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Interfaith bridge building

Amid the tumult of occupation, Palestinian pastor works for reconciliation

April 30, 2009

NABLUS, West Bank

Not far from the well where Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, the Rev. Ibrahim Nairouz continues to spread a message of reconciliation.

Just as Jesus broke social conventions by engaging the woman with respect and care, Nairouz, an Episcopal priest in Nablus, jettisons perceptions that Muslims and Christians can’t live together in peace. His interfaith relationships also include people of the Samaritan sect, heirs of the faith held by the woman at the well.

“We know we are different religions, but in these differences we need to respect each other and know each other,” Nairouz said.

As Nairouz speaks with church media who are in Palestine through a visit arranged by the World Council of Churches, the sounds of kindergarten children can be clearly heard in his office at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Near midday, those sounds fade as the mosque next door to the church sounds a call to prayer.

The church’s kindergarten, made up of mostly Muslim children, is the sole legacy of a multi-grade Episcopal school that began in the 19th century. Nairouz is hopeful that plans to expand the school’s scope and restore its historic mission will soon come to fruition.

Good interfaith relationships are not new to St. Philip’s. Part of the mosque sits on property that the church donated to their Muslim neighbors many years ago.

“We are a minority, but we have a good relationship with the community,” Nairouz said. “We build bridges and we don’t like walls.”

Christians number only 700 out of a population of 160,000 in Nablus. The two parishes served by Nairouz, St. Philip’s and Good Shepherd Episcopal in Rafedia, have a combined membership of about 160.

Like other Palestinian pastors in the West Bank, Nairouz struggles to lead a congregation amid 42 years of Israeli occupation. In March, he received word from Israeli authorities that his congregation could not hold an overnight retreat in Galilee for mothers in his congregation. No reason was given for the denial. The authorities simply said that the group could not be in Israel between midnight and 5 a.m.

Nairouz has seen congregants lose jobs because checkpoints made their commute to work and back home impossible.

“Once Christians in Palestine were 18 to 20 percent of the population and now we are less than 2 percent because of emigration,” Nariouz said.

The political situation and economic challenges, he explained, cause many to leave. His own parents and siblings have left Palestine.

The church itself is not a sanctuary from occupation.

“The soldiers have come inside the church many times,” Nairouz said.  He has observed one clear message from the occupation: “Go away. This is not your land.”

But he says that for generations Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived peacefully in Nablus and that Jewish students studied at the Episcopal school in the 1890s.

However, some of his more recent Jewish neighbors, part of the Israeli government-backed settler movement, have exacerbated the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Nairouz said. 

“The settlers come here because of a political decision, but they use religion to say we are in the land of their fathers and grandfathers,” he said.

Nairouz rejects their use of Hebrew Scriptures to justify their claim to Palestinian lands.

“The problem is not a religious problem,” he said. “It’s political, and we need to learn from all religions to bring peace.”

He’s even more distressed about Christians, who back the expansion of Israeli settlements. Their support is based on a belief that an expansion of Israel’s borders is essential for the return of Christ.

“We don’t want to build a kingdom so that God will come, Nairouz said. “This makes people leaders and God servant.” Instead, he explains, “God decides (when Christ will return) and we will be servants of God.”

Nairouz holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, a school founded in 1863 by Presbyterian missionaries from the United States. He also has a master's in Islamic archaeology from Al-Quds University in Abu Dis and another master's in contemporary Arabic studies from Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank.

As Nairouz does his pastoral work, he realizes he is walking on ground where the Christian faith was shaped. In addition to the woman at the well, Nairouz readily recounts other New Testament events that occurred near present-day Nablus. They include Jesus’ healing of 10 lepers, the preaching of Philip to the Samaritans, and Peter and John’s prayers for Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit.

Nairouz desperately wants Palestinian Christians to stand as a living witness amid the sacred places of the Holy Land.

“Christianity started here,” he said. “It’s very important for Christianity to stay here.”

Pat Cole recently traveled to the Middle East as part of a “Living Letters” delegation of the World Council of Churches. His trip was jointly funded by PNS and the WCC.

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