“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”



The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) held its “Tourism and Peace” Symposium on Friday, October 14, and its Awards Banquet on the same evening.  On Saturday, October 15, it convened its 18th Annual International Conference.  With the theme of “Forging a New Bond of Solidarity for Equality, Prosperity, and Peace”, the three events attracted more than 300 participants, including representatives of religious, governmental, and international organizations as well as the tourism industry. 

“Tourism for Peace” Symposuim

At the symposium, Sir Rateb Y. Rabie, KCHS, HCEF President/CEO, welcomed the participants and invited them “to forge a new bond of solidarity with our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters through pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” 

“This mode of tourism,” he added, is essential for the wellbeing and continuation of the Christian community there, as it is for the spiritual good of participating pilgrims.”

The symposium, moderated by Fr. Michael McDonagh, Chancery Office, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, had five sessions.  In the first session, “Facts and Figures: Exploring Palestine as a Travel Destination in the Holy Land”, Sami B. Khoury, President of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association, HLITOA, stated that “Palestine is at the heart of the Holy Land experience.”  He explained the major challenges facing the tourism industry and the need for a strategic direction under tough conditions of the Israeli occupation and the regional instability.  He led the participants on a visual tour of people to visit, places to stay, historic and holy sites in cities like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, and Ramallah. 

Sir Rateb Y. Rabie moderated the second session, which was a roundtable discussion on “Promoting Tourism in Palestine and the Holy Land: The Role of the Industry, Pilgrimage Organizers, Public End Users, and International Organizations.” Speakers included: Jin-Yung Woo, Adviser on Tourism and Culture to the Secretary-General, World Tourism Organization of the United Nations (UNWTO); Sami B. Khoury; Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi, Director, Office of International Justice and Peace, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Rev. Dr. David Renwick, Senior Pastor, National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC; Dr. Cynthia Finlayson, Associate Professor of Anthropology/Archeology and Museum Studies, Brigham Yound University and Bethlehem Museum Consultant; and Sabrina Čović Radojičić, Founder and Director, Sakramento Peace Center, Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was agreement that tourism is essential for economic growth, inclusive development, and environmental sustainability, as is advocated by the UNWTO.  These goals are essential for Palestine and central to the tourism industry in the Holy Land. Calls were made to restructure pilgrimages so as to make them more meaningful, model pilgrimages as acts of solidarity, build bridges between Medijugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Holy Land, expose pilgrims to the cultural life so they will become advocates, and have pilgrims hear and retell the story because they see it first-hand.

The third session was moderated by John L. Schlageter, Esq., Executive Director, Bethlehem University Foundation. Titled “Living Testimonies: Pilgrims and Local Communities as Peacemakers”, the session focused on how pilgrimage to the Holy Land helps the faithful and Christians in the Holy Land alike fulfill key personal and spiritual needs. In addition to strengthening the faith and creating bonds of solidarity between the pilgrims and the local Christians communities, pilgrimage fosters appreciation of pluralism and respect for the different historical and cultural identities that Christianity encompasses. This exchange paves the way for equality, prosperity, and peace. Those who shared their firsthand accounts of pilgrimages have changed their lives are: Fr. Robert Waller, Priest, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, OH; Rev. Dr. Carl S. Hofmann, Pastor of Congregational Care, First Presbyterian, Boulder, CO; Fr. Jacek Orzechowscki, OFM, Associate Pastor, St. Camillus Parish, Silver Spring, MD; and Rev. Hovsep Karapetyan, Pastor, St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church, Washington, DC; For Fr. Waller and for Rev. Hofmann, the main reason for pilgrimages is the people, the Living Stones (the Palestinian Christians), not the ancient stones!  For Fr. Orzechowscki, having an encounter with the Living Stones is “a transformative experience”.  The intention is “to build bridges of solidarity, not walls.” Rev. Karapetyan said that each of us can assist “our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.” Once we witness the change, the connection, it becomes “felt, strong, and permanent.” 

The fourth session, “Forging a New Bond of Solidarity for Equality, Prosperity, and Peace,” was moderated by Dr. Donald E. Hawkins, Chairman, Solimar International. Participants included Jin-Yung Woo; H.E. Rula Ma‘ayah, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Palestine; and H.E. Robert J. Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis, MO and HCEF Advisory Board Member. Dr. Hawkins argued for ways to enhance and expand religious tourism. Social entrepreneurship should be explored. Mr. Woo pointed out that religious tourism must be properly managed in order to assure its sustainability and the competitiveness of destinations. Despite all the challenges facing Palestine, H.E. Ma‘ayah indicated that there have been noticeable jumps in overnight stays and in the number of tourists. She expressed her earnest hope for peace with justice, saying “All we want for Christmas is justice”. She asked that tourists go through Palestinian tour operators, stay in Palestinian hotels, and buy Palestinian products. H.E. Carlson held that private investments do not usually succeed. He stressed the need for pilgrims to tell the story of the Living Stones upon returning to their homes. While the information has to be processed, the authenticity of the experience makes a real difference.   

