When Palestinian Christian Fahed Abu-Akel was elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in June 2002, he became the first Arab American to head a major U.S. denomination. His one-year term ended last month, but as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, he continues to speak frequently on the need for American Christians to recognize and listen to the Palestinian church.
Abu-Akel was raised in Kuffer-Yassif, a Palestinian village 25 miles northwest of Nazareth. His earliest memory is leaving his village—and his mother—in 1948, when war broke out between Arab nations and the newly born Israel.
Todd Hertz, assistant editor of Christianity Today, talked with Abu-Akel about his childhood, terrorist actions that fuel the Middle East conflict, and President Bush's road map to peace.
What was your childhood like?
The key spiritual nurturing for my life was my parent's love for the Word. They were both Palestinian Arab farmers. Their faith in Jesus Christ was very strong. Before we went to sleep each night my mother would recite [from memory] the Psalms, the Gospels, and other Scripture.
The first thing I remember was the displacement of the Palestinian people. As a 4 year old, I left our home with my father, five sisters, and two brothers. At that age, you are closer to your mother than anyone. So I was searching for her as we left. I finally saw her standing on top of our home's roof waving her hand. We left her there and went to a neighboring village called Yrka. There we were put in a makeshift Palestinian refugee camp.
Four Palestinian villages next to mine were destroyed. In fact, 400 Palestinian villages—Christian and Muslim—were destroyed by the Israeli military when Israel became a state in 1948. More than 900,000 Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims became refugees out of these villages and towns.
After several months in the camp, we returned home and my mother was still living in the house. When I grew up, I always wanted to ask my mother why she did not come with us. I finally discovered that it was because her faith was strong. She told my father, "You take the children to protect them, I will stay because this is our home, our land, and our church. If they want to kill me, they will have to kill me as a Christian Palestinian Arab woman." She refused to leave.
What else influenced you spiritually early on?
Next to my parents, the second biggest spiritual influence on my life was the ministry of two Scottish Presbyterian missionaries. They rented the second floor in our home. My father wanted [my siblings and me] to study English with them. Our daily routine was to learn English, read the Bible, and pray.
Dr. Doris Wilson's witness and life as a medical missionary changed the lives of a lot of women in our area who did not want to go to a male doctor. She also changed my life. Through her witness, I felt a call to the ministry to express my commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
When I arrived to the United States in 1966 to pursue my theological education, I arrived with one suitcase, one Arabic Bible, and one Arab-English dictionary. Thirty-six years later, I was elected to the highest position in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. I will always say this will only happen in the church of Jesus Christ and, thank God, in the United States of America.
How do you feel American Christians should approach the conflict in the Holy Land?
At this time of history, we need the evangelical Christian to not only love and support Israel, but to love and support the Palestinians. We need to focus on how these people can see their healing, reconciliation, and forgiving one another as the only salvation for both people.
The least we can do as evangelical Christians is to support co-existence and justice in the name of God. It seems to me that the secular world is a hundred miles ahead of the Christian community on that issue.
Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, and United Church of Christ congregations all are very clear to focus on the issue of justice for both people. Some evangelicals do not see any rights of Palestinians in Palestine. How can people in the United States look into the eyes of a Palestinian Arab Christian with a church 2,000 years old and say, "Because you are a Palestinian, you don't have the right in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the West Bank?" Unfortunately, an Arab Christian does not exist in the minds of all American Christians.
Why do you feel there is a difference between mainline denominations and evangelicals?
In our Reformed theology, we see that ancient prophecies have already been fulfilled. The prophets said Israel would return. They came back from Syria and Babylonia, so that prophecy was fulfilled by their return to Palestine. Also, our focus is more on Jesus as fulfillment of all these prophecies.
We are hooked more onto Jesus and his teaching about the Kingdom than to the interpretation that says Israel in 1948 is the fulfillment of prophecy and Jesus is coming tomorrow. That is alien to our Reformed and biblical interpretation of the same Scripture.
What do you see as errors in the Bush road map?
The problem with the road map is the issue of settlements. President Bush talked about outposts. Sharon talked about the outposts. But what they did not acknowledge was that from 1967 to the present, every Israeli Jewish settlement in the East Bank and Gaza is illegal under international law.
The credibility of the United States today hangs on whether the U.S. can do justice for the Palestinians. The first Oslo Accord said that from 1993 to 1999, we would see the end of Israeli settlement and the negotiation of issues concerning water, refuges, borders, and Jerusalem. Hands were shaken and everything was like a honeymoon. On the ground, however, the opposite took place. More land was stolen, more settlements were built, and the Palestinians came under worse occupation.
The Palestinians had more freedom before 1993 than after. From 1967 until now, the Palestinians have been an occupied people with no civil rights, human rights, or economic rights.
The other thing that is missing in the peace process is that we are looking at the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs as equals. The Israeli Jews are occupying the civilian Palestinian Arabs militarily. The first thing we need to say is that occupation must end. In response to the end of occupation, we need the Palestinians to cease their terrorist attacks.
If we are really honest with the road map, three things need to happen:
1) Ask the Israeli military occupation to end.
2) Ask the Palestinian National Authority to begin the establishment of their state.
3) Start building schools, universities, clinics, and businesses.
How do the Palestinians need to change for this to work?
I believe in nonviolence, so I would like the Palestinians to adopt nonviolent means for their independence. But how can you convince children and youth that cannot go to school? It is difficult to say to an occupied people, "Stop resisting."
Individual Palestinians must cease terrorist attacks, and the Israeli military too must cease their terrorist attack. Both are terrorist attacks. One percent of the Israelis and one percent of the Palestinians are torpedoing the hopes of both people. Intelligent politics and good theology says, "I'm not going to let an extremist control the majority." The future of the security of Israel and Palestine depends on the security of each other.
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