Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal: 'We are the true heirs' of the Promised Land


Listen to Daryl Bradford Smith speaking with Bishop of Jerusalem Riah Hanna Abu El-Assal

06:03 AM CST on Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Right Rev. Riah Abu El-Assalis the 13th Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem and the third Palestinian to hold that office. He ministers to 7,000 Anglicans in the Middle East. He recently visited Dallas to celebrate his diocese's companion relationship with the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Here are excerpts from Bishop Riah's interview with members of The Dallas Morning News editorial board:

On living with Muslims in the modern world

We need to wake up to a reality that the Muslims are there to stay – 1.3 billion people – and if we continue to provoke them, we will have more trouble. Rather than continue to have confrontation, we need to learn the art of co-living, not just co-existing. It would serve the world better if we were to recognize them as much as we recognize the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists.

Bishop Riah, how do we co-exist with fanatics like those of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who have said they won't stop until Israel is destroyed. Palestinian Christians have expressed fears of fanatical Muslims taking power.

We co-existed side by side with Muslims for 1,400 years. We never had it so bad as today. Unless we recognize the otherness of the other, namely the Muslims, we will have greater problems, and that will certainly have its effect on Christians throughout the Mideast. But don't tell me it's the fanatics who caused over a million Iraqi Christians to emigrate from Iraq in the last few months. It's not the fanatics. ... We are dealing in many ways with a community that was quiet. Since when did Islam become a fanatical community?

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood brought an element of radical fundamentalism into the Muslim community. You had Hamas –

We have Christian fanatics. The Christian right in America, who continue to preach that God gave that land to the Jews. Have they examined who I am and what I have been doing for 2,000 years at a Jewish place in Jerusalem? How dare we continue to speak of God as a real-estate agent!

On the definition of "terrorism"

In Gaza, the Israelis are gone, but the attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Israelis continue. The Palestinian Authority can't control the radicals. Why should Israel negotiate under these conditions?

First of all, the Israelis started it. They targeted a number of activists in the West Bank, and the Palestinians retaliated.

Activists? Not terrorists?

No. We've been labeled as terrorists, and we have been killed by this label from 1964 until now. Whatever the Palestinians have done is [considered to be] an act of terrorism. Whatever the Israeli has done is [considered to be] an act of heroism.

Suicide bombing – is that terrorism?

I, personally, am against any form of violence. Occupation is an act of terrorism. Humiliating people at checkpoints is an act of terrorism. ... I'm not justifying [terrorism], don't misunderstand. The easiest thing for people who are Christians to help them understand is to go to the Bible and read the story of Samson. When I was a kid in Sunday school, I applauded Samson for what he did. I didn't realize he was the first suicide bomber. Nobody spoke of Samson as a terrorist. Everybody speaks of Samson as a hero.

If an Israeli wants a two-state solution, as you advocate, all he has to do is look at what has happened in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, and then he will wonder why Israel should yield even more land to the Palestinians and give them a base from which to attack from the other side. How would you respond?

Well, I would tell him, "Listen, you cannot enjoy peace and security if you continue to occupy the lands of others. You cannot."

On Anglican calls for divestment from Israel

This past summer, the Anglican Consultative Council outraged Israelis by calling for divestment from Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians. Israelis wonder why their country is singled out for this kind of treatment when there are many countries in the world that have much worse human rights records.

The church was involved in the movement for sanctions against South Africa, and the situation in Palestine is worse than in South Africa. The Anglican Church came late; the Presbyterians were the first to call for divestment. Divestment, in my opinion, is a nonviolent form of resistance. ... If the church was the first to call for sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, I tell my Christian sisters and brothers in the West, "Don't wait until we [Palestinians] become black."

On Arab persecution of Jews

We were not party to persecuting the Jews in modern-day times. They lived among us from 70 A.D. until recently. We became enemies because some Western powers had a hidden agenda – the whole question of oil in the Arab world. They allowed Israel to come. They persecuted the Jews in Europe and made the Palestinians pay.

But the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was allied with the Nazis. He went to Berlin and met with Hitler, and he did inspire anti-Jewish pogroms. That did happen.

That's recorded by Westerners, the way Westerners write about Islam. I'm a student of Islam.

So he was never allied with the Nazis?

He was never allied with the Nazis. He did visit Germany, no question, but he was never allied with the Nazis.

On the question of demography

(We must have) either two states for two peoples, living side by side, perhaps with the possibility for a federation, or one binational state, which is in the making. Fifteen years from now, we're going to have a minimum of 9, 10 million Palestinians. I doubt that the Jews will do as well with children. And the demography change will effect a change in politics. If the Palestinians were to say, "OK, we're not going to shoot at you, we're not going to send suicide missions" – one man, one vote. If we are supporters of democracy in the world, we'll have to come to terms with this. So I tell the Jews, if I were you, I would accept the two-state solution.

On the Jews, Abraham and the Promised Land

In 2001, you made a controversial statement. You said, speaking of the Palestinians, "We are the true Israel. No one can deny me the right to inherit the promises, and, after all, the promises were first given to Abraham, and Abraham is never spoken of in the Bible as a Jew. ... He is the father of the faithful." Is that an accurate quote, and can you explain what you meant by that?

Definitely. People today speak of Israel as a piece of land given by almighty God, a divine intervention concerning land. It was given to Abraham. Check your Bible. Tell me where in the Bible Abraham is spoken of as a Jew.

Abraham is not a Jew?

No. He's an Iraqi. He comes from Iraq. That's why I'm upset that we went and ruined the homeland of Abraham. Second, I am the true Israel. This is not Riah Abu El-Assal saying this. This is St. Paul saying this. Paul was the apostle to the nations. He spoke of the Christian community as the true Israel. I'm not trying to say we replace the Jews in the world. No. What he said is that we have inherited the promises. We are the true heirs of the promises.

Does that include the Promised Land?

I am a child of Abraham. As much as the others are entitled to be there, I'm entitled to be there. That's why I say the two communities are predestined to live side by side for centuries.