One Humanity, Different Faiths:
Walking Together to Restore Dignity, Justice, and Prosperity
An HCEF Report
Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Secretary, HCEF Board of Directors
The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) celebrated its 15th Annual International Conference and Awards Banquet on Friday, October 18th and Saturday, October 19th. Seeing Muslims, Jews, and Christians working together for the peace, unity, and betterment of the Holy Land was surely a highlight of the weekend. It was also astonishing to witness the number of youth and students who were present; this phenomenon of youth's interest in the issue of peace in the Holy Land is one that is rapidly growing and gaining greater popularity. The banquet and conference were followed by a Palestinian Hafla hosted by the HCEF "Know Thy Heritage" (KTH) program alumni on the evening of October 19 and a KTH Symposium on Sunday, October 20. Overall, around 400 people joined us over the course of this three-day conference.
With the theme of "One Humanity, Different Faiths: Walking Together to Restore Dignity, Justice, and Prosperity," the banquet attracted many members of the clergy, diplomatic corps, and laity, and the conference saw a wide variety of participants, with many college and university students among them.
In his welcome, Sir Rateb Rabie, HCEF President and CEO, spoke of the challenges facing Palestinians and others in the Holy Land and the need to assist them. He stated, "We-at HCEF-have a vision of service to others. We do it by putting our faith into action. We are blessed with volunteers from around the country and the world. They are truly the unsung heroes. We urge you to join us, learn, and be active in issues and programs related to the Holy Land."
The awardees at the banquet included His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, who received the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation Award; His Excellency Dr. Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of Palestine, who received the Path of Peace Award; Mr. Said T. Khoury, Co-founder and Chairman of Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), who received the Palestinian Diaspora Award; Mrs. Jamilah Aranky, HCEF Representative in Birzeit, Palestine, who received the HCEF President's Award; and Mrs. Mary Ann Flannery of Rockville, MD, who was named the HCEF Volunteer of the Year.
Emceed by Dr. Hugh Dempsey, HCEF Vice President and Vice President for Development at Trinity Washington University, the banquet had Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief Representative of the General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States, who brought greetings from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. His Eminence Cardinal Wuerl asked all to help and bring peace to the Holy Land. "We have a new moment of hope," he stated, "We have a new moment to look to the future." His Excellency Dr. Fayyad looked to the future as well and urged all to work together in order to stem the tide of Christian emigration from Palestine. Imam Yahya Hendi, Founder and President of "Clergy Beyond Borders" and Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University, proclaimed "a secular state of Palestine for Christians and Muslims, equally." He continued, "The survival of Palestine, the Palestinian struggle for statehood, and peace are dependent upon making sure that Christians and Muslims are one people, one nation, one country."
The conference was emceed by Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Secretary of the HCEF Board of Directors and Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives, and Dr. Jad Daniel, Management Consulting Executive. It consisted of five main panels, two workshops, and one visual presentation on HCEF's role in restoring dignity, justice, and prosperity in the Holy Land.
Mr. Jeff Abood,HCEF Advocacy and Outreach Director, moderated the first panel on "Arab Christians under Hard Times in the Holy Land." The session discussed the difficulties under which Arab Christians live and explained what is being done to secure their presence and future.
Father Michael McDonough, International Advisor to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, suggested that we have "a lot of dissonant experiences resulting in ill thoughts and behaviors." He continued, "If we locate fault in a people or a race, we fall in a trap." He asked, "Where is the faith in a mighty God?" Lest we forget, "God helps those who trust in him." He urged conferees to shift their mode of thinking and use less emotive language to make their point. For example, instead of talking about (Israeli entry) permits, why not insist on the inalienable rights of people to have freedom of access and to worship.
Mr. Sami El-Yousef,Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, Pontifical Mission Jerusalem, pointed to "theperpetual and chronic roller coaster" in the lives of Palestinians in the Holy Land. "Between wars and intifadas and crises," he stated, "we get a little bit of rest, some short-term peace and tranquility, even some limited economic development, and then guess what, the cycle kicks in again, and we find ourselves in a new low that seems worse than anything we have witnessed before." For Mr. El-Yousef, Christians of the Holy Land have "a great responsibility to live and uphold Christian values that contribute to the building of their society and country, as it is needed more today than at any other time in the past." He concluded, "The Holy Land, after all, will not be the same without its indigenous Christians and without its Christian institutions."
The second panel on "Sustaining Economic Viability through Holy Land Support Programs" was moderated by Dr. Daniel.Mr. William Corcoran, President/CEO of the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), spoke of the major investments that ANERA has done in Palestine over the past 45 years. The signature development projects are in agriculture, especially household gardens in Gaza and waste water re-usage in Jenin; infrastructure, mainly through the USAID project Emergency Water and Sanitation; early childhood development through teacher training, reading programs, and preschool renovation; and Al-Bayyara-"Orange Groves"-creating green space and playgrounds. For Mr. Corcoran, "Progress has been made by NGOs like ANERA, but only political freedom can enhance the economy and people's lives."
Eng. Anthony Habash, HCEF Regional Director, spoke of the high unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza as well the lack of opportunities. "Graduates without any kind of job usually emigrate or get stuck." According to Mr. Habash, "Through training, we enable job creation that provide income and contribute to a higher standard of living and social cohesion, thus creating new hope."
After highlighting some of the programs of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, Mr El-Yousef spoke of how sustaining economic viability is extremely difficult to achieve given the continuation of the conflict with all that is associated with it: an endless occupation, the completion of the separation wall, and the blockade on Gaza. "As long as Palestine has no control over its borders and as long as Israel is firmly and completely in charge of every little detail of our daily life," he explained, "then any talk about economic viability in the Holy Land has to be honest and realistic with modest small goals that are achievable."
The third panel addressed how "Empowering Women is Empowering a Whole Society." Moderated by Miss Malak Khader, a student at Marshall University and an alumna of HCEF's "Know Thy Heritage" Leadership Program, the panel featured Mrs. Hanan Munayyer, President of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, and Dr. Abeer Kayed Pelon, Professor of Political Science and History at the University of District of Columbia and Montgomery College. Mrs. Munayyer explained the central role of Palestinian women and how they preserved traditional culture through the making and collection of costumes and acted as important historians of what was going on. Dr. Kayed Pelon explained how "When you lose your land, you lose your identity." For her, the key to empowerment and to capturing one's identity is education. She related how her father used to say, "We do not have a country, you have to get an education."
The fourth panel was on "Interfaith Dialogue" as a catalyst for justice, conflict resolution, and peace. Moderated by Father William Joseph Turner, member of the HCEF Board of Directors and pastor of St. Mary Church in Chelsea, Michigan, the panel featured Bishop Richard H. Graham, Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Rabbi Gerald Serotta, Congregation Shirat HaNefesh, and Executive Director of "Clergy Beyond Borders"; and Imam Yahya Hendi.
Bishop Graham argued that "interfaith dialogue reveals a stunning ignorance of other people's religions and religious practices." More amazing, for him, is "how ignorant people are of their own tradition." What interfaith dialoguers do is "give us an opportunity to learn about our own faith." What is important is to have interfaith dialogue occur where people live and where they have to work together. In the Holy Land, the dialogues are "matters of life and death." That is why "we must be all involved in interfaith dialogue, not only the leaders of faith traditions."
Rabbi Serotta explained the vision of "Clergy Beyond Borders." "Borders between us do not mean that we cannot go beyond them," he pointed out. "We want to compete with each other to do what is right and good." Reaching out to both Palestinians and Israelis as well as to peace, he stated, "You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestine; you cannot be pro-Palestine without being pro-Israel."
As for Imam Hendi, "interreligious dialogue is real and is much needed." As he elaborated, "We need to master the ability to talk and to listen. We need to present ourselves with passion but with honesty. We stand against fear of the other. We stand against ignorance. We must study the religion from within. Knowing the faith of the other enables us to grow in my own faith."
The above panels were followed by two workshops. The first on "Religious Tourism" explained the meaning and importance of religious tourism to the Holy Land as well as the business environment that promotes or distracts from pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The presenters included Mr. Sami Abu-Dayyeh, President of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association, CEO of Near East Tourist Agency, and Owner of the Ambassador and Ritz Hotels in Jerusalem; Mr. Sami Khoury, Tourism Consultant, "Visit Palestine," and Co-founder and General Manager of Alternative Business Solutions; Fr. Michael McDonagh; and Bishop Graham.
The second workshop on "The Nation-Building Role of Palestinian Youth in the Diaspora" focused on how young women and men play a significant role in nation-building. Moderated by Mr. Mohammed Iftaiha, Financial Advisor and "Know Thy Heritage" Delegation Leader, it featured three alumni of the "Know Thy Heritage" Leadership Program, including Miss Sohad Murrar, Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Miss Lina Barkawi, Consulting Analyst, Accenture; and Miss Naya Aldias, Marketing Events Manager, BVLGARI.
The fifth and last panel addressed the question: "Will Palestinian-Israeli Peace be Given a Chance?" The panel, moderated by Dr. Saliba Sarsar, included as speakers Mr. Samer Makhlouf, Executive Director of OneVoice Palestine; Mr. Joel Braunold, Strategic Partnership Officer, OneVoice Movement; and Dr. James Zogby, President, Arab American Institute and Member, U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Mr. Makhlouf indicated that the OneVoice Movement advocates for ending the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. He explained that there is "a decrease in support for peace talks among the Palestinians because of the apathy created by the Israeli occupation. They lost faith in the peace process and the U.S. mediator." The negotiations must result in the Palestinians receiving their rights. Required is a serious engagement from the U.S., European Union, and Arab League 'to ensure that the negotiations are carried out in good faith.'
Mr. Braunold asked if "the social and political will is present to make peace possible?" He argued that "the younger generation in Israel is not hopeful. They view the peace process as a diplomatic exercise." Even though there is a majority in the Knesset for a two-state solution, it does not exist in the government coalition. The challenge is to convince Israelis that it is in Israel's national interest to have peace and to have a Palestinian state.
Although he is an optimist by nature, Dr. Zogby held that "the negotiators will not reach an agreement acceptable to both sides." For him, "the moment for peace is not here." He called for a new way of thinking, one that supports economic development, creates opportunities, and advocates for human rights and justice.
Palestinian Hafla hosted by KTH Alumni
After the conference, many of the attendees and volunteers went home to process all that they heard that day. The conference was jam packed with a plethora of educational material and lots of networking opportunities, and Saturday evening offered an inviting chance to unwind and relax.
Not for the youth, however. All of the "Know Thy Heritage" alumni who were present at the conference met up at the Chinatown location of Busboys and Poets in DC for the Palestinian Hafla hosted by HCEF/KTH alumni. This event provided them an opportunity to reunite after many months and even years of not seeing each other.
Additionally, many others who had heard of this event through their friends, or who had seen it advertised through HCEF, also attended the party. They were able to mingle with the alumni, learn more about the program, witness the relational bonds that were established on the trip, and partake in some good old-fashioned traditional Palestinian dancing together.
The night started off with a time of socializing, catching up with old friends, and meeting new ones. As food started coming out, each of the partygoers were mesmerized by the KTH photo slideshow that was being looped the entire night. The alumni were enthusiastic over the recognition of old memories, and the other guests were thoroughly enjoying seeing all that the alumni did and saw in Palestine. The night also consisted of a time of Palestinian trivia, where the group was divided into four teams and had to answer questions from four different categories pertaining to Palestine: Culture, History, Food, and KTH. This was an exhilarating and competitive time of trying to recall to mind all that they knew about Palestine. After the trivia ended, two of the alumni took the mic and shared some of their funniest memories from the KTH trip, which got the entire room laughing. Finally, the party ended with a time of dabke dancing to Palestinian music, on which the whole room joined in. Even the waitresses joined in! The night ended in an energized and lively note.
On Sunday, October 19th, eighteen alumni from different years of the "Know Thy Heritage" program met for a symposium strictly dedicated to the KTH program. Fourteen of them met at HCEF offices, traveling from places such as Illinois, West Virginia, New Jersey, and even Guatemala and El Salvador. Other attendees joined in via video conference from Chile, Australia, and Canada. The meeting was led by Sir Rateb Rabie.
The meeting started off by defining exactly what kind of program KTH is. The alumni agreed that KTH is not just another fun program through which to explore the homeland, but rather, it is an ongoing commitment to the program and to their land. They then proceeded to outline different ways and strategies through which to implement their goals and sustain the growth and health of KTH.
A large portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussing a new initiative, the Alumni Association, previously proposed by two alumnae. These two alumnae presented their ideas and bounced them off their fellow KTH leaders. They were open to receiving new ideas, suggestions, criticisms, and methods of establishment. They set a deadline for receiving further input from their peers, and agreed upon a plan of execution in order to begin establishing and implementing their goals.
Over lunch, the alumni then discussed what their distinct and individual roles and responsibilities are in preserving and promoting the KTH movement. Overall, this symposium meeting offered them an opportunity to share their ideas, perspectives, and suggestions after having time to process them following their personal trips to Palestine.
As a result of this three-day event, several resolutions have been issued. These all include a commitment to continue working on peace, and walking together to restore dignity, justice and prosperity. This means that Muslims, Jews, and Christians will continue to propel this mission forward as we are all one humanity with different faiths.
The youth of the Know Thy Heritage program also decided to carry on with their commitment to stay united as Palestinians, and to be ambassadors of peace in order to be part of rebuilding the new state of Palestine. They have also committed to staying connected to Palestinians in the Diaspora, and to establishing a conference in Central America for young Palestinians in the Diaspora.