ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS
RIAH ABU EL-ASSAL
It was a late afternoon, the eve of St. Alban, and the souk was winding down and the homeward traffic building up. The great modern catholic church of the Annunciation was cool and empty, save for a few brothers noiselessly going about their business and a Mass, for a small group of Indonesian Christians, being celebrated in the honey stone ruin of the house where the Archangel Gabriel first vouchsafed to Mary the greatest news ever told to man.
Across the street and up a side alley stood Christ Evangelical Episcopal Church, the gates closed and tufts of brown grass sprouting from the bell tower. Next door was the church junior school, empty and silent now, looking much like any inner city urban school in England, but smaller and with little place to play.
I was an hour early for my interview with Bishop Riah and it would be a good few hours yet before I caught the infrequent bus to Tiberias and trudged the last few weary miles back to Kennereth and the shoreline of Galilee.
Along the main street a young man had become an instant celebrity, being stopped by the Israeli police for a dangerous U turn in heavy traffic. Nazareth is not the one horse town of Jesus's childhood and a million romantic sermons; it is a pulsating city of 100,000 Arabs and just as likely to produce political or religious “troublemakers” as it was 2,000 years ago: certainly people with whom the authorities would be extremely uncomfortable.
Up on the hill is the great orphanage and the limestone urban landscape is broken by cedars. A group of bright eyed children emerged from a neighbouring alley to try out their English, with much giggling. A mad woman tried to evict me from my seat on the steps and a cafe owner, discovering my purpose, warmly invited me to coffee and almond cake in his place in the souk.
On the hour the bishop’s car negotiated the cracked Tarmac and sand piles from neighbouring building works and pulled up outside the church.
Bishop Riah is in his sixtieth year, average height and build, silver grey hair and moustache and blue eyes. The purple shirt and Anglican collar were graced by a silver Jerusalem cross.
We greeted, in English fashion, and climbed the stairs to the church door. Inside is a smallish, unfussy, well kept house of prayer with bright simple stained glass and nothing that would attach it instantly to any particular churchmanship. (Sunday attendance c. 50 except on Jewish holidays when it rises to 150).
As we moved to his office, behind the church, he told me how many thousands of trees he has planted to protect Arab lands. Trees here are an important sign - Israeli guides are always telling you how many million have been planted - they prevent erosion, change the climate and declare ownership. Inside, he offered me his desk to write on, shed his jacket and turned on the air conditioning. (The Holy Land at 100 degrees is more comfortable than a humid England at 75 degrees but air conditioning is a blessing!)
“Have a look at these”, he said, handing me a small red family photograph album. “I have just returned from my people there. Then we can talk.”
There were simple amateur pictures of the Israeli bombing of the UN refugee camp in Lebanon.
A charcoal corpse sitting bolt upright staring sightless into eternity, a child asleep in death with half his head blown away, the weeping UN soldiers trying to fill the body bags. The images were to return to me later in the week at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) in the overwhelming monument to the children. Righteous or unrighteous the causes of men, the first victims are usually the innocent. I asked Bishop Riah:
Where did you begin?
“I was born in Nazareth. My father was the only son and my grandfather was an agricultural landlord. He started the first modern pilgrim service in 1893 and opened branches in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tiberias. Transport, at first, was by cart and then he brought two of the first six cars to come to Palestine. There is still a branch of the firm in the High Street here, run by my cousin.”
When did you become a Christian?
It is a showstopper of a response, but underlines the theme that sounds like a drumbeat throughout our conversation. These are the early Christians communities, now despised, neglected, unknown. We are the Johnny- come-latelys.
The family became Anglicans in 1854.
Where were you educated?
“Sisters of Nazareth kindergarten and then Christ Church school here. After the 1948 war I had a year with the Greek Orthodox in Beirut before returning, illegally, on foot and on my own, to Christ Church.
I did my secondary schooling and teacher training at Baptist colleges qualifying in 1957.”
