Coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem
By Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
Let me introduce myself. I am an Arab Palestinian Christian Evangelical Lutheran, and I am one of those Palestinian refugees whose father lost his home in Beer Sheva’ and whose mother lost her home in West Jerusalem. I grew up in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and our family had and continues to have many Muslim family friends. We lived together in Jerusalem, never thinking about the fact that we belonged to different religions. We lived not as Muslims and Christians but as human beings and neighbours.
One of the Muslim families we were very close to was that of Abu Adnan and Im Adnan, who lived in Bab El Silseleh in the souq of the Old City. Every day we were in and out of each other’s homes. On Christmas, they used to come and celebrate with us. One year their children asked, “Why don’t we put up a Christmas tree like the Younans?” So that Christmas Abu Adnan and Im Adnan decided to have a Christmas tree in their house, and we assisted them in decorating it together. By the same token, at Ramadan, the fasting month, my parents taught me and my brothers and sisters not to eat any food in front of our friends, not out of fear or because of a law, but out of respect for our neighbours and their religious feelings. In the evenings during Ramadan we visited them to eat the delicious Katayef pancakes. And when my mother cooked the traditional St. Barbara soup on January 3rd she always asked me to take the first pot to them. This kind of sharing and living taught me to deal with people not on the basis of religion but on the basis of humanity and neighbourliness. And this education prepared me to be able to dialogue with others throughout my life, to understand the other as the other wants to be understood.
The point I want to make by sharing these stories is that as an Arab Palestinian Christian I never consider myself to be part of a minority group, nor do I expect to be treated as “dhimmi,” part of a group formally protected under Islamic law. Arab Palestinian Christians are an integral part of our Arab Palestinian society. We Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, share the same language, the same culture, the same civilization, the same land, the same yearning for justice and peace and, most importantly, the same destiny. Our emerging Palestinian state will be a state for Muslims and Christians alike with equal rights and equal responsibilities, and open to any others as well who want to share the values of dignified coexistence. This is the reason that we call for a modern secular Palestinian civil society which has full respect for freedom of religion and religious expression and that continues the rich and blessed pluralism which our society now enjoys.
Some have told me that there are certain Palestinian Christians who have a different point of view from mine. I can appreciate that because we are like any other nation: our people have the right to have different points of view. But we have to be very realistic, and not interpret differences rigidly, not assess issues “through the eye of the needle.” In any society, there will always exist social problems, and we are very well aware of them in our own society. For example, if two neighbours disagree on cleaning the stairway, it should never be interpreted to be a dispute between Muslims and Christians, but understood as a dispute between two normal human beings who simply may not like each other or may have different lifestyles.
If such situations are not put in the right perspective then our society runs the risk of drawing conclusions based on falsehoods and illusions. It is an essential part of our Palestinian paradigm that the fanatics on either side must not hold our Palestinian society hostage because of their intolerance and unjustified fears. While there are of course certain issues, such as mixed marriages or the growth of extremism and others, I believe these can and must be discussed in mutually respectful dialogue.
When the so-called “Cartoon Crisis” erupted, Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, assumed their responsibility to calm the situation and not allow misunderstandings and fear to take hold in our land. Our particular role as Christians was not only to denounce the offensive material, but also to explain to the Muslim community here that Europe is no longer a religious society as they imagine it to be, that indeed there are many in Europe who say they have no religion. In Palestine, we cannot understand the fact that it is possible to belong to no religion.
We also explained to the European world that while the Muslim community is diverse and varied and Islam has different faces in different countries, nevertheless Muslims join together in a common identity when their fundamental symbols and values are desecrated. In the Middle East, in contrast to Europe, even people who claim to be secular are in fact religious deep down. We also explained that freedom of speech is to be respected. But respect includes respecting other religious communities and their sensitivities. Freedom of speech is in no way permission to demonize, limit or desecrate the symbols, holy places or writings of others.
As Palestinian Christians, we have a responsibility to be the voice of Islam to the West and the voice of the West to the Moslem and the Arab worlds. Our Muslim compatriots expect Arab Palestinian Christians to build bridges between the West and Islam, and we are ready to offer our services in this, not out of self-interest but for the sake of humanity, understanding of “the other,” encouragement of moderation and cultural freedom.
Some have asked: “Why are the Palestinian Christians emigrating from their homeland where they have lived for two thousand years?” My reply is that the unstable political situation, the continued illegal occupation and the unbearable economic hardships are the reasons for that. Palestinian Christians do not see that they can have a future in the midst of war and violence. They want to see a future based on justice, peace, reconciliation, in which they live together with other religions, cultures and nations. They follow what Our Lord Jesus Christ taught: “I have come to give you life, and life abundantly.”
Here are just two examples of our capacity, our possibility for coexistence. One is the recent discussions on Christian curriculum that proceeded as a joint initiative of the Ministry of Education and the thirteen Patriarchs and Heads of local Churches. As a result, the first Palestinian Christian ecumenical curriculum for both private and public Palestinian schools has been developed. Starting in 2007 Christian education will be part of the Tawjihi, or final year courses and examinations. This is one of the rare occasions in the Middle East in which the Churches together prepared a curriculum and it was adopted by the Palestinian Authority.
Another example is our input in the process of establishing a Palestinian constitution. As Palestinian Christians, we realized that the proposed basic law needed our direct attention as an integral part of the society. So with other Muslim leaders, we entered into a dialogue in which we, together, expressed the conviction that this is a Holy Land in which all monotheistic religions must be equally enfolded. People of all religions must have equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal responsibilities. If one religion were to become official all the others would be made unofficial.
We were also clear in our dialogue that the Holy Writings of any religion cannot be the source of legislation in a democracy because using Holy Books in this way promotes theocracy. If we want a democratic state, and we do, then we must follow the principles of modern democracy, including equal rights for men and women and for all religions and beliefs.
We are pleased that such a frank dialogue could take place, a dialogue based on mutual respect and in spite of our differences. It is incumbent upon Palestinian Muslims and Christians, having equal rights and responsibilities, to help shape our society so that it reflects the values we grew up with and that we hold dear.
Shortly after the horrendous attack on his city some years ago, the Archbishop of Madrid wrote: “From Arab Christianity we are to learn to live with Islam.” Can we, Arab Palestinian Christians offer an extensive experience in living with Islam to our European and American friends? Yes, we can. Through careful, sensitive dialogue of life we can help build mutual understanding and respect to replace the current climate of hatred, phobias, distrust and dehumanization.
To live with others who have different religions, cultures, languages, and traditions is an art. But it is an art we must learn together, practise together and perfect together if we want our children to be able to live together in peace with cultural and religious liberty and justice for all.
May God bless you with the real spirit of living together of Jerusalem.
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan is the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and the Vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation.