Conference Summary by Saliba Sarsar and Christine Hill


The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) held its 16th International Conference and Banquet on Friday, October 17 and Saturday, October 18, 2014.  The focus is reflected in its title, “Together in Faith for the Common Good.”

More than 350 people attended the weekend activities to learn about Christians of the Holy Land, as they currently live under extremely tough conditions. The participants also explored ways by which faith can be put into action, not only individually but also collectively.

Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS HCEF President/CEO welcomed all. “We Christians,” he stated, “have been ignored by Western Christians for years.”  He continued, “We need to share our story as there is a misperception that only Muslims and Jews inhabit the Holy Land.  Moreover, we have a responsibility to protect the Christians and others in the Middle East.”

In introducing the prestigious awardees of the 16th International Conference, Sir Rabie explained that becoming involved and making a positive change do not require political experience.  A sense of mission, a commitment to people, and a belief in peace and justice are what is needed and what is shared by our awardees. The awardees included the 2014 Path of Peace recipient, Her Excellency Dr. Hanna Ashrawi, member of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization; 2014 Faith & Tolerance Award recipient, His Excellency Archbishop Theodosius Atallah Hanna, Archbishop of Sebastia, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem; 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Award recipient, Mr. Hashim Hani Shawa, Chairman of the Board & General Manager of the Bank of Palestine; 2014 HCEF Palestinian Diaspora Award recipient, Mr. Farouk Shami, Inventor & Founder of Farouk Systems; 2014 Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation Award recipient, Rev. Richard H. Graham, Bishop of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and 2014 President’s Award, Mr. Frank Carroll, HCEF volunteer. 

The awardees extended their heartfelt thanks to HCEF and its exemplary work. Mr. Carroll expressed his deep joy at being an HCEF volunteer.  Bishop Graham spoke of the need for faith and how religion is “the heart of the heartless world.” Mr. Shami explained that what matters is that we, as human beings, must be treated equally before God and the law. He emphasized how peace requires the creation of jobs.  Mr. Salim Hodali, receiving the award on behalf of Mr. Shawa, explained numerous ways the Bank of Palestine is proactive in community programs, including giving 5% of its annual profit to programs like HCEF’s Know Thy Heritage Leadership Program.  Archbishop Theodosius clarified that the Palestinian Christians and Muslims belong to one national community and both share a common culture and experience.  Dividing one from the other does not work; together, they can make a huge difference. Dr. Ashrawi expressed hope that the path of peace is not endless. Peacemaking, for her, “is not for the faint-hearted” and “peace has to be earned.”  Moreover, extremism and violence have no room in our lives, and “it takes a lot of courage to say no to violence.”  In giving the benediction, His Eminence Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Washington, urged everyone not to lose hope but to hold onto faith.  He commended HCEF for its service to the Christians of the Holy Land and how it “talks to people’s hearts,”

In introducing the conference theme, Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Secretary of the HCEF Board of Directors and Associate Vice President at Monmouth University, and Ms. Christine Hill, Vice President of the HCEF Board of Directors and President/Founder of ServiceAlliances International, Inc., explained how the theme highlights our collective responsibility toward our faith and our concerted actions on behalf of the common good.  “As people of different faiths,” they emphasized, “we follow common values of peace, human dignity and rights, compassion, freedom, and prosperity for all, especially as these relate to the Holy Land.”

Reverend Samford Brown, Pastor of Victory Deliverance Church, offered the opening prayer. The first panel on “Challenges Facing the Palestinian Christians” was moderated by Fr. Jaceck Orzechowski, OFM Chair of the JPIC of Holy Name Province, and featured Archbishop Theodosius and Fr. Michael McDonagh, International Advisor to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  The Archbishop detailed how Christians of the Holy Land are toiling under tough conditions.  The Israeli occupation is creating havoc in the daily lives of Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike.  What we stand against is the Israeli occupation.  What we stand for, however, is “nonviolence, human dignity, and freedom.” He urged the protection of Christians.  If we do not (offer protection), “their churches will become museums.” Fr. McDonagh asked those in attendance to recognize that Israel is “an ethnocracy where a political regime facilitates expansion and control by a dominant ethnicity in contested lands.” It is a democracy for Israeli Jews, alone, and hence there are unjust policies that present the major challenges experienced by Palestinians.

The second panel on “Arab and Middle Eastern Christians under Fire” was moderated by Dr. Hanna Hanania, member of the HCEF Board of Directors.  Father Drew Christiansen, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University, argued that while the Catholic Church has influence, there are other forces that are equally or more influential like the U.S. Congress, where Catholic members constitute the largest group.  After its war in Iraq, the U.S. should have restored normality and provided resettlement and asylum for those in need.  Dr. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Georgetown University, questioned if a safe place can be created for Middle East Christians. Christians, like others around them, suffer during conflict and war.  Moreover, being caught between where they live and the Western world makes for a bleak future.  The West has usually ignored Middle East Christians and, when the West supported them, the Muslims viewed Christians in a bad light.  Mr. Mark L. Wasef, Esq., a Coptic American practicing attorney with Sedgwick LLP, believes that Americans have little to no understanding who the Copts are and their plight or the fact that Christians live in the Middle East.  Hence, a grassroots campaign across the U.S. is a must to raise everyone’s awareness.

The second panel was followed by a video that highlighted the many HCEF programs and activities and the resultant impact.  Examples abound: In the Housing Rehabilitation Program alone, HCEF improved the living conditions for 2,177 family members, repaired over 420 houses, created jobs for 769 people, and generated income for 3,398 family members.  The Birzeit Senior Citizen Center offers regular medical screening, education and fitness classes, and social and cultural activities.  Seniors regain their importance in the community and enhance their sense of belonging.  The Know Thy Heritage Leadership Program empowers young Palestinians in the diaspora by strengthening their knowledge of their homeland.  In commenting on the video, Sir Rabie expressed his deep appreciation to the HCEF Board of Directors and Advisory Board, as well as the HCEF staff and volunteers for their leadership and hard work on behalf of the Holy Land.  He asked the attendees not to forget that their faith, their heritage, their roots started there, and he urged them to “put their faith into action” and to “walk the talk with HCEF.”