You returned on your own?
“Yes. My father was out of the country as the war began, working for a British company. He was declared an absentee and his property confiscated by the Official Custodian. My mother and brothers returned, “illegally” in 1953 and eventually, after ten years my father won his case and, after twelve years, his property was restored and it was accepted that he had never been a refugee.”
Was that unusual, to get your land back?
“Very unusual! For example, because the parish was in interregnum, part of the church property was confiscated, as if God was an absentee!
I’ve just come back from the Chancellor’s office; we’re struggling to get back land given to the church in the 1940s in a lady’s will. The priest who had responsibility was transferred to Beirut and the government counted him absent and the Custodian handed it over to the Development Department. This is nothing more than stealing.”
The issue of the land, in this tiny country, is all. Autonomy, occupied territories, the settlements - all hinge on who really owns the land.
When did you first sense a vocation?
“In 1956 the church closed when the priest went on mission and a layman had to open it. I had been involved in the choir and Sunday school so when my father was finally allowed to return I left to train as a priest at Bishops' College, Calcutta and then United Theological College, Bangalore.”
In 1965 he served his title at St. John’s, Haifa and became Vicar of Nazareth in 1967, whereupon he married his sweetheart Suad, and began a family. Hanna, his son, is 27, a graduate of Michigan and Headmaster of Christ Church. Lorraine, 24, is a graduate from Minnesota in Art and Design, and Rania, 22, has just graduated in philosophy and law.
Before you were ordained what did you teach?
“Sciences and Arabic. With some swimming and PE!”
Riah is an expert in Islam. He was visiting lecturer at St. George’s Jerusalem in the 1980s and has been a long campaigner for an Arab University in Israel.
Who or what has inspired you most?
“First my father's mother. She was sister of Simon Azar Srouji - the second modern Palestinian saint. She taught me a lot - not least to recite Psalm 91 regularly and love it. Second, the circumstances of my childhood and youth, being away from home and parents. Some wonderful lay people influenced me.
And third - the sermon in Nazareth. The spirit of the Lord is upon me .... and the ministry outlined there.”
How did you become bishop?
“In 1978 I was made a non-residentiary canon at St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem with the seat of Damascus. Then in 1989 I was made Archdeacon with special responsibility for Nazareth and, in 1994, for the whole Diocese. Then in 1995 I was elected Bishop and consecrated on Epiphany this year with the right of succession.”
Why is there a delay?
“The Bishop is responsible for Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria - the whole province of the Middle East. There are over 2,000 employees to get to know personally, so there is a need for a good two year hand over period.”
The prospect of a bishop being elected and properly prepared for his responsibilities is, to say the least, an interesting idea.
How many Christians now in Israel?
“Only 130,000. We’re 1.5% of the population. Before the state of Israel we were quite strong. Many villages and towns were all Christian. We were 25 - 30% of the population.
In 1948 the Anglican church in Tel Aviv had 800 communicants. Now it has 6!”
Why the decline?
“Some were expelled, some were encouraged to leave. Emigration. Political conflict - refugees were denied the right to return. Economic pressure - as we became increasingly a minority we were last hired, first fired.
There was also psychological pressure from the rise of fanaticism, Jewish, Islamic and Christian. People were not certain where they stood. Evangelical fundamentalists promote Israel as a sign of the second coming and yet they remain totally ignorant of their sisters and brothers in Christ, the faithful remnant in the Holy land. I am writing a book, “Caught in between” - the story of an Arab Palestinian Christian Anglican Israeli and of a whole nation.”
How do the Jews regard you?
“I served the longest travel ban in the history of Israel, 1986 - 90 and was the only man named as banned in the US State Department report. They regarded me as a threat to the security of Israel.”
What did you do?
“I dared to meet Yasser Arafat a few years before the Jewish leaders agreed to. I have always insisted on the need for dialogue and the fact that eventually public opinion will change, just as it did over France and Algeria, America and Vietnam.”
But, presumably, in the light of history, you understand the Jews' preoccupation with security?
“Let me tell you a story. The second Khalif, Omar, was found, in the open, asleep under a tree. His followers were astounded. How could he guarantee his security. He replied: “I treated my people justly. I felt secure. I slept.” Israel cannot sleep. I have been 30 years crying in the wilderness of Israel. There will be no peace until the occupied territories are returned. The Jews need to be liberated from the fears of the past. Where did they live since 70 AD? Amongst Arabs. They were secure and flourished until 1948. Sure their were tribal conflicts but there have also been love stories - like Samson and Delilah.”
I reflected that it was not the most encouraging example to the Jewish mind. and that, to be honest, if I were a Jew I wouldn’t give the Golan Heights back to Syria.
“No mountains or rivers can protect from modern missiles so they’re not so strategically important.”
What about the consistent threats to annihilate Israel and sweep them into the sea?
“That is like when a mother is angry with her children and says, “I will kill you!” We speak in an Eastern way, they think in Western terms. In 1923 there were 56,000 Jews. If we had wanted to we could have killed them then. There have been generations of reconciled communities. In 1897 we could have killed their dreams. Instead we welcomed them into our homes when there were no British to stop them.”
What support do you get from Western Churches?
“There is a great problem of indifference. They know more about Zionism than Eastern Christianity.
We are the man left half dead on the sidewalk, robbed of everything, injured in body and spirit, ignored and humiliated by our own people.
I would like to challenge the Christian community to do its part. Christians in the Holy Land are not guardians of holy shrines and don’t want to be. We are a serving community. We are living stones. In Nazareth 10,000 pupils study in our schools, there are three Christian hospitals, institutes for the deaf, dumb and aged and many kindergartens.
Pray for us, support us, when you come here please visit us. Wake up before it is too late - if you want a Christian presence in the Holy Land treat us as a partner church and use your influence for peace with justice.”
What about charities?
“I thank God for individuals and individual churches. Without them we would have starved.
Lots of organisations need us to make a living!”
He is clearly not impressed by charities. He mentions one who gave him £10 per month per child in an orphanage. When another charity offered to support the same children with £8, the original charity threatened withdrawal. (It actually costs, apparently, £100 per month).
How do you view Western Churches?
“They are too busy with little things, causing disunity over the unimportant. Some have lost their vision and the USA has too much money and power and is messing up the church.”
Are you talking about the present dividing issues of feminism and homosexuality?
“Well it is certainly not the time for woman priests in the Middle East, if ever! And as for the other issue, phew! (there is a sharp intake of breath). The Scripture is absolutely clear, isn’t it?”
He moves back to the world stage - the meetings with Arafat, the Likud, the Prime Ministers of Jordan and Lebanon, the opportunities to speak to world parliaments - the great idea of a confederation of Israel and Palestine, anxious that the voice of the Palestinian be heard and the little Christian community revived.
After a glass and a date cake, I knelt to receive the blessing - in Aramaic. I promised I would take his greetings to Pamela Payne and friends whose cakes and sales of work at St. Stephen’s, Lewisham support his projects.
I am escorted to the street by a young priest who trained in the USA and ministers on the West bank. He is warm, passionate and committed. He wants to know why “a conservative society like England” is running headlong after the disastrous liberalism and corruptions of the American church. “Why are your bishops doing this when the fruits are so clearly disastrous?” I have no answer to encourage him.
“Don’t they realise that a huge tide of return is coming to traditional faith and if the church is not there...”
We both know who will inherit it. Tomorrow he returns to the West Bank where, at Easter, Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans concelebrated: a solidarity in persecution.
In the main street children ride their bicycles against the flow of traffic in a kind of celebratory Russian roulette - a metaphor of the Christian community there and the orthodox faith back home.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath, in the diocese of St. Albans
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