and Joseph Abushawish, two Palestinian American youth delegates, shared their experiences through a panel discussion and a DVD of the trip abroad. Both explained how the journey empowered them by strengthening their knowledge of their Palestinian identity, culture, history and traditions, and enhanced their understanding of the Palestinian economic environment, political landscape, social conditions and structures.

In a panel titled “Christians of the Holy Land,” chaired by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor-in-chief of America Magazine and HCEF co-founder and advisory board member, clergy and church leaders reviewed current challenges facing Christians in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, and discussed ways to overcome those challenges.

There was general agreement that Americans and others have little awareness of the presence of Arab Christians. Rev. Samer Azar, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Amman, Jordan, clarified that Arab Christians represent indigenous Christians who have lived in the Holy Land for millennia, and that “they are neither converts from Islam nor remnants of the Crusaders.”

A growing fundamentalist movement, the impasse in the peace process, a lack of freedom – particularly religious freedom – and the unstable political conditions all impact the Arab Christian community.

Despite the multitude of challenges, Auxiliary Bishop Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem urged the attendees not to ignore the other and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, “the city of surprises.” He also asked all to reach “above the dark clouds to see the sunlight.”

The non-presence of Arab Christians in the mind of America was also addressed in a panel discussion titled, “Peace Building and Interfaith Voices of Peace,” moderated by Claudette Habesch, secretary general of CARITAS Jerusalem and HCEF advisory board member.

Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Ministry of International Students who is also affiliated with the Peachtree Presbyterian Church and serves as an HCEF advisory board member, said, “When they say ‘Arab,’ they think Muslim; when they say ‘Israeli,’ they think Jewish. The Arab Christians are nonexistent.”

He urged the United States to apply “tough love” on Israel, and for Israel to end its occupation.

Rabbi Arthur Blecher of Beth Chai, the Greater Washington Jewish Humanist Congregation, said, “honest dialogue requires trust. If peace is to materialize, recognizing the other’s humanity, understanding of the other, and cooperating with the other are a must.”

Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and president of Clergy Beyond Borders, said the Holy Land is sacred because it is home to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “We are in one covenant with God, and that is why we need to keep our covenant with one another,” he said. “If we honor the children of God, God will honor us.”

The main tasks, it was concluded, are to listen to each other, to hear each other’s narrative, to act, and to include the clergy, women and youth in the process.

In a DVD message, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan explained that Arab means both Christian and Muslim. Moving beyond conflict, extremism and the tragedy of 9/11, he asked, “Isn’t it time to fight for the future, for compassion and for the policies of peace?”

According to the prince, “the acceptance of difference implies the freedom from fear,” and “such acceptance is the only way forward for Jew, Christian and Muslim, and for humanity as a whole.”

He recognized “the need for creativity away from the turmoil” and for serious conversation about shared values. Working for congruence and being loyal to the truth will lead to an understanding of one another, concluded the prince.

A panel on investing in people and the future included talks by Hashim Hani Shawa, chairman of the board and general manager of the Bank of Palestine and Jihad Al Wazir, governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority. The panelists agreed that investing in people pumps positive energy into society and brings hope to the future. Actions and initiatives advancing a vision of investment, leadership for investment, and resources for investment in people, even amid the conditions of the Israeli occupation, were also addressed.

A special emphasis was placed on the need to create massive job opportunities, especially in banking, information and communications technology, and pharmaceutical sectors. Growth in the number of such positions must continue in order to build strong foundations of financial management and transparency that are necessary for promoting economic well-being and prosperity in Palestine, according to the panelists.

The need to contribute toward corporate social responsibility was also addressed. Said Shawa: “this contribution surpasses business transactions … to support activities, events and programs that combat poverty and draw a smile in the faces of children, invigorate the nation’s economy and contribute to achieving sustainable development.”

The conference events culminated with a panel titled, “The Long Overdue State of Palestine,” chaired by Saliba Sarsar, secretary of the HCEF board of directors and political science professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Panelists included Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, College Park; Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, chief of mission and general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the United States; and James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute Foundation.

“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved on its own.” Telhami said. Instead, he said, the United States should advance the issue before it can proceed with resolving other regional issues. However, he added, domestic and other challenges abound, which give President Barack Obama no incentive to do so at this time.

“The U.S.,” Telhami said, “should have looked at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote as an opportunity.” A U.S. veto, if it were to be cast, will be consequential as it affects public opinion and decisions in Egypt and other countries.

Areikat said the PLO will persevere in its efforts to secure the requisite nine member states in order to put the Palestinian bid for statehood up for a vote by the UNSC. If necessary, the PLO will submit a request through the U.N. General Assembly for Palestine to have a non-member state status. By going to the United Nations, “the PLO is not picking a fight with the U.S.”

It was determined that Congressional threats to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority hurt American interests, not only Palestinian interests, and that Palestinians need a clear frame of reference and a halt to Jewish settlements before negotiations are resumed.

Zogby spoke of his love for, and his experience with, Palestine. He related how America previously had no image of the Palestinians. It was always, “the Israeli people versus the Palestine problem.” The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he said, “is a defining issue in U.S.-Arab relations.” While things are changing, there ought to be more listening to the other, added Zogby. “Whether diplomacy works or not, we need to know,” he asked, “what do we do along the way?”

Rabie shared his encouragement as he reiterated the importance of providing sustainable support through the cooperation of various leaders, organizations and individuals working together to build the future.

HCEF endeavors to be successful in continuously connecting the ecumenical religious community with the business sector to promote peace and human security in the Holy Land.

On the final day of the conference, IT, NGO and various other business leaders convened for the HCEF’s 2nd Investment and Business Conference to expound upon and further solidify investment opportunities in Palestine, as well as strategic networking and partnership opportunities developed for the purpose of creating jobs and building hope for the future.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., the HCEF is committed to the presence and well-being of Arab Christians in the Holy Land and to developing the bonds of solidarity between them and Christians elsewhere.