Transcript from Interview on 20 December 2012
How did you first hear and learn about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Well, it was when I was at BYU, but the first thing I heard about it was when I was planning to go to BYU and everyone told me all these stories, that were mostly incorrect. My grandfather said one positive thing among all the negative things. He said he met a Mormon couple once and they were the nicest people he’s ever met. So he thought that Mormons can’t be bad. So…, but the stories I heard were just outrageous and not true. So when I went to BYU I started to get to know people and everyone was so nice. People were sweet and kind and generous. But that wasn’t what drew me to the church. The thing that drew me to the church was when I listened to Conference and President Hunter referred to this land as Palestine. And that’s when it made a difference to me because I felt that he acknowledged my right as a Palestinian.
Why do you think he referred to it as Palestine?
You should notice that a lot of prophets and apostles do that, and especially President Hunter. He was very attached to this country. Um… I don’t know, but it’s a lot of times referred to as Palestine. And so to me, I don’t know, that meant a lot, because a lot of Americans I know never referred to it as Palestine. Everyone says Israel. But they forget that their being biased by calling it Israel, because it depends on which side you’re with. If you call it Palestine vs Israel. So at the time I thought, someone who sided with me in a way can’t be a bad church. So I told my friend to tell me about her church after Conference and when she told me about it I got interested and it made sense. So that’s when I started going to church.
So how long did it take you from that point to get baptized? How long did you investigate the church?
Well my friend gave me a Book of Mormon. I was doing a Masters degree and my friend gave me an Arabic Book of Mormon and told me to read one chapter and pray about it. And I thought that didn’t make sense cause I wanted to read the whole book. If I’m gonna pray about a book, I thought I’d read the whole thing, so it took me quite a while to actually read the whole thing. But in the process of reading I decided to start going to church. Before I finished the book I knew it was true. I didn’t have to finish it. So I started going to church and… I had gone to church for… I can’t remember how long, but for quite a while until I went to one of my friends baptism and realized… like, I knew the church was true and I had a testimony. It’s just the thought of getting baptized never crossed my mind until I went to one of my friends baptisms and then I realized that that’s what I needed to do. That was probably the end of my… Almost the end of my second year at BYU. I took the discussions and everyone was away for Christmas so I wanted to wait until everyone got back to get baptized because I wanted my friends to b there.
Was there any special permission that was needed from the church for you to get baptized since you lived in Palestine?
I think they had to get permission because the first meeting I had with the missionaries, they didn’t teach me. They were waiting I guess for permission, although no one told me that. Yeah, I assume they had to do something, because I don’t think it’s Muslim vs Christians. I think it’s mostly this country because of the agreement. They didn’t want to do something that would break the agreement that the Church had with Israel.
Was it a hard transition for you?
Well most investigators might investigate the Church for a few weeks or so, but for me I had already been going to church for a year before I joined the Church so I already knew everything. When I took the discussion I knew everything they were teaching me. It wasn’t something new or different or strange. I already had a testimony and wanted to get baptized. That’s why I was meeting with the missionaries. I had already changed my life gradually so it wasn’t a big major thing. When I got back to Bethlehem though it became much harder. You see, when I was living in Utah I felt like an alien because their culture was foreign to me. But then I joined the church and became part of that culture. When I moved back to Bethlehem I felt like an alien all over again, because even though I grew up here, it seemed like I was no longer accepted.
My family didn’t take it well at all. My older brother hates the church and for example, when he came to visit for a few weeks during Christmas he we constantly say bad things, hurtful things about the church. It was non-stop. Really! While we were eating, or while I was trying to go to bed, whenever. He would say I was betraying the family and that the Mormons were considered freaks. That they had brainwashed me and it’s not fair. This went on with my brother for about 3-4 weeks, but it lasted longer with the rest of my family.
I became confused. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. It was very very hard. I was second guessing my decision to join the church. So I knelt down one night and prayed for a confirmation, and in a very sacred experience, in a very real way, God manifested himself to me. I knew then that he lives and loves me. It was the most incredible feeling and from then on I have not doubted the church.
So when you started going to church here in Bethlehem, you were part of the Jerusalem Branch. Can you talk about what it was like traveling to Jerusalem for church?
Well, I’m not sure how much you want to hear, but it has changed gradually over time. At first they was no checkpoint. Then they created a checkpoint with just soldiers on the road. At first the soldiers wouldn’t let buses through. They they started stopped taxi and sending them back. Then they wouldn’t let younger men under 30. It just kept getting worse. We started to leave the road and climb a hill to avoid the checkpoint, but they found out where we were getting in so they placed soldiers there as well. Then we had to take a back road all the way around Jerusalem and come from north of Bethany, until the soldiers created a checkpoint there also. With the construction of the wall in 2002 it became significantly worse. While they were building it, since it took time, they had soldiers placed every 10-20 feet. I had promised the Lord that I would go to church every chance I got, but it was getting physically dangerous. The soldiers would sometimes beat the men or put them in jail for no reason. I prayed all the time that the Lord would help me and there were several times where I felt invisible. Once, there was a huge group of people at the checkpoint waiting to get through and I just felt that I should pass them and walk through. It was scary, but I prayed as I just walked through. No one stopped me or said anything to me. Another time I was on a bus and the soldier came on and was checking our passes. He was kicking everyone off the bus and sending them back. He looked at my passport and then handed it back to me without a word. He just let me go. Heavenly Father’s hand was helping me get across the border so I could go to church.
But the checkpoints were very difficult. So we found a hole in the wall close to Ramallah. We would have to take a taxi there which took about an hour and a half since we had to go around Jerusalem through the West Bank. I’d arrive at the hole and pay someone 20 Shekels to watch for soldiers. The hole was about 2 feet wide so I had to squeeze through. If I could make it through the hole in the first wall, which was about 20 feet tall, then I had to get over a second wall that was about 10 feet tall. Not all places have a second wall, but there was one there and since it was solid concrete and 10 feet tall I had to wait until someone came to give me a boost. Then I had to jump down 10 feet. There were times that I was very muddy. During those years when I was climbing through the hole, it would take me about 3 hours to get to church. I did that for 14 years.
It was never good on my church experience either, because most of the time I would be sitting in Sacrament meeting and thinking to myself, “How am I going to get back today?”. A sister at church asked me once, “What happens if you get caught?” I told her I had been doing this for 14 years and I had never been caught so I wasn’t sure. That day when I was returning the Bethlehem I got caught. There was me and a guy and the soldiers wanted us to sign a form that they had. It was in Hebrew so we didn’t know what it said. The man with me said he wasn’t going to sign anything that he couldn’t read. The soldiers threatened to force him to sign it. They told us that it was a form saying that we had been caught outside the West Bank. I signed it because I didn’t want to be beaten or put in jail. After that I told the Lord that I was too tired to do this anymore. I was done.
So I prayed and prayed for a way to open and that’s when I got my job. I was offered a job at the U.N. which gave me the proper documentation to be able to pass through the checkpoint without any problem. It was another answer from the Lord that he loved me.
So what responsibilities do you have at church, if any?
Well, after I got my job at the U.N. and was able to attend church more regularly, I was called to be the branch Relief Society President. It was the hardest calling I ever had, but the best calling ever. I even cried when they released me. The big thing about this, was that I could easily move between Israel and the West Bank and no one else could do this. We had a few other members living in the West Bank and so I knew what they were going through. I felt their pain, so we decided to try to bring church to them if they couldn’t make it to the church. Even if it was only once a month. We started meeting in a member’s home in Bethlehem, but it was still difficult because some families would have to travel a couple hours through the West Bank to get to Bethlehem, but it was better than nothing at all. We finally found a place that we could rent under a member’s apartment that was pretty cheap. I was about the beginning of 2012 that Elder Rasband came and formally formed the Bethlehem Group. I was also called at the District Relief Society President, but most of my responsibilities are still with the Bethlehem Group. I’m actually the Group Relief Society President and the Group Primary President as well. And I look after the Relief Societies in the Tel Aviv Branch and the Tiberias Branch as well.
I heard that you will be serving a mission soon. Can you talk a little about your decision to serve a mission? Also, how do you think the Bethlehem Group will do without you?
First of all, the Bethlehem Group should not be just me. People often assume that I’ll always take care of things of that if a lesson is prepared or someone doesn’t show up with a talk, that I’ll do it. But they need to step up and help run the Church. This is not my church, this is the Lord’s Church and he’s commanded everyone to help out. It will definitely be a struggle, but I think it will be good. I think this is also one of the reasons that I’m leaving.
As far as a mission, I don’t really like me job at all, it just gives me free access and pays me really well. So I was in the States back in April doing a couple lectures at BYU and the thought came to me that I should leave my job. That was terrifying! Even though I don’t like my job, it is a blessing. It allows me to have my calling as District Relief Society President, and to travel freely. When I had this impression, I thought, “no income, no access?” It broke my heart to think that I wouldn’t see Jerusalem again. I felt lost, but I knew God wanted me to do it even though I didn’t understand why. I mean… I get paid exceptionally well for here. I get paid more then the chief, so when I said I was going to leave, they didn’t take me seriously. I had to officially turn in my resignation. They took me seriously then.
I never considered a mission. I mean, me? I just… never considered it. Reading in the Ensign one day I had this incredibly strong impression to serve a mission. It was overwhelming. It was the 2nd strongest spiritual experience I’ve ever had as to what direction I should take with my life. The first was that I should join the church. So as you can imagine, I was in shock. Why? I mean… I felt like I was doing so much here and that we were progressing. The Group needed me, the District needed me. It’s like I’m already serving a mission, so I thought, why? For a moment when I was having my medical examine done, I thought, “Maybe I have cancer and that’s why the Lord gave me the impression to go on a mission, because otherwise I would never have found it.” But sure enough, I’m healthy. *laugh*
I still don’t know why. I think it’s more for me then for anyone else. Maybe I’m just getting so lost in the process of all I’m doing here that I’m losing sight of what’s really important. My job is killing me, my Mom needs me, the Group needs me. I really feel the mission will help me focus on what’s most important.
And what type of mission will you be serving and for how long?
Oh, so I’ll be working in the mission office of the London Mission. I’ll be an office specialist and it’s for one year. For single women older than 40, you can choose whether you want 2 years, 1 ½ years, or just 1 year. I choose one.
Changing topics. As we know, Christianity has been shrinking in the region. Do you think that's mostly because of the occupation? Are there any other factors? And do you think there’s any way of bringing back the number of Christians?
People like to blame Israel, but I don’t think we can make that jump so quickly. I think it’s true that the occupation is the root of the problem, but it’s caused a bad economy and no one like a bad economy. So they move. Lots move to the States or even to Chili. I don’t know, I think Christians for some reason have a greater connection to the West, whereas Muslims have a greater connection to the Land here.
Colonel Quadafi said in 1980 that Arab Christians have a European spirit in an Arab body. Do you think that Arab Christians often relate more to Christians on the other side of the world rather than to their Arab neighbor next door?
Sure, that makes sense. That feeling definitely exists. I also think a very practical reason why Christians are shrinking is because Muslims have big families and lots of kids. Christians don’t. they use birth control. Also, some Muslims have multiple wives.
I didn’t know polygamy existed in the West Bank. Is it normal and popular?
It’s not popular, but it exists and is just another one of the many reasons why Christianity could be shrinking, but the main reasons have to do with the occupation. It’s really sad, but it looks like Christianity will become obsolete in this land. The only way to change that is to change the situation here. I’ve heard people say that they would come back to Bethlehem if the situation with Israel was changed for the better.
As a Christian living in occupied Palestine, how do you approach the commandment to love your enemies and forgive everyone?
First of all, I used to think differently than I do now. There is a lack of identity and a lack of justice as a Palestinian. We are treated as 2nd degree citizens. When I go to the airport and they ask me, “What is your nationality?”, I give them a blank stare. I don’t know what to say. What nationality?! I mean, I have a Jordanian Passport, but I’m not Jordanian. I have an Israeli pass, but I’m not Israeli. After I got baptized I learned that I am a child of God. He doesn’t see us as Israelis, Americans, Palestinians, or anything else. We are his children and he is the Great King who gives us all access so why do we need a passport.
