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Christian Perspectives on the Middle East Crisis

April 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: We get the first view from the Right Reverend Riah Abu El-Assal. He is the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. I spoke with him last week at Washington’s National Cathedral.

RAY SUAREZ: Bishop, welcome to the program.

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Thank you very much indeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the Christian population in that area. This is so often depicted as an argument between the Jewish state and an aspiring Muslim people who want a self-governing country, and Arab Christians seem to be either forgotten or in the middle. Where are they?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: We are forgotten by the majority of the Christians. Very few people in the West recognize the fact that there are as many as 16 million Christians of Arab background. The Arab Palestinian Christians are part and parcel of the Arab Palestinian people. We are part and parcel of the Arab nation. We have no other history except the history of the Arabs. We have the same culture, the same habits, and certainly we have the same aspirations, the same hopes.

RAY SUAREZ: These people, the Arab Christians, live in both Israel and in what may become a Palestinian state.


RAY SUAREZ: Do they have a role to play because of their familiarity, their attachment to both places?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Indeed. I am an Arab Palestinian. I’m a Christian, an Episcopalian — an Anglican, as we are also known. But also, I carry an Israeli citizenship. We can be the bridge. We offer our services to the parties in conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: What is your feeling how this story begins to come to some sort of ending? We see cycles… spasms, almost, of attack, counterattack, counterattack counter attack, and no one seems to be able to stop.

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Well, tit for tat and an eye for an eye will bring us nowhere. All of us will become blind. This is one. Second, this vicious circle of violence will not bring peace closer to the area. The root cause of all of this is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. As long as there is an occupation, I fear there is very little hope for peace. The two communities have been predestined to live side by side.

In the words of Desmond Tutu, he describes this coexistence as scrambled eggs that no one can unscramble. Neither party intends to annihilate the other. I mean, the ongoing conflict damages not only the image of the soldiers, but also those who run the countries. It’s a disaster for Palestine, it will be a disaster for Israel, and I’m afraid it will be a disaster for people who continue to stand afar, watching what is happening.

RAY SUAREZ: The Israelis point, and have pointed for the last several weeks, to those who would use themselves as weapons to kill others — civilians, non-strategic targets — and say, as American office holders have said, that these people do not bring peace one moment closer to Palestine. Would you join them in that?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Yes. Neither party will bring peace through war. Wars never bring peace. Those who go on suicide missions are the desperate — the empty lives of the Palestinian people, those who have been humiliated over the years. Mind you, most of them are 18, 19, 20. They were kids in the first Intifada. Again, one of the heads of churches describes those as fruits on a tree that we call the Israeli occupation. We want to see an end to those fruits, we need to cut the tree.

RAY SUAREZ: But how do you reassure Israelis about their own future and their own security when they know how many of them have died to assure the security of their state?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Both parties have been killed, this way or that way. Those who have been buried under the rubble, many of them were innocents. Many of them were innocents. They need to be recognized as human beings. It’s painful. It gives me a feeling sometimes of frustration, I mean. Why, when something happens to the Jewish family, President Bush would offer condolences? 200… they say 500 people were killed in Jenin. Many of them were of the aged, still staying in their homes, buried under the rubble. Why aren’t we recognized as equal human beings?

The Palestinians and the Israelis have lived side by side for thousands of years. All we need is to go back and read the Bible. There were tribal conflicts, yes. But there were long eras of peace and harmony between the two communities. The Palestinians are prepared to sign a peace treaty on the basis of the United Nations resolution. And we expect the international community, led by the only superpower today, the American administration by President Bush, to see to it that this wonderful dream comes true.

We need also to tell the world what is the position of the two parties, not only the position of one party. The problem – the Palestinians have always been blamed, their acts have always been described as acts of terrorism. The others have been described as acts of heroism. I think we need to, as I said, recognize the pain, the sufferings. President Arafat is still under siege. He can hardly act. How can we expect him to lead his people, to stop those individuals who are very desperate, who have been humiliated, as I said? Not that we want to see more people killed and be killed, no. We want them to live and enjoy life.

RAY SUAREZ: But you think that it’s impossible to stop them, given the situation now?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: It will stop if people come to terms with the needs, the aspirations of the other. As long as people continue to occupy your land, you will continue to see people resisting occupation.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Jerusalem is your seat. Do you have much of a voice there, in a world where religious parties, orthodox religious parties are rejoining Sharon’s coalition, and the al Aqsa martyrs brigade is on the other side, trying to think about ways to cause more death? Does anybody listen to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem?

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: They listen to the Anglican Bishop. They listen to the heads of churches. What concerns me now is how we, as Christians in the first place, but also as people of faith, be we Jews or Muslims– what is our role? Do we continue to wash our hands like Pilate? Do we stand afar like those who watched the crucifixion of this party or that party, or we become involved? The early Church had far less numbers than what we have today, but they managed to change the course of human history.

It’s time for the Church to see to it that they change the course of history in the Middle East by becoming positively, entirely involved, rather than thinking that with remote controls, they can resolve that conflict. That’s why I wish to see Colin Powell, who is also a brother in Christ, go back, give it another try, and see to it that the two parties meet face to face, bring an end to their pain and suffering.

RAY SUAREZ: Bishop Riah, thanks for joining us today.

RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL: Thank you. I really appreciate this time with you, with our people in this wonderful country.

RAY SUAREZ: And a postscript: Since I spoke with the Bishop last week, the number of dead at the Jenin refugee camp has become a matter of considerable dispute.

RAY SUAREZ: Now for another view, I’m joined by Dr. Albert Mohler. He is President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., with 16 million members.

Well, Reverend Mohler, you heard the Bishop call the Israeli occupation the root cause of the problems we see today in the Middle East. What’s your response?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Well, I think there is obviously a cause behind what the Bishop calls the root cause. The Israeli occupation did not take place in an historical vacuum. As a matter of fact, you have to go back to the opposition from the Palestinians to the very existence of the state of Israel. You have to go back to the ’67 War and understand that it was a matter of self-protection, a matter of national security for Israel to occupy those territories. I do not believe that Israel wishes to continue that occupation.

As a matter of fact, I think you would find the Prime Minister and Israel as a state and the Israelis as a people seeking to find some way to disengage from the West Bank and from those territories, but not compromising their own national security.

RAY SUAREZ: Are both sides culpable in the current cycle of violence?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Well, any time you find a conflict like this, you can be assured that sin is to be found on both sides and fault is to be found on both sides. But the bigger issue here is the basic right of Israel to exist and the right of any nation to protect itself. The very real threat of terrorism is a new thing for the United States, but it’s been perpetual for the state of Israel since 1948.

And I think we have to be very clear that even as the Palestinians are presented often in the media as a beleaguered minority, when you put Israel in the context there in the Middle East, you see what a vulnerable position that nation is in.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the Bishop’s view of the possibility of side-by-side states and an end to this story that would see two states living in peace?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: I think most American Christians are reconciled to the idea of two states side by side. The state of Israel, in successive governments, has indicated its willingness to accept a Palestinian state so long as that state acts in a mature and responsible way that befits a modern nation, a modern state. And to this point, we find the problem. And that is, under Chairman Arafat the Palestinians have been unwilling to control terrorism and to take on the mature responsibilities of statehood. There are difficult issues to try to sort out here. They really are like scrambled eggs that are difficult to unscramble.

But I think the first place to start is with Israel’s right to exist and with the Palestinians’ right to justice. But that justice must be reconciled with the kind of terrorism and the extremism that we see demonstrated by many of their people and at least acknowledged and allowed by their leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: So you didn’t buy his reference to the acts of terrorism as the work of desperate and humiliated young people?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Well, certainly they are desperate. I can’t imagine any other explanation, but the source of that desperation is a critical question. You know, the blame for the indignities of the Palestinians is most often alleged and attributed to the Israeli government. But the fact is that the Palestinians have suffered from the hands of Arab governments there in the region and a historical pattern of indignity. I sympathize with that indignity. I want to speak on behalf of the Christians in the Middle East and in the Holy Land, the majority of whom are Palestinians, but we have to see the achievement of a genuine peace; and this means a peace that acknowledges, on the Palestinian part, the right of Israel to exist.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the very public posture for conservative Christians on this issue. For a long time, the movement such as it is has been associated with domestic causes, cultural struggles inside the United States. Why are they so front and center now on this particular bit of foreign policy?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Well, you know, interestingly enough, a conservative Christian consensus predates in many ways the entry of evangelicals in an organized way into our own national politics. There are many reasons for this, but central to that is the biblical understanding that God has established a covenant with the Jewish people that they are a chosen nation and that Christians understanding that we have been grafted onto the tree of Israel, as the Apostle Paul said, nonetheless must acknowledge with great respect the Jewish people.

And most American conservative Christians, most evangelicals would see the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel as a matter very much related to biblical prophecy and as a responsibility for American Christians to speak as advocates and defenders of that state.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there have been now a willingness to back that sentiment with muscle, with dollars, with organizing power. You look at the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, Christians for Israel, two American organizations. Are you injecting the American Christian voice into this debate in a way that’s heard sort of separately from others that are being expressed?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Well, if you look at the population of the United States, there are about six million Jewish persons and at least something like 50 million conservative Christian evangelicals. The critical support for Israel in this country in many ways falls in terms of numbers upon those Christians who are willing to speak. We are acting as Americans. And we believe our government and this Administration should support the Jewish people and at the same time support the state of Israel; hold Israel accountable for its actions, but protect its right to exist and its right to defend itself.

At the same time, we’re functioning as Christians, not just as Americans, who believe that Christians have a unique biblical responsibility to recognize the Jewish people and the state of Israel as an important part of God’s sovereignty; as a representation of God’s plan to bless the nations even through the state of Israel. Evangelicals may disagree about exactly how Israel plays out in biblical prophecy or how this particular government may be represented in terms of the prophetic material in the scripture, but this much is sure: We believe that Christians have a responsibility to protect the Jews and to speak on behalf of the Jewish people.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there biblical citations being made in some of the voices being raised in support of Israel? Is this something that you go back to scripture on?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Absolutely. We are a scriptural people. And there are Old Testament roots where God made promises to the Jewish people about the land of Israel. Now one does not have to believe that the current government of Israel represents the Israel of scripture to understand that it is nonetheless a vehicle for what we believe will be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy as we will see as the New Testament tells us of vast turning to Jesus Christ, to Christianity, to the Gospel, on the part of Jewish people. And then there are specific New Testament prophecies related to Jerusalem and to the coming reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All of this comes together as evangelicals may have different understandings in the specifics, nonetheless, there is a clear consensus of support for Israel and the understanding that God is not finished with the Jewish people.

RAY SUAREZ: And as a hard-nosed political matter, is the fact that this current administration is led by and largely staffed by people with a public faith commitment make your job of advocating for Israel easier?

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Well, at least we believe that in this White House there is a determination to stand for freedom. I appreciate the very public Christian confession made by the President and so many in his administration. They have to fulfill their responsibilities as the leaders, and the President as indeed not only the leader of America, but of the free world.

But I believe it does give this President and his administration a deeper understanding and a deeper rationale for speaking on behalf of Israel even as they seek for justice and peace not only in the Middle East, but around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: The Reverend Dr. Albert Mohler, thanks for being with us.

REV. ALBERT MOHLER: Good to be with you.