The third panel, “Engaging the Palestinian Diaspora in Nation-Building,” was moderated by Sir Rabie.  A key question is how Palestinians use their experience and skills to support their homeland.  Representing Mr. Shawa, Mr. Hodali shared basic facts about Palestine and Palestinians:  95% literacy rate; 25% unemployment rate; 75% population under 25 years old; and 7 million in the diaspora, with over 400,000 living in Chile and contributing 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. He asked “what if we could tap into 1% of 1% of the net worth of Palestinians in the diaspora so as to develop Palestine.  Mr. Farouk Shami stated that “the Promised Land is for all the Abrahamic people,” and that “there is enough room for all of us to live in peace and harmony.”  He called for an independent Palestinian economy since how could a viable independent state develop without it.  He urged Palestinian businesspeople in the diaspora to open 10% of their businesses in Palestine.  For Mr. Shami, “it is our responsibility to help our people.”  Mr. Rafiq Masri, technology entrepreneur and founder of Network Management, Inc., said that Palestine is still operating on an old 2G network.  Much of the equipment for 4G is still being held at port by Israel.  He voiced the need to expand and upgrade the ICT infrastructure in Palestine.  “It is the future.”  He is working on a new web portal for business in Palestine.

Her Excellency Dr. Ashrawi delivered the keynote address, “Framing the Current Issue in Palestine.”  For Ashrawi, Israel stands in the way of Palestinian national unity with daily systematic attempts at aggression, carried out “quietly and deliberately.”  Thousands of Jerusalem IDs have been revoked.  Jerusalem is losing its Christian and Muslim residents because it cannot remain the “Center of Life” for them like it can for Israeli Jews.  “The Apartheid Wall is stealing the horizon.” Area C is being evacuated, “not for security but for great economic profit.”  Settlements’ names are similar to Palestinian names of the land that was taken to build the settlements.  Land, culture, and cuisine are being taken from Palestinians. The peace process is flawed.  It is insane to keep doing the same thing over and over again.  Without accountability for Israel and protection for Palestine, there can be no peace.  The Palestinian leadership is set on submitting a proposal to the U.S. Security Council, with the main idea of ending the occupation and actualizing the State of Palestine in November 2016.

The fourth panel, “Empowering Women in Palestinian Society,” followed and was moderated by Mrs. Claudette Habesch, member of the HCEF Advisory Board and former Secretary General of CARITAS Jerusalem.  A strong advocate for women, she stressed human dignity and how Palestinian dignity “is not for sale and will never be for sale.” Noura Erakat, Esq., a human rights attorney and activist, looked at what Palestinians are experiencing in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel from a feminist perspective.  She held that there is structural violence at work.  There is uniform Israeli policy to disempower Palestinians regardless of geography.  For her, Oslo is flawed and the peace negotiations are flawed.  Palestinian leaders needs to use all the tools at their disposal to bring about a real change in policy.  Dr. Najat Khelil Arafat, President of the Arab Women’s Council, spoke of how women have been active in Palestinian civil society since the early 1920s.  Palestinian women took on multiple responsibilities beyond their traditional roles.  “Through the national struggle,” she stated, “they have worked hand in hand for their own liberation.”  They are the keepers and protectors of Palestinian heritage.  Much needs to be done to give women their voice.  This can be done by enhancing gender equality, educating women about their rights, promoting the economic empowerment of women, and advancing the national plan against violence toward women.  Ms. Bethany Saad, a 2013 delegate in HCEF’s KTH Leadership Program and currently Program Coordinator at John Snow, Inc. talked about how young women can make a real difference.  Visiting and living Palestine with KTH was life changing.  She was able to reconnect her grandfather—who left Jerusalem to study architecture in the U.S.—with his brother after decades of not seeing each other. Education is an essential ingredient of understanding and building community.  Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year old Pakistani activist for female education, won the Nobel Peace Prize!  Like Bethany and Malala, young women in Palestine need the opportunity and our support to actualize their potential and lead.

The last panel, “Giving Palestinian-Israeli Peace a Chance,” addressed how past approaches to peace have been ineffective.  Moderated by Mr. Ray Hanania, President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group, the panel included Mr. Samer Maklouf, Executive Director of OneVoice Palestine, Mr. Khaled Elgindy, Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Mr. Seth Morrison, Congressional Outreach Committee of Jewish Voice for Peace.  Mr. Hanania explained that we can make a real difference by speaking to Americans in their own language.  “It’s not what we say but how we say it.” Mr. Maklouf stated that Israel is making reality on the ground irreversible.  Palestinians do not believe in the peace process, and hence the need for a change.  This includes internationalizing the process on the one hand and bringing about Palestinian unity and reconciliation on the other.  Mr. Elgindy presented a pessimistic message, mainly that failure is pre-programmed into the peace process.  The U.S., the primary steward of Palestinian-Israeli peace, has been wedded to the process than the outcome, and has squandered several chances for peace.  Israel is in no hurry to act; the status quo is comfortable and there are no costs for any of its violations.  The Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority have legitimacy issues.  The two-state solution is becoming less feasible.  Mr. Morrison added that the peace process is dysfunctional because of the U.S. He recommended getting organized and reaching out to members of Congress and to groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation so as to change the narrative and influence conditions in support of Palestinian rights and peace.