The fifth and last session, “Where Do We Go From Here? Concrete Steps of Action,” was interactive and gave the participants the opportunity to consider ways to follow up on the symposium’s contents. Moderated by Rateb Y. Rabie, with the assistance of Sami B. Khoury, the conversation was fruitful and rich. Fr. McDonagh argued for a fund to enable Palestinian Christians to stay in the Holy Land. “Lack of economic opportunity is a real problem.” Dr. Colecchi explained that “pilgrimages enliven faith, but if done well, they also express solidarity and contribute to economic empowerment and development. A viable economy that enables families to live in dignity is an essential ingredient for peace.” He committed to working on the issue of religious tourism through his network at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nadeem Haddad representative of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church suggested the creation of a central office that would organize, coordinate, and look after pilgrimages. Some participants called for educating Western and other publics as to the reality of Palestine and Palestinian Christians. Others supported the idea of “tourism attachés” who will be responsible for promoting Palestine’s culture and tourism aboard. Still others thought that building bridges of solidarity with Palestinian Christians does happen, but it can be strengthened further through such organizations as HCEF.

Dr. Hugh Dempsey, K.M.Ob., KCHS, Bethlehem Museum Consultant, was the Master of Ceremonies at the Award Banquet. Following the invocation by Rev. Dr. David Renwick, Senior Pastor, the National Presbyterian Church, Sir Rateb Y. Rabie, KCHS, welcomed those present and thanked them for their commitment to “forging a new bond of solidarity for equality, prosperity, and peace.” He invited them to engage in the exciting educational panels at the conference on Saturday and to hear notable speakers address the dire conditions facing Palestinian Christians and others in Palestine in particular and the Middle East in general. “This year”, he stated, “offers a unique opportunity for attendees to participate in one of our most comprehensive conferences to date.” He highlighted the tourism sector as a major driver of the Palestinian economy, the role that we each play in the promotion of equality, prosperity, and peace, and the implications of this year’s American presidential elections. Kim Viti Fiorentino, Esq., General Counsel of the Archdiocese of Washington, delivered warm greetings from H.E. Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC and H.E. Bishop Barry C. Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, DC.

Award Banquet

There were five awardees at the banquet: The Palestinian Diaspora Award was presented to the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine (AFRP).  AFRP President Jeff Ajlouni thanked HCEF for its dedication to Palestinian Christians and humbly accepted the award. He spoke of AFRP’s mission and programs that promote “the rich, cultural Palestinian heritage to the Ramallah family and their descendants in the diaspora by providing programs that foster cultural and social interaction, as well as educational, humanitarian, civic, and charitable opportunities.” 

  1. E. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis, MO, and HCEF Board Member, received the HCEF Award, honoring his dedication to preserving the presence of Christians in the Holy Land. He commended HCEF for its ceaseless efforts to “develop programs and create jobs to provide economic, moral, and spiritual support and endeavor to improve the living conditions for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.” He stated that he carries the message of Palestinian Christians wherever he goes.

H.E. Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary General, United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) received the Global Leadership Award, honoring him for promoting understanding and action in support of the Holy Land, its people, and its culture. Jin-Yung Woo, Adviser on Tourism and Culture to the Secretary General, UNWTO, thanked HCEF on behalf of Dr. Rifai and praised HCEF for its leadership and work. 

  1. E. Rula Ma‘ayah, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Palestine, received the Heritage Award for her advocacy and work to preserve the cultural, historic, and national resources of the Holy Land and her proactivity in finding practical solutions to Holy Land heritage issues at home and beyond. She expressed her gratefulness and spoke of tourism as “a way to bring awareness of our culture, heritage, and identity.” She invited all to visit and enjoy Palestine.

The HCEF Living Stones Solidarity Award was given to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. It recognizes the sustained and extraordinary effort of the faithful in institutions, who love, support, and stand in solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land.  In receiving the award, H.E. Metropolitan Joseph Al-Zehlaoui, Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian archdiocese of North America, gave thanks to God for all in attendance. He went on to say that he is “Syrian by birth, Lebanese by education, American by citizenship, and Palestinian in devotion.” For Archbishop Joseph, “Palestine is an icon.  Palestine is the spiritual country of all of us.  Palestine is the conscience of the nations.” 

