Jerusalem Arc attempts to bring back Palestinian Christians

August 20, 2004|HERB BROCK

Khalil Albinnour is a travel agent in Israel who arranges tours by Christian groups in the Holy Lands. Tom McCollough is a religion professor at Centre College who often travels to Israel on archaeological projects and has used Abdinnour's agency to arrange his trips.

But the two men now have more in common than a travel agent-traveler relationship. Their own spanning of geographical and cultural gaps not only has created a personal friendship but it also has brought them together in an effort to build a worldwide religious bridge.

And this particular bridge would connect Christians across the globe with Abdinnour and his fellow Palestinian Christians in an effort to support a project aimed at reviving and re-energizing a once-historically important segment of the Palestinian Arab population. Once a cultural, economic and educational force in Palestine, Christian Arabs no longer have much impact on society in that volatile part of the world.


But Abdinnour, in his role as executive director of Jerusalem Arc, and McCollough, in his role as a fellow Christian and supporter of his friend's program, believe the re-establishment of a Christian presence in Israel not only would be good for the Christian population but also would bring a moderating influence to the region that would help bring together Muslims and Jews and end decades of war between them.

"At one time one-fourth of the population of the Holy Lands is Christian, but now it is less than 2 percent," said Abdinnour in a recent interview during a visit to McCollough's Danville home. "In Bethlehem, which is the focus of the Christian world, Christians made up 90 percent of the city's population but now it is just 40 percent.... At this rate, we really do fear extinction."

The positive influence of the church has diminished along with the population of Christians, said the 46-year-old engineering graduate of the University of North Carolina.

"What Christian leaders that are left are mainly trying to maintain their churches as tourist attractions, but there are few serious churches interested in re-creating a living Christian presence," he said.

Christian bishops must be "proactive"

The first step toward reviving that presence, said McCollough, is for Christian bishops to be "proactive instead of continuing to be reactive" and work to "attract back Palestinian Christians" who have departed to other countries. This effort would include efforts at providing jobs and housing, he said.

Once the population of Christians has been increased, efforts can be made to resurrect the institutions that once flourished in the Holy Lands and were a positive force in the region for centuries, said Abdinnour.

"Christians were an integral part of Palestinian society and were deeply involved in the education, medicine and commerce of that society. Christians used to operate colleges and hospitals," he said. "But as important as all the other things Christians did in this region, they were supporters of democracy.

"In short, the Palestinian community stood on the shoulders of Christians and Christian institutions. The absence in recent decades of those shoulders - and the moderation and civility and unity they help support - has helped create the chaos that exists today."

With the reconstruction of those shoulders, Abinnour and McCollough both believe that Christianity can re-establish its educational medical, commercial and political institutions but also can its voice of moderation and unity. But Abdinnour acknowledged that "re-establishing and re-injecting" Christian influence would be a "very delicate thing to pull off."

"But we must make our reappearance a gradual, non-threatening, peaceful re-emergence," said Abdinnour. "We don't want to become just another faction. We don't people to talk about the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians. We want them to talk about us, and the Jews and Muslims as well, as equal members of the same society, not people wanting to create a separate little society."

And while Palestinian Christians are member of several denominations - Abinnour happens to be an Episcopalian - he says returning Christians not only must have as their goal integrating into the Palestinian society but also have as their mantra "working and living together as members of the same body of Christ."

The missions of re-establishment, re-integration and revival are part and parcel of Abinnour's Jerusalem Arc, and they are all rolled up in one overall mission: to "empower and sustain Palestinian communities; to restore the self-worth of individuals and groups; to enhance a religious and national sense of belonging; and to promote respect for diversity." Jerusalem Arc's "strategic goals" through 2002 include educational, social and economic development and promotion of peace and understanding, as well as bringing Christians back to their native land, re-establishing their institutions and re-integrating them into Palestinian life.

Central Kentucky News Articles