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Archbishop in Jerusalem: Holy Land could be ‘common ground’

by
18 August 2023

Hosam Naoum has one of the most sensitive jobs in the Anglican Communion. He talks to Francis Martin

The Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East

The Bishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum

The Bishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum

EVERY Christian who sets foot in the Holy Land will ponder, at some point, whether they could be treading in the footsteps of Jesus. For the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, who is also the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East, the connection to Christ extends into his biography.

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to call me the kid from Nazareth, whose dad is a carpenter,” Dr Naoum recalled, smiling at the memory of his mentor, in an interview in Jerusalem at the start of this month. “I learned a lot from him, from listening to him. We used to go to services for creation, for the environment, for non-violence, for reconciliation. . . What shaped my thinking, and reshaped me as a person, was his love for reconciliation — and his love for everyone.”

Dr Naoum trained for ordination in South Africa, where he worked with and became friends with Archbishop Tutu, before being ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East on his 24th birthday, the youngest age allowed under its canon law.

His upbringing, in a Palestinian Christian family in Galilee, was steeped in the life of the Anglican church. “Our church has always been active and vibrant and lively, and since my very early childhood, as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved being in a church atmosphere.”

Family remains a central part of his church life: his brother, Fares, is the Rector of Emmanuel Church, Ramleh, and was a leader at the summer youth camp (News, 11 August), where Dr Naoum’s 18-year-old son, Wadie, led the singing of English and Arabic worship songs.

Dr Naoum’s ministry began in Nablus in the late 1990s, shortly after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority under the Oslo Accords. He worked in the West Bank, but, in those days, he was able to travel back and forth easily to see family in the Lower Galilee region, part of Israel since the 1948 war.

The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, however, “made things very difficult”, he said. “I was doing that ministry under the sounds of bullets and tanks and Apaches and F-16s, and my life was threatened quite a few times. . . But I just kept going, and I didn’t even think what would happen.”

One day, he was attempting to re-enter Palestinian territory, heading back to Nablus, only to be sent back by soldiers at the checkpoint, who told him that it was a military-controlled zone, and he should turn back.

He obeyed the order, but, as he was going back, he met a man leading a donkey and a cart, who told him not to worry. “He said, ‘I will put you in the cart, and I will put bags on top of you, and we will go,’ and I said, ‘OK, fine.’

“When we arrived at the soldiers, [the cart] was so heavy that the donkey. . . was struggling to continue. I could see the feet of the soldiers. It was scary, but that was one crazy thing that I did, just to go into Nablus.”

 

NOWADAYS, visitors from Western countries can travel between Palestinian and Israeli territory relatively freely, but Palestinians need a permit to make the journey.

For Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank, this means that visiting the Holy Land sites familiar to pilgrims from around the world is fraught with difficulty, especially for young people, as they are more likely to be denied a permit.

Taresa, a 13-year-old girl I spoke to in Ramallah, told me that her application had been denied five times before she was able to visit family in Nazareth. She had never visited Jerusalem, even though the Old City is just eight miles from Ramallah, and, under international law, in Palestinian territory, albeit under Israeli control since 1967.

I asked Dr Naoum whether it hurt that the four million Christians from around the world who came every year could visit Jerusalem, but many in his own diocese cannot.

“I wouldn’t say it hurts, because we are so relieved when we receive visitors who come here,” he said. “But absolutely, deep inside, it makes us angry that our own people cannot come — but also that half the world cannot come, because of the challenges of getting an Israeli visa in Africa, the Arab countries, south-east Asia.”

Although Christians are a small minority among the population, making up around two per cent in total, they are vital to the life of the Holy Land, Dr Naoum said. “Imagine the churches without the indigenous Christians. It will become like a theme park.

“We in the diocese of Jerusalem walk daily in the footsteps of Jesus, both metaphorically and physically. Only we can say that. It’s a great gift that we have, and we will do all we can in order to continue preserving this great gift.”

But walking in those footsteps can be difficult. The diocese of Jerusalem probably has the largest number of borders, checkpoints, and requirement for visas within any Anglican diocese. It encompasses Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Those with Israeli citizenship face difficulties entering the Arab countries, and vice versa.

Holding Israeli and Jordanian passports makes the logistics easier for Dr Naoum; but, even so, he has to apply for a permit to enter Gaza, where the diocese runs a hospital, and entry is sometimes denied.

“There are a lot of similarities between South Africa and here in terms of discrimination, in terms of control,” Dr Naoum said, although he held back from using the term “apartheid” to describe the situation faced by Palestinians.

“For those of us who live here, and especially those who are in positions of leadership . . . we have to be careful how we address certain issues, not because we are afraid, but because, as a Church, we have people in many countries — Israel and Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and we have missions in Iraq and in Syria, and in the Gulf. . . When I say something, I need to care for all those people. And then, as a Christian leader, I also need to care for everybody.”

Such an approach has attracted criticism from some. “Some people ask me: ‘Why would you care for someone who’s trying to hurt us?’ The issue is not about hating the other as much as it is about caring for those who are experiencing injustice, and, at the same time, not demonising anybody.”

The key was to avoid generalisations, he said. “We don’t say ‘the Jews’ or ‘Israel’. We address certain issues . . . certain groups that are hurting Palestinian families and the Christian presence here, the vandalism of churches and cemeteries, and we’ve been very courageous in naming these things. Diplomacy, love, and reconciliation doesn’t mean that we become indifferent to the situation.”

During recent attacks by Israeli forces on Jenin, in the West Bank, Dr Naoum’s public statement was sharply worded, beginning: “The brutal attacks of the IDF continue against the Palestinian People. These attacks have no positive outcome, rather they deepen hate, violence and racism” (News, 7 July).

 

IN AN address at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury last summer, Dr Naoum said: “Jerusalem has a special character than no one can take away from it. It is God’s holy city. However . . . quite often people’s extreme love for Jerusalem denies Jerusalem of its true nature.”

Speaking a year after the Lambeth Conference, Dr Naoum suggested that the love that so many have for Israel gave him hope, even as it seemed to provoke conflict.

“It’s difficult to see, in the current situation in which people are radicalised, how people can share Jerusalem. But I think it’s possible: I don’t see why it’s not possible, if people can agree to respect one another, to respect their holy sites.

“If Muslims will stick to where they are, Christians will stick to where they are, Jews will stick to where they are, and people collaborate; I’m sure that there will be a model in which we can use Jerusalem as a meeting place for everybody.”

Jerusalem itself can, literally, be common ground, he suggested, if the different religions were able to focus on what they shared: “We are the children of Abraham, we can talk about humanity as a common ground.”

Dr Naoum suggested that the “dramatic” improvement in relations between the different Christian communities in the city provided a model for such collaboration, as disparate groups recognise that they face the same threats.

“For almost two millennia, Christians have been fighting,” he said. Today, though, he points to the Council of the Heads of Churches, “and how we are all addressing some of the challenges and working together in unity: this is very important.”

Such newfound togetherness might be attributable, Dr Naoum suggested, to the decline in the Christian presence in Jerusalem. “We are less than two per cent of the population: this has never happened in the history of Christianity here.”

The small population belies Christianity’s prominence in a city bristling with churches and pilgrims. The Anglican presence, though small in terms of congregants, spreads wide and reaches deep into society. The diocese of Jerusalem has more institutions on its books than parishes: there are 35 institutions and 28 congregations. This balance, Dr Naoum said, “tells us about the DNA and the nature of the diocese.

“Pastoral care and church ministry is really important, and we understand that this is the core of the diocese; but, in the Middle East, traditional evangelism is not something that is welcomed. It’s sensitive. But these institutions show Christ in action, through outreach into the community.

“We are embodying the core mission of Jesus Christ, who was the teacher and the healer, and this is a reflection of that, in education and healthcare.