Sir Rateb Y. Rabie and Lady Rocio Rabie paid a moving tribute to H.E. Donald Kruse, a friend and an American statesman, who passed away last month. A career diplomat, Kruse was the American Consul in Jerusalem for four years. It is in this service that he became aware of the difficult living conditions of the Palestinian people and the hardships they endure on a daily basis. After completing his diplomatic career, he put his faith into action and stood by the Palestinians at a time when no one else would. He served on the board of many charitable organizations, one of which was HCEF. To honor Kruse’s commitment to the Palestinian Christians, Sir Rateb and Lady Rocio announced that HCEF will be naming a section of the Bethlehem Museum after him. Moreover, they announced that Kruze’s family and the National Presbyterian Church have created the Donald Kruse Memorial Fund in Don’s honor to benefit HCEF and the Christians of the Holy Land.

The attendees watched an HCEF video on its work in the Holy Land so as to “replace despair with Hope, fear with Security, and humiliation with Human Dignity. The attendees were treated to special performances by soprano Mariam Tamari and pianist Fadi Deeb, two of the most accomplished artists of Palestinian origin in the world of classical music today. Celebrating their cultural and musical roots, they presented contemporary compositions from Palestine, including Mahmoud Darwish’s “Stranger in a Far City” and the resistance song “Mother the Wind is Singing”. The benediction was given by the Most Rev. Richard H. Graham, Bishop, Metropolitan Washington, DC, Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

General Assembly

The Conference was emceed by Dr. Saliba Sarsar, Chair of the HCEF Research and Publication Committee and Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University, and Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, former Special Olympics Senior Vice President of Community Impact and Support in Washington, DC and Living Faith Lutheran Church Elder in Rockville, MD. It began with an opening prayer by Rev. Dr. Carl Hofmann, Pastor of Congregational Care, First Presbyterian Church, Boulder, CO. Sir Rateb Y. Rabie welcomed all participants and wished them a great conference.

The day’s events consisted of four panels, a keynote address, a video, and a special presentation—all mainly focused on the need to be educated about issues surrounding Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land in particular and Christians in the Middle East in general as well as the need to forge with them a new bond of solidarity for equality, prosperity, and peace.

The first panel, “Palestinian Christians in the Face of Uncertainty,” was moderated by Fadi Deeb, D.M.A., Lecturer and Coordinator, Music Program, Birzeit University. The speakers indicated how Palestinian Christians are in a constant state of doubt and insecurity as they continue to endure the Israeli occupation and growing despair. Do they remain steadfast in their homeland or do they emigrate as millions in the Diaspora have already done? Fr. Michael McDonagh spoke of the dire conditions affecting Palestinian Christians such as high unemployment, restricted mobility, and limited access to goods and services. “The present Israeli government”, he said, “has no intention of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. He advised that hope be put in God.  Fr. Robert Waller, Pastor, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, OH, commented that no matter the hardships, Palestinians are resilient. “They will not allow themselves to be defeated”.

“When our happiness is stolen from us”, he continued. “We must steal it back. Living with hope, this is joyful peaceful resistance. Taking your life back from those who would try to control it”.  As Romans 5:5 states, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Rev. Dr. Hofmann also found seeds of hope in organizations such as Musalaha that is directed by Dr. Salim J. Munayer and that works towards reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis based on the Biblical principles of peace, justice, and love and HCEF.  He stated, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Dr. Dorothy S. Buck, Secretary of the HCEF Board of Directors, moderated the second panel.  Titled, “Christians under Pressure: The Weight of the Current Conditions in the Middle East”, the session focused on how the extremism and civil unrest in the Middle East has placed the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary danger. Ambassador David Mack, Retired, looked at the past and pointed to the fact that Arab Christians and other religious minorities are indigenous to the Middle East. They are an essential element of the region’s cultural, religious, historical, and national fabric. H.E. Archbishop Robert Carlson spoke of his engagement with the Holy Land and his love for its people.  Our responsibility is to be of assistance. “It does not matter who we help”, he said, “as long as we are helping struggling Palestinians.” Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim Chaplain, Georgetown University, spoke of his efforts to bring about interfaith dialogue and peace. With empathy and understanding, he stressed, “We, as Muslims in Palestine, are under pressure because our Christian brothers and sisters and under pressure.”  

Dr. Saliba Sarsar then presented the HCEF video. In order to advance its mission and put faith into action, HCEF has created several quality initiatives and programs, including the Birzeit Senior Citizen Center, Children’s Education Fund, Housing Rehabilitation Program, Holy Land Gifts Program, Know Thy Heritage Leadership Program, and the Bethlehem Museum. In all, HCEF has sought “to replace despair with Hope, fear with Security, and humiliation with Human Dignity. 

