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The Presence and Mission of Christians in the Middle East

What Christian Character Means

Bethlehem University Hosts Symposium on the Presence and Mission of Christians in the Middle East

Bethlehem University has always been committed to nurturing the Christian presence in Palestine. Sustaining high quality education makes it possible for young Christians to help build up their homeland, and the University’s Department of Religious Studies prepares students for service in Christian institutions. This month’s Symposium on the Presence and Mission of Christians in the Middle East, co-sponsored by the Cardinal Martini Leadership Institute and the Department of Religious Studies, explored these themes more directly, discussing not only how Christians can stay but why they should.

The 5 March 2010 symposium asked what Christian presence means in Palestine. It provided “an opportunity to explore some of the questions that arise from our lived experience as Palestinians and, more particularly—but not exclusively—as Catholic and Christian Palestinians,” explained Brother Robert Smith, Bethlehem University Vice President for Academic Affairs.

The symposium discussed two major documents produced by Middle Eastern Christians. The Lineamenta (“guidelines”) was drafted as an exploration of Christian communion and witness in the region in preparation for the Synod of Bishops for the Church in the Middle East (to be held in Rome in October 2010), while the Kairos document was created by a group of Christian Palestinians to provide a faith-based perspective on the struggle for independence and peace. The “common thread” between both documents is that they “are grounded in hope, a virtue which sustains believers even in the most difficult times and in the most challenging of circumstances,” Brother Robert said.

“It seems to me that the people of Palestine, not least among them the Christian community, are people sustained in and by and through the virtue of hope over the course of their long and painful struggle for independence and freedom. And, for Christians, this is the quintessential virtue…never give up, never lose hope.”

Still, the Lineamenta noted, the difficult circumstances have led many Palestinians to emigrate, while those who stayed continue to suffer under the Israeli occupation of their lands. In the face of these challenges, said His Beatitude Fuad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the document suggests that churches should respond with a unified witness to the people’s struggles.

His Paternity Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, explained that the Christian “presence is fragile and less visible” than other groups because, “We contribute to teaching and schools, but we do not have a political role.” However, Christians in the Middle East “are part of this land,” he said. “We contribute to the culture and the tradition.” He also emphasized the importance of building Christian identity in the holy land by “being aware of our traditions, roots, and symbols of our presence.”

But the Christian presence is also shaping the future, noted Zoughbi Zoughbi, Director of Wi’am center in Bethlehem. Christians in the Middle East play an important role as citizens of their countries and positive contributors to the modern Arab world, he said.

“The Christian role,” agreed Father Pierbattista, “is to be alive and significant.” To achieve it, Christians need “one voice, one vision, compassion and determination about what we want to achieve as Christians.”

In that vein, Brother Robert said he hoped the symposium would help participants “to be bearers of hope, witnesses of peace, and champions of justice here in the Holy Land.”

The Kairos document was presented by His Beatitude Monsignor Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem; Rifat Kassis, Coordinator of the Kairos group; and Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, Director of the Center of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University. Abu Sway is also a graduate of Bethlehem University.

Bethlehem University Foundation
Email: brds@bufusa.org
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
E-mail: info@bethlehem.edu
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine