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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue 6 (Nov. - Dec.), volume iii (2008), Volume I, (2005-2008),
published 3rd November, 2008.

An interview with peace activist,
the Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal.

by Helen Gavaghan and Fred Pearce

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"We hold these truths to be self evident"

Thomas Jefferson believed that no generation can rightly bind another. He meant in debt as well as in law. "Nothing then is unchangeable," he said, "but the inherent and inalienable Rights of Man."
Jefferson and His Time, Volume 6,
The Sage of Monticello, By Dumas Malone, p443.

Introduction. On 22nd January, 2008, when I took the stand in Court 3 at Huddersfield Magistrates Court, West Yorkshire in the UK I glanced down and saw a card taped there which read, "oath for Christians and Jews". Why I was on the stand is irrelevant to this introduction (I was there as a defendant, ultimately successful). What matters is that there was no card saying, "oath for Muslims, Hindhus, Buddhists, Atheists or followers of Apollo". The usher said there is no difference. The oaths are the same. The usher was wrong. They are not. If they were all the oath need say for anyone would be, "I swear to tell the truth".

No Act of Parliament can make an oath mean the same thing to different faith groups nor to each individual. Justice can be about understanding as well as assigning guilt and exacting retribution. With understanding the perception of guilt and desire for revenge might leach away. But space must be opened for truth. Faced by that card at Huddersfield Magistrates' Court how can non Christians and non Jews believe they will participate in a system of justice that leads to understanding? Does Tibet have an oath for Buddhists and non Buddhists? Different people and faith groups and non faith groups see truth differently, not only their deities and absence of deity. Calvinists and Episcopalians place Christ and Truth in different frameworks, and what the Court hears needs to take that into account. How can it?

If the usher meant only you and everyone is abiding by the law of the land in which you live, where the land includes the brain you own and your intellectual bench marks, then that might have been an ok explanation. Might have been, but not wholly. Because the truth can actually result in the perpetuation of a lie, and was it then the truth? In such a reckoning there are lies but no perjury.

This is a world of abstractions I have opened. One that perhaps only philosophers might untangle, and the Thomas Jefferson I have quoted was, according to his distinguished biographer, Dumas Malone, impatient of philosophising and abstractions. Odd, really, when one thinks he put his name to the American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776. That was indeed a work of abiding and contested philosophy.

In England, Scotland (with its bewildering verdict to the English of not proven), Wales and Northern Ireland (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), there has been a debate for some years about what multiculturalism means and about civil liberties. Judging by the stand at Huddersfield Magistrates' Court the debate skimmed over that place. How should the UK handle the issue? What should the oath in a Court of Law be and how might one convey its meaning?

Perhaps on this topic Israel, Gaza and the West Bank might have some lessons for the UK. There the Arab and Jewish minds meet and Western and older influences vie. Although the Right Reverend Riah H. Abu El-Assal interviewed here is involved in a civil case with his Bishop and successor in Jerusalem I did not ask him how competing influences impacted what oath he took, but I do ask about his legal dispute, a microcosm reflecting some of the troubles of the region in which he lives.

I ask him about his role as a peace activist. Who or what in his mind are/is ought to be held most responsible for the region's troubles and for the current stand off between Israel and Palestinian activist groups both within and without the law.

I did not ask him: Is it Britain that is partly to blame, given its past role in the creation of Israel; is it American dollars; arms deals; or Israeli intransigence; is it Germany for having made Zionism make sense; or every society that has taken affront at Judaism and its rituals? Or was it the Babylonians and the Assyrians? The Romans? Who ought properly to be being prosecuted for suicide bombings? And are the bombings aimed at the targets? Are they actually suicide bombings at all?

Does Jefferson's philosophy hold any insight for the Bishop or is it too tainted by the acts of America in the present? That would be a shame because philosophy ought to be able to shake off the shackles of history, and, for that matter, religion, divinity, politics and science (a word that now has a different meaning to the one Jefferson would have understood, despite his meticulous recording of meteorological conditions). Plato's cave presents an essence of humanity that is as comprehensible today as it was two and a half millennia ago. It is a trans cultural metaphor with present freshness.

