Caritas General-Secretary in Jerusalem & HCEF Advisory Board member, on Christians in Jesus’ Land
ROME, DEC. 2, 2011 – According to Claudette Habesch, the Caritas general-secretary in Jerusalem, the problems of the Holy Land are political and land-related, not religious. But Israelis and Palestinians face the same choice: “There is no victory for one people and defeat for the other,” she says. “We either win together, Israelis and Palestinians, or we lose together.”
Habesch spoke with Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need about the situation in the Holy Land, and particularly the plight of Palestinian Christians.
Q: The Holy Land is the place where the Prince of Peace walked. Despite this, peace has yet to come, and terrible divisions continue to divide the community of Palestinians and Jews …
Habesch: Well, maybe my first comment would be the real issue is not Palestinians and Jews. It is Palestinians and Israelis, and that is a big difference for us. Our problem is not a religious problem. It is not Palestinians versus Jews. It is a political problem, a problem of land and not of religion.
Q: You are a Roman Catholic Palestinian. You were a child refugee. Can you tell us a little bit about your story?
Habesch: When I was very young I was made a refugee. I lost my home, I lost my bed, I lost my thoughts. My parents took us for safety to our winter home in Jericho and we never came back. As a child the real problem for me was that I could not understand why I could not get back to my home, why I could not have my clothes and my toys …
Q: Did this childhood experience engender bitterness or anger?
Habesch: No, because I was brought up in a family that made sure that we were happy children. I have great admiration for my parents. I do not think about bitterness. Because my parents made sure we got the best education, we got the best family home. But I really wanted to see my family home again. I really hope that justice will come one day. Unfortunately it is more than 60 years, and justice has not been done.
Q: So you can forgive, but you cannot forget?
Habesch: Exactly, I do forgive. But, I cannot forget. I say I cannot forget, because I do not want to forget. I believe I have a right and justice should be restored. Thank God that I am a mother. My daughter lives some six miles away from my home. It is in Jerusalem, but there is the famous checkpoint that we call the Checkpoint of Humiliation, the Kalandia checkpoint. Coming back from her home to my home, it sometimes takes three hours to travel six miles. But when I look in the face of those young soldiers who are manning the checkpoints, when they scream at you, I look at them and I forgive, because I am a mother. And I think, my God if this is victory please God do not give it to my children. I would not want to see my children in the place of those soldiers.
Q: It is always like this?
Habesch: Yes, for example, when I travel through the Ben-Gurion Tel-Aviv Airport — and I do agree about security we need security for all of us, we need it for the Israelis, but also we need security for the Palestinians — at the airport under the banner of security our bags go through the X-rays. This is acceptable to me, but then automatically because I am Palestinian I am asked to go to another checkpoint, which takes a good one or two hours whereby they check every single thing in your bags. After they check your bags, they take you to a special room where they ask you to take off your shoes, to take off your jacket. Even this is ok. But sometimes the way they search you is not right … it seems that they are trying to find a bomb under my skin. For example, when you wear pants, if there is a zipper, the alarm rings. So: “take off your pants.” Sometimes they ask you to strip completely. Do you know how humiliating this is when it is a girl who is the age of your children, or maybe younger?
Q: I want to address a little bit the situation of the Christians, because I have the impression that the Christians are caught between two stools: on one side the nationalist Jewish parties and on the other an increasingly fundamentalist Islam. Would you agree with this assessment?
Habesch: This is a very interesting question. Why do you presuppose that Christians are discriminated, or persecuted? You are not the first one who asks me this question, and many journalists do the same. I am a Palestinian Christian Arab. This is who I am. And whatever befalls the Palestinian citizens is the same for me. There is no difference. But, do I look as if I am persecuted; do I look as if I am afraid? If I were afraid, I would not be sitting here and talking to you. The fact is that we are not persecuted. We have access to the same rights as everybody, all the other Palestinians.
Q: But why then are so many people leaving the country?
Habesch: Yes, there is emigration, and unfortunately the ones emigrating are young people … and they are middle class. Christians emigrate, but also Muslims emigrate, but, because we are so few in number today, it is more obvious when we leave — we leave a void.
Q: I would imagine that young Christians are leaving because they see that for their children, their future looks pretty bleak.
Habesch: The future looks a bit bleak for all of us Palestinian people, and we wonder if the international community is really interested in bringing peace to this land. This is why they leave, not because of other issues. I have three children; the three of them studied in the United States, they graduated with honors, they could have succeeded in the United States. They chose to come back to Jerusalem. They are Jerusalemites. They care. They care about their identity, and you know they could have stayed in the United States and they would have had a much easier life. But, I believe that as Christians from the Mother Church, it is a privilege to live in Jerusalem. It is the most beautiful city in the world. But, it carries a lot of weight, a lot of responsibility. We do not want Jerusalem to become a museum. This is why we stay.
Q: What roles do Christians play between the Jewish and the Palestinian communities?
Habesch: Christians play a role. Because I am part of this people, a Palestinian Christian, but also because of my belief of tolerance, of forgiveness, and hopefully reconciliation, I think we have a message — and our role is to give hope.
Q: Ultimately you are hopeful for the future?
Habesch: My belief, my faith does not allow me not to hope. Yes, sometimes you see people have lost hope. They are desperate. You see it drawn on their faces. But, thank God, I have never lost that hope, and this is why I stay. This is why I do the work I do — to accompany those who need to be accompanied. With my faith, I believe that this is possible, and don’t forget that this is the Land of Peace. This is where it all started, the message of peace. Jesus started this message of peace, but I also remember that Jesus cried over Jerusalem.
Q: The first tears…
Habesch: Yes, you know our Patriarch always said: “This is the Church of the Calvary.” It is true we are the Church of the Calvary, but do not forget we are the Church of the Resurrection, we are the Church of the victory of life over death, we are the victory of hope over desperation. So, definitely we will stay, we will continue our mission and peace is possible, but, we need you to help us. We need the international community to realize that alone we cannot have peace; we need the United Nations to implement the resolutions. We need to have respect for the Geneva Convention; we need to have respect of international law. We need to have respect for human rights.
Q: Even Jesus needed Simon to carry the Cross.
Habesch: Yes, and we need you. We need all of you. We need the international community to step in and help these two peoples to recognize one another, to respect one another, because, at the end of the day, there is no victory for one people and defeat for the other. We either win together, Israelis and Palestinians, or we lose together.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.