Transcript from Interview 30 December 2012
Minor grammatical adjustments made for better understanding.
Well to begin a little bit. I just kind of want to ask you some get to know you questions. I know you mentioned that you and your wife are from the area. So you are both Palestinians, but where were you born specifically?
In Beit Jala, which is near Bethlehem.
Yeah, just on the other side. And your wife was born in Jerusalem?
In Beit Sahour.
Now are your ancestors from this area or did they immigrate hundreds of years ago from Egypt or Lebanon or elsewhere?
Always from this area. 11 generation with names and… yeah.
Wow, wonderful. Has your family always been Christian?
Yep. If you return back to the names you will find Christian names since the beginning. You will find like Abraham, John and Sarah and… yeah, most of them are Christian names rather than just names.
Beautiful! So how long have you worked here at the YMCA and can you describe a little bit about your responsibilities here?
I started here in 1989 actually. I started working with this program, the rehabilitation program. I actually have two hats working here. I am the director of the rehabilitation program and the director of Beit Sahour branch or the Bethlehem branch for the YMCA. So the head quarters for the YMCA is in Jerusalem. We are a branch to Jerusalem. But this branch is running different kind of activities and programs. There’s sports for youth and the typical YMCA activity as people know and there is a development project or program started long time ago more than 22 years ago. And this program is to rehabilitate people with disability and people with trauma resulted from political conflict. So there‘s lots of people who got injured, tortured, arrested by the Israelis so they return back home with the trauma with the losses, with the feeling of post traumatic stress disorders. So nobody care about these people so the YMCA is trying to do counseling. So my role is I am the director.
So mostly emotional rehabilitation not physical?
Yeah its more counseling and emotional rehabilitation but we take it from a holistic approach. We are not just doing just counseling in closed rooms but also we are taking care of other aspects of the reintegration of these people into the community like for example for those who develop physical disability we have building ramps, expanding doors and putting aids in toilets and bedrooms to help them get in and out because when we try to bring them back to schools and they usually they tell you, I hate people carrying me, I think I will go independently but…
It’s a matter of pride, right? They want to feel independent?
Yeah, exactly and also it’s a matter of right. It’s their right to go to school independent not just to be carried or helped or supported by others. Issues related to vocational rehabilitation, we have a vocational assessment unit where we assess their abilities, interest and what kind of job they are fit for. And then we send them to vocational training and vocational rehabilitation. We have been advocating awareness about the rights of people with disability. We do help families to understand the kind of problems their kids are having. So the idea is to go further than just the decision itself to whatever might handle the success of this counseling process and bring in people back to the normality.
Yeah we have a big program. It’s not just working here. It’s the headquarters for the rehab program but we are covering the whole area of West Bank. We have 11 teams. In each district there is a team of counselors, social workers, community workers and we have supervisors and we have heads of teams so it’s a big work. We have 93 staff members and I am the director of this program and it’s a big headache to do such a work. I love it because I can see the mission behind the work. It’s not just a work… a normal work. You are changing lives of real people and bringing hope.
So let me ask. I was going to ask you this latter on but because you mentioned it, have you seen miracles happen? It seems like everyday you are trying to help people find peace with themselves to be in a strong and stable emotional state after going through hard traumas. So my question is have you seen miracles take place in people’s lives as you gone about this job?
Yeah, I saw some things close to miracle but… I see what’s behind this kind of big change happening. It’s the care and the giving of opportunities but I can say that, I myself live with a miracle. It’s a very personal, very special miracle. I used to have problem with my back and I used to have pain and I went to doctor and made the CT scan and was about to be operated because I couldn’t walk normally but… yeah, miracle happen and I have been cured totally.
How long ago was that?
It was in 1997. Jesus cured me personally. I didn’t see his face. He came and put his hands on my back. I jumped from the bed and the next day I was walking normally.
Really? So you felt a physical touch to the back?
A physical touch.
That's beautiful. You know most children, regardless of whatever religion they are born into, regardless of what country they are from in the world, most children follow their parents until a certain age when they start to question the world and question the existence of things and what their parents taught them. I did the same thing. Most people do. Was there a point in your life were you questioned the existence of God, Jesus Christ or the reality of who Jesus Christ was and what was it like?
Yeah actually there was… when I was a young boy I remember I used to ask my father some questions which I couldn’t find an answer about. My father didn’t have an answer either and he used to tell me look… he used to continue telling me the story of the boy who was moving near the sea and seeing a man having a small hole in front of the sea in the shore and bringing water and put it in that small hole and keep going and coming. Then the boy asked the man, “what you are doing?” He said, “I am trying to put the whole sea in this small hole.” “But it will never happen”, he told the man. “The things that you are thinking of are similar to this. You are a small boy. You are a young boy and you can’t understand everything and I can’t explain everything and sometimes I can’t know everything. So you should just accept it as it is and that faith is faith and you believe it and that’s it.” So this was my father’s question and actually I was raised up in such a family. My grand father was a priest. He died before I was born but yeah, we used to practice faith and go to church.
Now what church again? You are Catholic?
Orthodox Church. And when I was in the high school actually I went through a very hard time. I had been arrested while I was at the school. I was in the class and then somebody said that some kids are throwing stones at soldiers. He came to tell the teacher and the teacher kept us in the class till he finished the period. Then we went for a kind of recess for the half hour break. Then we found that the school is surrounded by soldiers, Israeli soldiers and they wanted to arrest kids who threw stones. I never did that at the time and I was thinking… I could escape because my house was very close to the school but I never thought of that because I did nothing. I thought to myself, okay… I never did nothing so… we continued till that afternoon and then everybody intervened. The mayors, the families, the parents of the children and then the soldiers permit releasing the kids but they should walk in front of the soldiers and they would take those who threw stones. So we walked.
When I passed by the soldier he told me come on and he took my ID and he took me and arrested me. The headmaster came, the teachers came and everybody started telling him, no he is a good guy he will never do that and the teacher himself… I remember him, teacher Emil. He was teaching us physics at that time and he told the soldier, “Believe me, he was in my own class when somebody came to tell us that somebody threw stones to the jeep.” He said, “You go from here or I arrest you too”. They arrested me and put me in prison for three months. The problem was that that soldier was a religious Jew with a beard and the Kippah on his head. So for me it was a shock. The most horrible shock was when they took us to the court after torture… they took us to torture for 10 days and after 10 days I didn’t confess because I did nothing and they beated me and they isolated me and they dealt with me in very hard way but then they took us to the court.
I went to the court… in that court, yeah, I said the same. The teacher came himself and he proved the attendance sheet of that day and my lawyer was there, my parents was there and the soldier himself came. the horrible moment was when he put his hand on the Torah and swear that he is going to say the truth and nothing but the truth and he said the lie and he know that he was lying and I know he was lying. So for me it was something very shocking. As I told you I was raised up in a family where we appreciated righteousness and truth and following the commandments and don’t lie… don’t sin… and to see a religious man, which should be a model for me… Religious people should be the people who never make any sin, any fault, but to see him putting his hand on a Bible or a Torah and saying that he swear that he saw me throwing stones for me it was a shock. And when I went to prison for these three months I was just thinking of faith. It made start questioning faith. What’s faith? This is a believer. He should be a believer. Do believers sin? Do believers lie and why did God never stopped him from doing that?
So I start asking some questions and questions and all these questions which I used to ask my father started coming to my mind. Then it led me to start reading more about other issues, other philosophies and I spent several years actually reading about Marxism, Leninism and communism and I start feeling totally convinced of the materialistic theory and that religion is just… you know, something that people feel in nature and then they develop ideas and these ideas convert to religion and then this religion gets put in books with all of the stories. So for me it was… Yeah.
So you began to doubt what you were taught?
Now how old were you when this happened?
17 years old
When you went to prison?
Yeah, latter on I started coming back slowly, slowly. Actually I was negotiating with the logic and I found that the materialistic theory started from the belief first. For me, the materialistic ideas developed into other ideas latter and so it was totally the same like faith, like believing in God, like the idealism, you know. One of the main questions in philosophy is does the materialistic come before the idea or the idea before the material. Okay, its convincing that the material is before the idea. The wood existed before my understanding of it or my idea about it. But if you keep questioning… Okay, but who brought the material? And from where? You will reach the same point that the material has existed forever. So God exist since forever and there is an equal starting point for both philosophies. The logic might lead you to faith in this case or at least it might lead you to perfect the problem. My faith grew after I was cured from this medical problem. For me it was totally… well it came after my belief actually but still, yeah, it confirmed my belief because it was a very physical thing that happened to me and so it’s hard to forget and ignore.
So you were in prison when you were 17, started questioning, studied philosophy for several years and realized it is about faith and believing in God. I imagine you were in your mid 20’s when you realized that God does exist.
Yeah maybe 27 or 28.
Okay, so it was quite a long process there.
Exactly. About 10 years.
Of really searching?
Yeah, taking a stand even within the first maybe 3-4 years, but after that I stopped doubting it.
And when did you meet your wife?
I met her after all that.
And she was Christian as well?
She was a Christian.
And devoted so you had that in common?
Yeah that’s right. That’s right. She was coming from Catholic or Latin Church. But it was after coming back to the faith.
Now what church do you go to right now?
It’s located in Beit Jala?
Beit Jala. Yes, but still I go to many churches.
Mostly just Orthodox or are you open to any church?
No, any church. I go to Lutheran or Evangelical church. I go to Latin church or the Nativity church and sometimes to a monastery where there is nuns praying in the valley.
What makes you to be so open about going to different churches? Not everyone is like that.
Yeah. I am even facing problems because of this. Not only me actually, me and my family actually because I brought this to my family. I travel a lot as part of my work because I am a psychologist by profession and I am working in act as an expert in psycho-social rapid support team, so I intervene in emergency. I go there to oversee the psycho-social and emergency relief plans and things like this. So I do travel from time to time. Yearly I travel 4-5-6 times to different countries. One month after the tsunami I was in Sri Lanka to help the YMCA starting up the psycho-social support project for the survivors of the Tsunami.
So there I was doing an assessment actually with the capacity of the YMCA, the realty there, and the impact of trauma on people, in order to help me plan for that to help the southern part in Galle. I moved around the whole island or semi island of Sri Lanka. When I was in Galle in the south I found that there’s lots of Buddhists there. I told the person in charge of the operations that I want to check with the Buddhists to see how they feel and what problems they are facing and how they could be part of, you know, the rehabilitation process. He told me no. Why? We are Christians and so we met many Christians and Sinhalese, why go to a Buddhist? I said I really want to see them to know since they are a percentage of the population.
So I went there and they took me to the main temple for them. I met a young monk there and it’s a place where they are teaching and educating and raising monks. It’s a simple place, very simple place, very poor accommodation, very limited resources but very rich in spirit I felt and in that place I was wondering what’s behind this calmness of the monk. I start feeling more. I start asking him more questions about his faith and belief and thought and ideology and all of these things. It was such a rich experience to hear all of this what he is saying. I appreciated the value behind their belief, the Buddhism and then he took me inside the temple which does not always happen and he start moving from one place to another and showing me different places. So I was… I spent days actually thinking of that monk, how much he is in deep… he deeply believes in his own way. I thought, “But I believe that Christianity is the way. Jesus is the way. And nobody can come to God without Jesus.”
This man… he is good but he does not believe in Jesus. Jesus might love him. Then I start thinking more and more about other faiths and this led me to reading more about tolerance and accepting others and being open and respecting other faiths, not just other denominations in Christianity, but other beliefs and even others who don’t believe. This led me later on to go to West Virginia to the Maronite University in Harrisonburg in West Virginia where I started one of the summer courses about conflict transformation and reconciliation and things related to tolerance and acceptance and conflict transformation. For me it was an eye opening experience and then I said okay, so why not live it and I started doing that and I have lot so friends who are muslims, lots of friends who are Jews, lots of friend who are non-believers and as a believer I respect others beliefs whatever they belief in.
So you are very open about your Christianity and you are treated well in response?
