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Fr. Firas Aridah participates in Ankara conference on Jerusalem

Fr. Firas Aridah participates in Ankara conference on Jerusalem

ANKARA – A conference titled, “Jerusalem, the city of peace” opened on March 21 in Ankara under the auspices of His Majesty King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with the participation of a group of public figures, a number of academics, professionals and clergymen.

The conference tackles two main issues, namely “the settlement activities, the Judaization of Jerusalem, and how to cope with such challenges,” in addition to “Jerusalem is the city of peace.”

Fr. Firas Aridah, a Latin Patriarchate priest, who participates in the conference within the Palestinian delegation, delivered a speech. Following is the text of his speech:

“I want to thank you for the honor of being able to speak with you today about Jerusalem the City of Peace and the Encounter of all Religions. My name is Father Firas Aridah I am a priest of Jerusalem from the Latin Patriarchate: the Heart of the Holy City, the community which: “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles…was filled with awe at the many miracles…and who owned everything in common…with one heart” (Acts 2:42-46) I’m representing today the Voice of Every Palestinian and Christian in Palestine and Jerusalem. This is the Mother Church of Jerusalem, this is the Holy Land.

Someone said: “If you spend a week in Jerusalem, you can write a book on Jerusalem. If you stay a whole month, then you only can write an article. But if you stay more than a month, You can write nothing. You just listen to Jerusalem.”

It is a beautiful place, quite different from the beauty of Ankara still a beautiful place with beautiful people. It is a land sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims; all three faith communities have existed there for centuries. Historically it was home to many nations, and now, in the modern context, it is a home to Israelis and Palestinians. One land, two peoples, three faiths; each rooted in conviction and vigor for Jerusalem, each who need to be reminded that there can be no exclusive claim which will be accepted.

In the midst of my ‘normal duties’, as a Priest in a Palestinian village, suffering with those who suffer, I became drawn into this on-going conflict. It was never my intention to get involved in politics – and I am still resolute to leave the politics to the politicians – but my focus is the people. And in my service to the people, I dealt with the occupation. With the occupation came the building of walls of separation in the name of security and Jerusalem became separated from Palestine.

My conscience and my calling drive me to be “a voice for those who have no voice and to defend the weak and the oppressed.” (Patr. Sabbah. Seek Peace and Pursue it. 1998) How then can I say nothing as this tragedy befalls the people whom I am serving? How can I remain silent when the Christian community I am serving is disappearing because of this occupation?

The current situation we face is this: Today, we have fewer Christians in the Holy Land than we had in 1947 going from 8% to 1.6% in 2000. When at one point we numbered 27,000 Christians in Jerusalem, now we are only 9,000 Christians. Our people are emigrating, our presence is threatened and if the trend continues, our future is moving towards extinction. This is impacted by the fact that there are over 550,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The recent development of clashes between settlers and Israeli civil authorities is proof that settlements are a phenomenon which has grown far beyond Israel’s grasp. They violate the laws which have been put in place to protect them and they unquestionably threaten peace and stability in the region and Jerusalem. As the book of Proverbs says: “Where there is no hope, the people perish” – an entire generation of Israelis and Palestinians have grown up witnessing and experiencing violence, occupation, separation, and hatred. There continue to be fewer and fewer opportunities to interact. There is heightened suspicion and apprehension on both sides and so, our people deeply feel a sense of hopelessness and despair.

In the words of our Patriarch Fouad Twal: “ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians … must work out their differences in a just and righteous manner, in ways that require painful compromises.” 

We the Christian community of the Holy Land, the people of Calvary, will not allow for our hope to die nor will we allow others to use our voice. We will not stand for a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which seeks to legitimize the infringement of Palestinian rights. We have a unified Christian message which we are able and willing to give to the world. This message can be found in the Kairos Palestine document. We are thinkers, we are theologians, we are philosophers, we are teachers, we are believers in the Bible and in Jesus Christ who “interpreted to the disciples of Emmaus the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk. 24:27) and we are rolling up our sleeves and are making a difference by shedding light in a bleak situation.

Jerusalem is the symbol of this dialogue between God and man as well as between man and man. Therefore, Jerusalem is the city of God and the city of man.

We believe that if Christian, Muslim and Jewish children play together, they will become friends – then and only then will we have a prospect for lasting peace. Sadly, in the midst of this conflict, few are looking to serve humanity; few are seeing the human faces of children, mothers, fathers and the elderly which are violated by oppression and violence. We see these faces and we realize that we cannot do it alone.

Israel is not able to make any step toward Peace without external pressure in order to enter seriously the path of peace, and in order to help both sides towards reconciliation. The reasons are:
-There is a lack of trust in the existing political alliances
-The forces of extremism, whether genuine or exploited by Western political forces, are growing and gaining followers and supporters. A radical change must take place in the Western policy regarding the Middle-East. Religions and religious leaders for peace can and must have a role in reaching this radical change.

Prolonging the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will serve only the extremists on both sides and will weaken the supporters of peace on both sides.

The Christians in Palestine are small in number, but we are doing our part to work for a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis. Despite the despair and the violence in society, they still believe in the ability to change the world and so they become leaders for justice, peace and tolerance instead of pupils of death and destruction.

The Christians of Jerusalem (and of the Holy Land) like their Muslims Brothers have the right to enjoy full religious freedom. This consists in the ownership, custody and control of, free access to, and worship in their Holy Places. These rights of ownership, custody, access to and worship, which the different churches have acquired throughout history should continue as is. These rights, known as the status quo, must continue to be recognized and respected.

The occupation must end because it is a sin against the dignity of man and hence against God Himself. Violence and terrorism must stop. There must be no more settlements built on Palestinian land. Our Christian presence must be supported and nurtured. You have to support the efforts of institutions who are working to serve humanity.

In the name of President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, and In the name of His Beatitude our Patriarch Fouad Twal and in the name of every human person, of all those who suffer in the land of God, Israelis or Palestinians, I invite you to come to the Holy Land to Jerusalem, to be present in our lives and to pray for us and with us, to put the necessary pressures on the “strong”, to help all of us to reconciliation, so that we can arrive together one day to the goal in which we are all interested – Peace.

As long as the international community remains unable to install justice and peace in our more than sixty years old conflict in the Holy Land, what is the use of so many meetings and speeches?

Jerusalem is the symbol of the presence of God in our life. It is the symbol of brotherhood that unites the sons and daughters of the three monotheistic religions. Jerusalem is a grace for humankind. Peace for Jerusalem is a condition sine qua non for a durable peace in the region.

We are the Christians we have to remain faithful to our faith, and Faithful to the homeland: and Faithful to Jerusalem: as our Spiritual and Political Capital Jerusalem is at present a sign of contradiction and conflict. Nonetheless, she continue to be a sign of hope, since she is the means by which the divine message have been transmitted to a believing mankind, believers of all peoples must meet together to hear the voice of God here. If they listen to his voice they will be able to restore to Jerusalem her sacred character and her power to bring peace, to humanise.

Nobody should monopolize Jerusalem, because monopolizing Jerusalem is violating its universal character and identity. Nobody should prevent Jerusalem in its holiness and uniqueness becoming both the national symbol for two peoples and spiritual capital of the three religions. When we come to understand and accept this reality, we will not have to resolve the problem of Jerusalem, Jerusalem itself will resolve our differences.

May God bless you all, and bless every step you take to support the dignity of human life in this world.”