“People see our institutions and they are shocked when they know that we are only 8000 Anglicans across five countries.”

Asked how the diocese copes with the financial burden of maintaining these institutions, the boards of which are chaired by the Archbishop, Dr Naoum said that, if he thought about them simply as businesses, he would “freak out everyday: I wouldn’t be able to sleep. . .”

He described an approach that was pragmatic, but, at the same time, reliant on “God’s providence in our midst”. “Maybe we don’t understand how this works, but we trust, because what we’re doing is for these people. God will not leave us.”

 

EARLIER this year, Dr Naoum became the Primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, which includes the dioceses of Cyprus & the Gulf, and Iran, both of which are currently without a bishop (the latter unfillable at present).

“I want to see the Province engaging in mission in a more active way,” he said, but emphasised that it was “very important that we have an honest conversation within the province about how we want to see ourselves. . .”

He set out the dioceses’ position on the issues “causing all the turmoil” in the Anglican Communion without any room for misunderstanding: “We in the diocese of Jerusalem hold and continue to hold a conservative view on human sexuality, especially when it comes to marriage. It’s very clear that we continue to hold the traditional understanding of marriage between a man and a woman.”

The diocese, though, is a “place of welcome” and of pilgrimage. “We are open, we welcome everybody. We don’t demonise, we don’t boycott, people with different views even though we don’t agree with them, and that’s the bottom line of where we stand as a diocese.”

He showed no appetite for division in the Anglican Communion, and wanted the position of the diocese of Jerusalem’s to “continue to be a reconciling one”, believing in the importance of “dialogue” and “synodality”, rather than “distancing ourselves or trying to break apart”.

“We want to continue to work with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all the Instruments of Communion, to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion, despite all the differences and challenges we face,” he said. He expressed hope that other Provinces would recognise that “what binds us together is the See of Canterbury . . . We are autonomous and independence, and yet interdependent, because of the polity that we have.”

In February, during the same gathering of the Anglican Consultative Council at which Dr Naoum was elected its vice-chair, Archbishop Welby suggested that the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Instrument of Communion could be reconsidered (News, 17 February).

But such a move would, Dr Naoum said, “be difficult for someone like me, who has a very high ecclesiology. I can’t imagine the Anglican Communion without the see of Canterbury.”

Change could be coming soon in Jerusalem on another of the issues that has historically caused tension within the Communion: women in church leadership. Currently, the diocese does not ordain women, but Dr Naoum acknowledged that he could “see that changing”.

“My doctoral thesis was on the leadership of women, specifically in the context of the diocese of Jerusalem; so I have a great passion for the empowerment of women,” he said.

Dr Naoum is in the process of translating his thesis, completed at Virginia Theological Seminary in 2019, as a document to be used for reflection and study within the diocese. Congregants will be left in little doubt as to what their archbishop thinks: “The ordination of women is the ultimate reality for achieving justice and equality between genders,” he writes.

The decision, though, is not Dr Naoum’s alone, but his Synod’s, and ordination might not immediately be the focus: “Women’s ordination is one result, one end of so many things that we discuss about women’s role in ministry and existence, and not necessarily in church but also society.

“We cannot address just one issue [ordination] when, in the house, or in the streets, or in work, or the community, the same injustices are there. Our role goes way beyond simply targeting women’s ordination, into targeting the changing and transforming of people’s minds about patriarchal society.”

At this point in the conversation, we had been talking for almost two hours, but Dr Naoum still seemed full of energy, despite not having arrived back from the youth camp in Ramallah until 1 a.m. that morning.

“Aren’t you exhausted?” I asked. He would have every reason to be so, as a diocesan bishop, Primate, vice-chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, chair of the boards of 35 institutions, and secretary of the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem.

“It can be very tiring sometimes,” he conceded. “I’m kind of young still, and energetic; but there’s too much on my plate, that’s definitely a fact. And, above all of that, I have family to take care of. But the secret is that we have a great team in the diocese.”

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