Following lunch, H.E. The Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph gave a keynote address. He thanked HCEF on behalf of the hierarchs, clergy, and laity of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. He took the opportunity to express his solidarity with HCEF for the good work it does throughout the year. He lamented “the continued suffering and deplorable situation for the Christians and others in the Holy Land.” He also explained how the Christian community in the Middle East is in crisis. Regardless, he said, “we have no right to be discouraged.” He called for reviving church ministry and peace, and invited all “to come out of the shadows and enter into the light.” He also encouraged all to go on pilgrimage and repeated the motto, “tourism for peace, peace for tourism.”  He related how Jerusalem has a special place “in my heart.” He committed to continue working for a just and lasting peace so that “the Living Stones” will be treated with the same dignity and respect as “the historical stones” of the Holy Land that people flock to visit from all over the world. 

The third panel, titled “Tourism for Peace: Support for the Holy Land through Pilgrimages,” was moderated by Sami B. Khoury. The speakers explored the challenges and unique opportunities of religious tourism in the Holy Land and the boost it gives to the Palestinian economy. H.E. Rula Ma‘ayah explained that Palestine at this stage of state building considers tourism as one of the main economic sectors, with a great potential for growth. Moreover, for her, “tourism brings peace, as it builds bridges between nations”.  She repeated her invitation to all conference participants to visit Palestine. Jin-Yung Woo agreed that Palestine is a key destination. “We need to continue encouraging more international tourists to visit.” Sir Rateb Rabie spoke of HCEF’s vision to enhance religious tourism and of its joint work with the United Nations World Tourism Organization to encourage pilgrims and tourists of all backgrounds to visit the Holy Land by way of regional tourism.

A special presentation on the Bethlehem Museum followed. Moderated by Abigail Galván, HCEF Executive Assistant to the President and CEO and Special Programs Coordinator, the presentation focused on the critical role the museum plays in strengthening Palestinian identity, heritage, and culture in a modern context. Abigail describes the museum as “one of the graces that gives us hope for a brighter future.” Dr. Cynthia Finlayson, Associate Professor of Anthropology/Archeology and Museum Studies, Brigham Young University, and Bethlehem Museum Consultant emphasized the various ways a museum can be developed as a center for saving cultural heritage, and also preserving a Palestinian Christian identity despite the political challenges presented by past and current events in the Middle East.  For Dr. Finlayson, “Identity is memory and memory is identity. Without cultural identity a society disappears.”

The fourth and last panel was moderated by Elias G. Saboura, Principal, Beiramee & Saboura P.C.  Titled “Presidential Election Results: Implications for U.S. Policy in the Middle East”, it explored the implications and prospects for equality, prosperity, and peace given the elections results on November 8. H.E. Maen Areikat, Chief Representative, General Delegation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to the United States, commented that Palestinians always looked with anticipation at who is in the White House. Unfortunately, there has been no major change since the US and the PLO developed ties.  H.E. Areikat sees “no change if either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins.” In his view, “nothing is going to change in the U.S. unless there is a strong grassroots impact.” Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC, Inc., argued that there needs to be change on the ground in Israel and Palestine.  He felt that “the region will impose itself on the U.S.,” meaning that it will continue to assert itself on the U.S. national security agenda. While there will be differences between a Clinton or Trump presidency, the next president cannot ignore the Middle East region. Dr. James Zogby, Co-Founder and President, Arab American Institute and Member, Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, believed that the Palestinians need to make their issue front and center.  Otherwise, the status quo will set in. “Palestine is an issue when we make it an issue. It is an issue when we apply pressure and mobilize a political force.” For Dr. Zogby, “Good talk does not deliver change; only work does.” Hence, we must double our efforts “to ensure that the U.S. refocuses its priorities and policies in support of a just peace.

The conference concluded with a performance by Mariam Tamari, soprano, and Fadi Deeb, pianist, in a concert titled “From Debussy to Darwish” at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. Audiences were treated to a full operatic performance and were delighted to hear a combination of originals compositions and poetry by the beloved Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish.


Resolutions that were developed from these two conferences included:

  • The launch of the “Tourism for Peace” campaign. An ecumenical and interfaith campaign effort to encourage Palestinian tourism within churches and individuals nationwide.
  • The development of guidelines for all churches, of different denominations, and their religious pilgrimages which will include a policy that when pilgrims visit the Holy Land- including Jordan, Palestine, and Israel- there will be a required three to four night stay in Bethlehem and the Palestinian Territories to visit the holy sites.
  • The formation of a committee from different churches for the purposes of continued dialogue and planning in support of the Palestinian Christians.
  • To continue work in the defense and in support of all Christians throughout the Middle East, and in addition, break down stereotypes of Islam.
  • To unite and establish one voice for all faiths to advance peace and justice in the Middle East.