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Interview: Jamal Khader, priest and academic, University of Bethlehem

09 September 2016

‘I’m not optimistic: I’m hopeful’


Teaching is my passion. One of the regular courses I give is an intro­duction to Christianity for both Chris­­tian and Muslim students. Administrative work is required, but the best part of working at Beth­lehem University is meeting and interacting with students, who give me hope and courage for the future.


I work as chairperson of the Depart­ment of Religious Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Arts. I teach a few courses as well.


I began my academic research on ecumenical dialogue, especially be­­tween the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Later, I con­tinued my academic work on interreligious dialogue — Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim dia­logue — and the impact of religions and religious fundamentalism on justice and peace in the Holy Land. Is religion part of the problem or part of the solution in Palestine/Israel?


Living in the Holy Land, and around the holy places, makes the biblical events of salvation part of my experience of God and his pres­ence among us. Later, I was con­fronted with political readings of the Bible, justifying the injustice of oc­­cupa­tion and my suffering as a Palestinian “as part of the plan of God towards his people”. That made it hard to understand the word of God as good news, and a liberating word giving life, not death and oppression.


I was raised in a Catholic family and school in the small town of Zababdeh, in the north of the West Bank. I joined the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, where I spent 13 years before being ordained as a priest in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. I was three when the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands began in 1967.


Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour are the Christian triangle in the south of the West Bank. Chris­tians and Muslims lived together for the last 1400 years. Bethlehem today is surrounded by the Separation Wall and the Jewish settlements, strangling its economy and forcing its inhabitants to leave the country. We work hard to make Bethlehem a welcoming small town to all pil­grims who come.


Bethlehem is the oldest and the smallest university in Palestine. It’s a Catholic university with more than 3000 students, who come from all over the Palestinian Territories. As men can better afford to travel abroad to study, 74 per cent of the students are women; 65 per cent are Muslim. Our funding comes from student fees, annual help from the Vatican, a few associations such as Friends of Bethlehem University Associ­ation, the promised help of the Palestinian Authority, and many donors. Funding is a constant burden to the university adminis­tration, trying to ensure a good and affordable education to Palestinian youth.


The official languages are English and Arabic. All students are sup­posed to be English speakers, and in some faculties teach exclus­ively in English. It is important for students to continue their education any­where in the world, and, of course, English is essential for business.


Theology should remain context­ualised. Religious disputes are a recent phenomenon in Palestine, and the challenge for all believers is to use the name of God to favour coexistence, and not to misuse it to preach and practise hatred and violence.


Besides the regular curriculum, stu­dents have a course of Judaism, a course on Islam, and two courses on the Old Testament, including one on difficult topics such as violence, and the Promised Land.


The challenges facing the Palestin­ian Christians are the same facing all Palestinians: peace, jus­tice, and a concrete change in the conditions of their lives. As Chris­tians, we face violation of freedom of worship, de­­creasing numbers of pilgrims, and intra-Christian div­isions.


We continue to witness our faith through suffering, but the lack of any vision of a just peace pushes people — especially young people — to look for a better future elsewhere. We do not see any serious effort from the international community to end the occupation of the Pales­tinian lands. This injustice is a fertile soul for all kinds of extrem­isms, including religious ones.


I’m not optimistic: I’m hopeful. When people lose hope, they com­mit desperate acts, and we experi­enced that in the past. Everything on the ground pushes us to lose hope, but our faith in a loving, just God keeps our hope alive.


Peace is possible and achievable. Once Palestinians are recognised as full human beings with rights, and as a people with national rights, solutions can be achieved. We are normal people, like any other people on earth, and we want to be treated as such, to be free and independ-­­­


Politically, a confederation between Israel and Palestine is possible, or the solution of two states, one country. There are two peoples and three religions in the Holy Land. Any solution should take into ac­­count all five components. We share the same land and we need the same things. Everyone needs to feel at home in Palestine/Israel. This is achievable.


The 2009 Kairos Palestine declara­tion, of which I am a co-author, hopes that Churches and Christians all around the world will be aware of the presence of Christian Palestin­ians and join us in our non-violent struggle to end the injustice of oc­­cupation.


Palestinians used violence to liber­ate themselves from occupa­tion. It did not work. Later, we engaged in a long process of negotiations for more than 18 years. The results are catastrophic. We believe that non-violent resistance to occupation, including boycott, divestment, and sanctions, is the best way to put pressure on Israel to end its occupa­tion. Economic meas­ures proved to be effective in other contexts, like in South Africa, and it can be effective in Palestine. It is directed against the military occupa­tion, and not against the State of Israel, or its right to exist in peace and security. All we ask for is for the international law and UN resolutions to be applied in Pales­tine, and human and national rights to be respected.


I’m on the Committee of Dialogue with Jews, and see positive signs of increased tolerance among many religious Jews. There are many lovers of peace among Jews, and we can work together, but the funda­mentalist rabbis represent a real threat to any future of coexistence and peace.


Crossing the checkpoints makes me angry. Every time I’ve crossed the checkpoint in the past 20 years, I’ve felt humiliated and angry.


I’m happiest when I meet people who care, who are sincere in their desire to contribute to a better fu­­ture for my people. They give us courage to continue our mission in the Holy Land.


The greatest influence in my life has been the former Patriarch of Jeru­salem, His Beatitude Michel Sab­bah. He was the first Palestinian Patriarch after the former Italian Patriarchs, and he worked a lot with the local people, thinking about their real problems. He helped many faithful people, not only Catholics.


If I was locked in a church but could choose any companion, I’d choose the two disciples of Emmaus, and listen to them about what Jesus told them on the road. I feel I am still walk­­ing on the road to Emmaus, hav­­ing many questions and doubts, waiting to meet Jesus and feel the joy of his resurrection.


Fr Jamal Khader was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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