I used to have real hate for the soldiers. I can’t really say anything about other Israelis because I only really say the soldiers beating and killing. They took our land and our identity. It is so hard to live with hate. It destroys you! You know, for a while I thought God hated Palestinians because all this was happening to us for no reason. My sisters husband has been in jail for no reason several times. Once it was for 6 month, then they let him out and a few weeks latter then put him back in jail. For what? Nothing. It was very unfair. So I hated them.
They used to have soldiers on the tops of houses to watch over the town. Once a soldier dropped a very large rock right onto the head of an Arab man walking by. He died. Another time a soldier fired his gun on a house for no reason. They family was eating dinner and the 14 year old son was shot and killed. How could I possibly forgive? How could I possibly love and live with them? And on top of that the international media would say things like, “a wall collapsed today, tragically killing a walk walking by”, or “Israeli military defended itself today after an attack from a Palestinian group. A 14 year old boy was killed.”
For many years I couldn’t let go of all the things I saw the soldiers do. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ has taught me that God never gives a commandment that can’t be accomplished. As it says in Nephi 3:7, He will always prepare a way. I wanted to love so badly. I prayed and prayed, and it wasn’t me. It was God. I couldn’t have gotten rid of that hate on my own. Love is a gift from God.
You know, I heard that in schools, they teach that Palestinians are evil. Literally, they believe that if they come to Bethlehem, they will be killed. And I think the hate is getting worse and worse between both groups. When the soldiers see young boys with rock in their hands, I think they honestly believe they are being attacked and could be killed. I think they shoot out of fear. So I just think they don’t know any better. It’s like Christ when he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And I really believe the Government and the media is at fault for this. They instill a sort of cultural collective misrepresentation of Palestinians.
Mormonism is very much an American faith in that it started in the States and has headquarters there. With the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and anti-American sentiment in the region, do you think it’s becoming more and more difficult for Mormons here?
Well, the Church is trying very hard to change. I don’t believe it’s really an American faith any more. The Church has to convert to being an international faith which means changing Church culture. Many years ago, it was very different, but as the Church has grown, it’s had to change it’s teaching manuals and practices in order to accommodate. Now, the majority of members are Americans so naturally most members are pro-Israel, but that’s not their fault. Media influences them. The BYU students here has helped a lot as well as people like you. They help to change the thoughts of other members and to help them see what is really happening. But the Gospel is never biased.
You have lived a very different life from most Mormons around the world. Do you have any concluded comments or things you want to share?
*smile* Um… I don’t know… Whenever I end a lecture, people are always impressed at what I’ve gone through, and then I tell them, you know… Life was good before I joined the Church. I mean, I was comfortable and my family had what we needed, but I was never happy. I always had lots of questions and had no idea what the point of this life was. If I was just suppose to live in this prison, then why not just die. When I joined the church, it didn’t get physically easier. I still had trials, actually more so. But the difference was that I was finally happy. I have so many added trials as a member of the Church, but I am so happy now. I’m happy because I feel the support of Heavenly Father. After I got baptized I would kneel down and thank Heavenly Father for carrying me through another day and through all my trails. Sometimes I even think that I’m happy because of my trials, whereas I used to think trials were punishment from God because God hated Palestinians.
Several years ago there was a little bit of gun fire from some people here in Bethlehem. So the Israelis brought in their helicopters and started bombing and shooting missals. The electricity went out and the phones were dead, so we couldn’t call our relatives to find out if they were okay. My family and I went up to the roof to see which areas of our town were affected. All we could see was the red glow of fire and smoke. I left my family on the roof and went down to my room and prayed. On that night I felt Heavenly Father’s loving arms around me even when bombs were dropping around me. I knew that He was there and He was protecting the people I loved. I know with all my heart that it is possible to have peace and happiness through all the trails in life.