History can have few such pretensions. It is a product of its time and place, and within that time, as an academic discipline, it can be good history or bad history. It is made of those things which individuals consent to have made public or pertains to those who are living a public life, selected by themselves as MPs, say, or who as public servants write memos about public policy that are destined to be made public once the events they relate to have become the past. At its best the discipline of history is an end in itself. No lessons for the present. Simply and wholly an accounting and analysis of the past, taking due account of the quality of the sources and likely missing sources.

History binds and burdens the region in which Bishop Riah lives and works. Religion and awe and admiration for its holy places add passion to the situation despite efforts that Rome, Canterbury and Mecca make to remove some of the burden from people living their lives in the tiny countries that make up the region. A bishop, then, particularly one from the worldwide Anglican community, is a good person to question about the intersection of the sacred and the profane in the region given his life as a clergyman, aspiring politician (nationally aspiring, practically accomplishing in the General Synod) and peace activist. So we ask below what Bishop Riah thinks about the Arab peace initiative, Annapolis, President Carter's visit and Tony Blair. I asked the Bishop if he thought history must always bow to a Marxist interpretation - where means of production of goods and food and commerce are the dominant shaping factors. Such forces are not always apparent to participants in events.

The interview includes also some guest questions. What impact would introducing Western Democracy to Saudi Arabia have on the region asks Gabriel Laycock, a trade unionist from Halifax in West Yorkshire. What does the Bishop think of Tony Blair's efforts on behalf of The Quartet, asks Anne Isseyegh, an artist from West Yorkshire in the UK, and what arrangements, asks Fred Pearce, the deputy editor of Science, People & Politics, did Bishop Riah make to protect Mordechai Vanunu and from journalists when Vanunu sought sanctuary in the Cathedral after his release by the Israeli authorities. Helen Gavaghan


SP&P:
You are a bishop in the Episcopalian faith, a Christian. What made you seek ordination and who is Christ to you?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
I was born and brought up in an Arab Palestinian Christian family, and like the rest of the Arab Christians, we trace our origin to the first Pentecost, i.e. 33 A.D.

Dad, may his soul rest in peace, was a member of the Anglican Church, though of the low order, very much Protestant, in Nazareth. Mom, may her soul rest in peace, was Greek Catholic, a Church in union with Rome. Dad's uncle, on his mother's side, Simaan Srouji, may his soul rest in peace, a Silesian Brother, may be named the second Palestinian Saint in Modern History. Mom and grandmother had their impact on my life from childhood.

It was in 1956, after graduating from High School, that I received the call to the priesthood. The same year the Anglican priest in Nazareth got married to an English lady missionary and they left to go to England for their honeymoon and never returned. The Church was kind of closed. The call came one Sunday morning when I literally found the main door closed. Who will open the door? I simply responded: here I am. After all sorts of examinations I was sent to Bishop College in Calcutta, India and the United Theological College in Bangalore for study and training. My major was comparative religion and Islamic studies. My thesis dealt with Christian mysticism and Moslem sufism. After returning home, I was ordained Deacon in 1965, Priest 1966, elected Bishop 1995 and served the Church and the society at large for close to 43 years.

Christ, to me is the Nazarene number One, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit makes up the Holy Trinity. Christ is Lord and Saviour, a wonderful example for all who are committed to protecting and saving life. Jesus in His life as the servant of all, in his suffering and death on the cross, and in His resurrection and ascension, is the hope for the hopeless and the light in the darkness. Christ is the Head of the Church, the Good Shepherd, the true deacon, priest and bishop for always.


SP&P:
Having been ordained what made you take a course of action as a priest that gave you a greater and greater power base within the Anglican worldwide community by advancing from priest to, ultimately, the Bishop of Jerusalem before your retirement?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The Church in which I was ordained, or consecrated Bishop, is not only the Anglican or Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. I am first and foremost ordained or consecrated in the Church of God. The Church of God has no boundaries; it covers the Globe, the whole Universe. Christ came into the whole world, for the whole world. As John said:


For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
(John 3:16)


The little world in which I was born and brought up, or the world I studied, trained and served in, opened my eyes to the least in different communities, to the suffering people around us, many of whom were sheep without a shepherd; and many waited on the Almighty to bring them hope, freedom and life with dignity.

It did not take long before I realized that God has no other hands than ours. And so the Church ceased to be the little community of Anglicans in this or that Parish, but the world and the society at large, irrespective of affiliation, color, gender and the like. The more I availed my self, my time, my mind and my all in service to others, the greater was the need and the louder was the call to give more and more. As a result, Moslems like Christians of different denominations, viewed me as their servant and many from both communities turned to me for assistance, advice or guidance.


SP&P:
You have been involved in legal action in Israel. Could you explain the dispute from your perspective, who you are and have been in dispute with, and what about?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
Most of the legal action in which I was involved over the years had to do with protecting Church property, 60% of which requires legal action to release from the Custodian of absentee properties. However, I was party in legal action over issues of Human Rights, benefits for employees and church institutions. This is normal for any Church leader who cares about the rights of his community. But I was also involved in some form of legal action when I was banned from travel by the Government of Israel. As an Israeli I served the longest travel ban in Israel from 1984 to 1990. There was no charge, though the ban spoke of my travel abroad as threatening the security of the State of Israel.

Most recently a legal dispute arose over the administration of the Educational Campus which I have built in the City of Nazareth. This Educational Center was the result of almost a life time (40 years). A centre which was given my name, first as Bishop Riah High School and later Bishop Riah Educational Campus. Besides traveling the world and challenging friends to help me realize a dream I had when I was still in High School, I invested part of our family money in seeing the dream come true. Though my name appeared on the top of the list of employees, the number of which grew from 11 to 135, I never benefited a cent from the school that I have, by the Grace of God, brought to become the very best in the Arab Sector in Israel . This educational centre received the highest award on the 18th of June, 2007 from the Ministry of Education in Israel, a few months after I handed over my Episcopal duties to my successor.

Complying with the regulations of the Ministry for Education in Israel, and having received a Power of Attorney from the owners of the land (CMS in England) on which the campus was built, I went ahead and institutionalized the campus as a Society to guarantee the flow of subsidy from the Ministry. Right after receiving a similar P.O.A., my successor, rather than debating the issue of the Administration or allowing for people like Patriarch Sabbah of Jerusalem and other dignitaries in town to resolve the issue, went to the Israeli Courts, a matter which in my opinion will not only be costly but also a lengthy process.


SP &:
Besides being a Bishop and a Clergyman you have played an active part in politics nationally and internationally in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and among the Palestinians, both refugees and those in Gaza and on the West Bank. What drives and sustains you in this work?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
Any servant in the Church of God who fails to stand for what is right, for what defeats evil, for what will bring about justice, peace and reconciliation, and for what protects the rights and the dignity of the people around him, will fall short of fulfilling his calling.

My belief in the ultimate victory of good, of justice and of peace, especially in our part of the globe, continue to sustain me in the struggle for freedom, for life with dignity and for security for all. More, I strongly believe that resolving the Arab Israeli Conflict, in particular the Israeli Palestinian part of it, which is a conflict over a land called Holy but claimed by two parties, will pave the way for peace in the whole world. Peace in Jerusalem, as I told Prime Minister Tony Blair on February 18th, 2003 will bring peace to the whole world.

I need also to emphasize the fact that political leaders, especially in Western countries, with their economic interests and hidden agendas, have failed. We as servants within a faith tradition have been called upon and challenged to bring an end to hostilities and pave the way for reconciliation. I have always accepted the words of Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians 5:19 as God's call to me. Paul says:


"God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and he entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation.


Last but not least, being an Arab Palestinian Christian, a citizen of Israel , I woke up early in my life to the fact that this minority could serve as a bridge. As an Arab I can speak to the Arabs better than any Jew. As a Palestinian, I can speak to the Palestinians better than any Israeli. As an Israeli, I can speak to the Arabs and to the Palestinians better than any Arab or Palestinian. My problem has been speaking to Christians in different parts of the world, especially the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in Western Countries.


SP&P:
An Israeli soldier asked you for whom you are a peace activist. What did you tell him?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
If I am asked by an Israeli soldier, for whom I am a peace activist, it will not take me seconds before assuring him that I am a peace activist for him and for his people as well. There can be no peace for Israel except in peace for Palestine. There can be no security for Israelis except in security for Palestinians. The peace and the security of the one depend on the peace and security of the other.


SP&:
Who is the better educated, a young Israeli soldier or a Palestinian activist?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
Politically speaking, the Palestinian activist is often better educated, more informed, and more knowledgeable than the Israeli soldier. There are reasons for this: Israelis, especially Jews, are under an obligation to serve in the armed forces once they reach the age of seventeen - and this for three years. Many of the activists in the Palestinian community are university graduates. And quite a number of them studied abroad, and were opened to the world at large. Perhaps I need to point out that one of the most serious problems that needs be tackled is the ignorance of who the Palestinian, or the Arab, or the Moslem is. Many of the Jewish teenagers in the armed forces are brain-washed and misled. And many, having lost those three important years of their early lives, either miss university life and study or have to wait years before proceeding with higher education.


SP&P:
What do you think of Tony Blair?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
Mr. Tony Blair lost a golden opportunity when going to war with President George Bush against Iraq . He failed in his calculations. At a meeting with him on February 18th, 2003 Mr. Blair was convinced that aggression against Iraq would pave the way for peace in the Middle East. In my response to him I said that the shortest way to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem. Once peace comes to Jerusalem, peace will come to the whole world. Mr. Tony Blair with the support he had at the beginning of his term could have changed the course of history in the Middle East. But he did not. As for his performance for his own people, I leave it to the British to comment.


SP & P:
What do you think of the work of The Quartet, the 2007 meeting in Annapolis and President Carter's visit to Egypt?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The quartet seems to be part of past history now. It is hardly mentioned in present day Middle Eastern politics. One of its mistakes is advocating and promoting what they described as the road map. That road map proved to be a road without a map, and a map without a road.

Annapolis did nothing by way of a progress to a just and lasting settlement. The key issues: ending the occupation; East Jerusalem; the Right of Return for Refugee; Boundaries have hardly been touched.

As for the visit of President Carter to Egypt, it was appreciated. However, the Evangelicals and the Zionists gave him hell over his book. Prime Ministers and Presidents can do more when in office than when they have either resigned or retired.


SP&P:
What impact have these initiatives had?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The impact of the above initiatives is very limited. As long as the core issues that caused the conflict are not dealt with objectively and justly, the only gain or loss is time. Politics is the art of postponing the inevitable.

The conflict is over a piece of land claimed by two parties. The United Nations and the Security Council recognized the right of the two parties to have a share in the same land. The Partition Plan of 1949 was the first Separation Wall that divided the Arab and the Jew. One wishes the United Nations Commission had resorted to the wisdom of King Solomon in deciding who the real mother of the child left alive was. The outcome of the partition was war after war after war. One party always defeated. The other winning. Both parties lost in human lives. Unless the Arab and the Jew are supported by true peace communities to resolve the key issues whereby the Palestinians will enjoy an independent state of their own, side by side with Israel, the ultimate result will be a one bi-national State which will defeat the very cause for which the Jews have fought and struggled for over a hundred years, namely a state of their own.


SP&P:
Could you explain please the politics of the party you joined when you were active in Israeli politics? What is the party status now?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The Progressive List for Peace of which I was the Secretary General for 5 years came about when the Jewish group joined hands with the Progressive Movement of Nazareth. Its political platform was based on the two state solution in accordance with United Nations Resolutions. The party recognized the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the legitimate representatives of, respectively, the Israelis and Palestinians. It endeavored to bridge the gap, and some of its leaders paid heavily. I, for one, was banned from travel, and the travel ban was signed twice by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir. The party did win mandates in the Knesset; however the internal conflicts caused it to disintegrate as a party.


SP&P:
Tell me a little of your political campaigns.

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The political campaigns varied from municipal to parliamentarian, local, national and international. I must have addressed millions of people through different media channels and in different rallies over the issues of peace and justice, locally and internationally.



SP&P:
What is your educational background?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El Assal:
I started at the Anglican Elementary School in Nazareth. Graduated from the Baptist High School in Nazareth, trained as a teacher and taught for 4 years, then studied at Bishop College Calcutta and United Theological College in Bangalore as an external student, and received my B.D. from Serampore University. Later, I spent a sabbatical at the American University in Beirut also at the Near East School of Theology, working on my S.T.M. (Master of Sacred Theology) and my second thesis on the Arab-Jewish Relations in the classical period, i.e. 8th-13th Centuries. I also had different courses in Europe and received an honorary doctorate from Virginia Seminary in the United States .


SP&P:
Could you tell us a little please of your understanding of the discipline of divinity.

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The Discipline of Divinity varies from one church community to another, from one Church order to another. The Discipline of Divinity in no way blocks the way for reasoning, even over matters of faith and order. What was relevant a thousand years ago may not be so in the year 2008.


SP&P:
What, as human beings, do we have in common?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
What we have in common as human beings is the image of the Almighty God. This is so because none, irrespective of his or her color, sex, status, etc have been created by a semi-God.


SP&P:
Let us move now to current politics and the situation in your country. How have the Israelis treated your right to privacy, your freedom of expression spoken and written, and your right to political views?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
The current political situation in Israel is much better than it was when the State of Israel was established. The Arab Palestinian minority suffered greatly for many years. Different measures of discrimination were exercised on it. The struggle for equality is still on. A just and lasting peace for the conflict will guarantee full equality. Until then, one's privacy may be invaded. Free expression may cost you being banned from travel. Though we have the right to elect and be elected, the road for equal rights and equal opportunities continues to be long and difficult, especially when issues relating to land, university education, job opportunities, diplomatic representation and the like, are addressed.


SP&P:
What do you think would be the impact on your region if Saudi Arabia chose to move to a western style democracy?

The Rt. Rev Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
My personal opinion and from my observations of different parts of our region is that there would be very little impact. Western democracy is often suspected and therefore not welcomed. Those who try to introduce it often carry it on armed vehicles, jet planes or cruise missiles. Besides, there is always a hidden agenda, either political or related to an economic interest. Further, the greatest majority of people in our region are Moslems; and shariea law governs many of those communities. The fact that western democracy targets not only the wealth and the land of this or that country but also the mind, the spiritual side of one's life and the culture of the community, is resented and therefore has very little impact.


SP&P:
What arrangements did you make to protect Mordechai Vanunu when you gave him sanctuary and to protect him from journalists?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
I gave Mordechai Vanunu the sanctuary he deserved after serving his term in prison for 18 years. It was not easy to protect him from journalists. He himself was unable to avoid those who came to interview him. I did on many occasions warn him lest he be trapped again. His release from prison and the way I brought him into the Cathedral Close hit the news. Some, among them members of my own church, objected. Many - many expressed appreciation. Vanunu's story must be told. If not for the sake of someone like him with guts, then for the sake of all peace activists. Today, much is said about nuclear power and weapons of mass destruction. Mordechai's intention, by disclosing the facts about Dimona, was, as he expressed it to me, to serve Israel and save the Jewish people from catastrophic consequences, if, God forbid, Israel resorts to using such weapons.


SP&P:
Is it always the means of production and commerce that are the dominant shaping factors in history?

The Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal:
Production and commerce have had much to do as shaping factors in human history. However, there were other factors. Had there been no oil in Kuwait, would the allies have moved against Iraq? Had there been no oil in Iraq, would the Americans and the British and others continue to be there? Had there been no oil in Afghanistan would the Americans assist the Taliban in expelling the Russians, and now the same Taliban may be assisted by a third party to expel the Americans and their allies. Had there been no Suez Canal would there have been British, French and the Israeli aggression against Egypt? And yet, as I said there are many other factors that helped shape human history. Not least the way religion was used, misused and abused.

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