Yeah, exactly, exactly. So and now I do that. In a country and in a world where tension and polarization is taking place, it’s hard to be tolerant but I think it’s the way. It’s the only way because always there’s another angle to look at things. People think that this is the way, this is the right thing, either you are with me or you are against me, you know. But just because I’m not with you doesn’t mean I’m against you. I respect you. I like you. I love you as a human being, but I don’t necessarily agree with what you are saying. I also appreciate the diversity how people are, you know. Practicing faith and glorifying God and doing that. Catholicism has a special way and the Protestant have a different angle. Orthodox are very traditional but still if you think about the depths of the words they are saying, you feel it and you feel the faith. So that’s why also I am wondering what kind of… I mean, I hear about Mormons, but usually I just hear people say the wrong things or I mean, the negative.
There’s a lots of misunderstandings.
I can imagine that’s why I am saying that. I tell you… I don’t know, but I imagine that there’s lots of good things behind [Mormons] and that’s why there are many people who believe in this as far as it’s a belief. Nobody can… I mean you are not forced to go be part of it and you are voluntarily going there so there must be some good belief behind it. This is what I’m thinking of… yeah, but people, you know, just highlight the negative part from their point of view and I am sure it’s not the full story.
I appreciate you sharing all that. That’s pretty incredible. You know, I was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre watching people as they came to the Stone of Unction to kneel down and pray and touch the stone and I wasn’t raised that way, that wasn’t my way of worshipping. I had a different way of worshiping, but I just stood there and I thought, you know, this is acceptable to God because these people are worshiping in the best way that they know how and I saw people come from all over the world, from Africa, from Europe and from all over to this one place. I thought, they made a long journey, a long pilgrimage and they are righteous people and that’s acceptable to God even though it’s not really my way of worshipping. They are doing the best that they know how and that’s what God wants. I really appreciate that. Thank you for sharing that.
So most Palestinians have had this sort of… well there’s this feeling of hatred toward the extreme and it goes both ways between the Israelis and Palestinians. But I spoke with one Christian woman in Bethlehem who said she grew up with this hatred towards the soldiers mostly because of what she saw them do and how she saw some of her friends shot and killed. When she really started coming to Jesus Christ she realized there is a commandment that she was not living and that is that Jesus says to love your enemies. She had the hardest time trying to deal with that and she told me about her process of going through that. Have you felt a sort of… well… you’ve told me about your prison experience, but how have you dealt with anger because of injustice? How do you approach the commandment to love your enemies?
Yeah it was very hard. It was very hard. Maybe I told you, soon after this experience I start thinking differently, not in Christian way. But later on, and now and days, I love them as a human beings and I even can understand what they are thinking of and from where they are coming and from which point of view they are addressing this and how… whatever vicious plans they are putting and whatever hardships they are creating for us. I can imagine that might be deeply rooted in their believes. “It’s ours. It’s the kingdom of God. We started here and those are the people who should be kicked out regardless of Christian, Muslim, whoever. So Judaism is the solution.” I can imagine this but what I can’t imagine is the… the vast majority… not the vast, but the majority of Israelis are non-believers. There is a research about who believes in Israel and we are talking about 48% only of the Israelis are believing in God. So when you know that 52% are non-believers and they are secular, and they are leading the situation and they are manipulating the whole world in the name of Judaism although they are not Jews in faith.
So I feel really angry. Why they are using faith to manipulate the world and to torture us. Yes, I want to love them. I love them as a human being but I can’t but to show, you know, negative attitudes towards, not the normal people, but the leaders, the politicians, the soldiers who are addressing… who we are in contact with them because without acknowledging that we are here, without acknowledging that we have no alternative just to live here. Yeah we can continue living here and they are planning to ethnic cleansing us. So for me it’s hard to practice it and to pray sometimes, oh god how can I love these people… how I can love those who are planning the vicious things. I think only God can solve this problem and will show me the way because so far I can’t say that I love the Israeli government, I can’t tell that.
It’s difficult. Within Palestine itself do you feel like there is any persecution from the Muslims community towards you or other Christian?
No, I don’t feel persecuted in Palestine, but I feel that there is a matter of… it’s a matter of belong, it’s an issue of belonging. So I feel I belong to this town, which used to be 100% Christian.
Now what 30%?
In Beit Jala it was 100% before 1948. After ‘48 and now and days it’s around 65-60% Christian…
And Bethlehem is much less?
Bethlehem is like 30% Christians, Beit Sahour is 55-60%. So I am living in the place where is highest majority of Christians are there. So I have no problem living with a neighbor who is a Muslim I am having problems with the fundamentalist who wants to impose his own way in my life.
Yeah, because Muslims are good people. They are nice.
Yeah, exactly, I also have good friends who are Muslims. I have good neighbors who are Muslims and I can’t say that the system is harassing us or built in a way to manipulate us. No, the opposite. I think we have positive discrimination. There is a positive discrimination, towards us. For example in Bethlehem the mayor should be and the majority of the city counselors should be Christians, while the majority of the population are Muslims. This is created by presidential decree made by Arafat and it’s respected. It’s for 12 towns and villages in the West Bank. They should be kept as Christian places like Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Taibe, and different other villages should have Christian leadership because it’s a Christian town. So this is unusual. It’s a positive discrimination but at the same time when you see everybody having similar rights under the law it won’t be a problem but if we live in a discriminative system it would hard to live. But in general I don’t feel persecuted in this country.
That’s good to hear. Let me just ask one last question and then it will be done. You mentioned that Christianity is shrinking, the numbers of Christians…
The percentage here in this region in diminishing and that I’ve been told and believe is mostly due to the effects of the occupation. In your opinion why is the number of Christians shrinking? Is there anything besides the occupation and can anything be done about that? Can we change that in some way?
Actually we are increasing in numbers but we are decreasing in percentage.
As Palestinian Christians now, we are now more than Palestinian Christians 20 years ago, but we are less in percentage because the growth. The natural growth of the population is to the side of the Muslims rather than to the side of the Christians. So we are growing, we are raised in numbers.
This is the first time that I have heard someone say that. Where did you get that information from or how do you know that? Is that sort of common knowledge?
Yeah, I think its part of the common knowledge and if I take my town as an example, my town in 1921 when they the British mandate started the registration of the population here, my town was 1300 or 1400 people and latter on we started growing and growing and now its 17,000. It’s a town. Yeah same Bethlehem, same with other areas, but maybe… the normal growth and normal city we are growing in numbers in percentage but when there is a crisis, when there is a tension, when there is a war like back in 1948… 1948 was a catastrophe for Christians because Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, they used to be mainly Christian villages and towns. The establishment of Israel and the catastrophe which is, we call it the Nakba, when the Israelis kicked out the Palestinians out of the area. They actually kicked out many Palestinian Christians. Many of my family was kicked out. Because of the history of the immigration, it was easier for some of my current family to find the links outside. I have three brothers living in the States and two sisters and many cousins living in Latin America, in Columbia, in Chile, in Honduras and El Salvador.
And have most of them left here because they felt they is better economic opportunities elsewhere?
In different waves of immigration. My father’s uncles travelled in 1880 something and then they started something for the family and whenever there is a tension you will find people travelling there.
A good amount of a Palestinian Christina go to Chile right?
There is a huge population in Chile.
I am talking about 100,000 Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour living in Chile.
I don’t know why. I was wondering all the time. My father went to Peru in 1929. He was a young boy to go to his uncle. I told him, why to go to Peru? Peru is on the other side of the ocean. Why not go to Paraguay or a country on the eastern coast of Latin America. He said, “no I want to go to my uncles in Arequipa in Peru. I wanted to go there.” I don’t know why, but regarding the Palestinian Christian staying here, I think stability is the major factor that keeps Christians here. Christians flee when there is uncertainty, when they are not controlling their life, when there is a doubt about securing their property, their family, their normal life. So this is the only way which might lead me to immigrate for example. I won’t immigrate. I love this country. I would love to continue and I will die here and I imagine the only thing that might lead me out of this place is the security of my kids. If I feel they are dying under this tyranny and this kind of situation I might flee, but I won’t flee if there is stability, if there is a normal city we can live in.
That’s why we are so anxious to have a solution the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So anxious to have an independent Palestinian state or to live in one state but to have equal rights with others and to secure everybody’s rights to do whatever they like, to pray and have a normal life. So this might lead to growing number of Christians, but otherwise it will be decreasing in terms of percentage again.
Well, I really appreciate it. I just want to say that I have talked with a lot of people in the past month and I really appreciate your honesty and sincerity. Thank you.