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Moslem-Christian relations: Hania Bitar

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 06.06.2006:


Interview with Hania Bitar

By Katherine von Schubert, for the Arab Educational Institute

Published in The Jerusalem Times

Hania Bitar is director general of the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation (PYALARA), an organization based in Ar-Ram and among other things known for its Arabic-English youth paper The Youth Times, youth programmes on Palestine TV and various awareness-raising and leadership-building projects among teenagers and university students in the West Bank and Gaza.

What is your Palestinian religious identity, and how would you communicate it to others?

To be a Palestinian means more to me than to be a Christian. I feel this is due to the fact that we as Palestinians are facing a big political challenge to our existence as human beings. The world has to understand that Palestinians, whether they are Muslim or Christian, are human beings. Making the West more aware of our human existence is a priority for me. Once we are recognised as human beings with rights then we can start to work on the other layers – whether it is women’s issues, religious issues or whatever.

Even if I would stress my religious identity, the West doesn’t really care about Palestinian Christians here. The world is not showing more interest or sympathy because there are Christians here or because Christian values are at stake. The way things have been going make me as a Christian ashamed of what is happening. This makes me feel that in fact I belong more to my Muslim culture than to the Christian world. I am protected more here. People can understand me and the challenges to my existence more than those in the Christian community of the world.

The same applies to the Christian symbols and holy places. The World was in uproar when the Buddha statues were demolished. Besides the lip-service condemnations, not much is done any time a Christian or a Muslim holy site is at stake because of the Israeli aggression. If we look at the most sacred Christian sites – the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – you don’t feel there is a real Christian adherence to these sites. As if they mean nothing to the world. Look at the small numbers of pilgrims.

I feel that both Muslims and Christians raise their families and their children here on a very similar set of values. We as Christians are born and rooted here; we are not imported or new immigrants into the country. As a Christian I feel that both Muslims and Christians in the Palestinian Territories have come to terms with each other. Whenever the political burden is relieved a bit, we can work more on the issues of better understanding, building bridges of tolerance and communication. I think we as Palestinians have stepped well in this direction. We can in fact really become a model of religious coexistence that can be followed by other countries around the world. Moreover, I feel the challenges we are facing as Palestinians, whether Muslims or Christians, make us more united, more understanding and more coherent. It is the time to unite, to be one voice and one hand in facing the external challenge. We have also other factors that make us more coherent as Muslims and Christians in this country. Our political leadership is aware of the importance of religious coexistence and tolerance. Furthermore, the Christian minority in Palestine is very educated and powerful and has succeeded in having its footmarks on the different levels, educational, literary, political, medical, etc. A very important factor is also represented in some of our Muslim and Christian religious leaders who play a major role in bridging the gap between the two religious identities.

What do you think about the strategy of the Palestinian Authority to emphasise religious plurality?

The important thing is that it is not just a strategy to show the world that we have plurality or religious tolerance. It is practiced on the ground. It is not just something artificial, singing to the current tune around the world. As Christians, we don’t feel that our religious rights are confiscated by the PNA. On the contrary, the PNA preserves those rights. Our challenge is more with the Occupation which deprives us – Christians and Muslims – from practicing our religious rights.

In any nation, leadership plays a very important role. If you have a wise leadership which seeks to preserve the rights of minorities, this will translate itself into daily practices. I think as Christian Palestinians we are lucky to have a leader like Yasser Arafat. At a religious level I feel that he is really very understanding – genuinely – about the rights of the Christian minorities. And I feel the leadership understands fully why it should be tolerant and allow plurality. What is good is that it doesn’t only understand this as an important strategy to reach the world and to show that it is a pluralistic authority but that it really understands it on an internal level. Christians, because of the fact that they are powerful and educated, have managed to reach influential decision-making positions. This is still needed on a higher political level or platform. For women and youth, too – as Christians and Muslims – but this is a totally different issue.

I feel we have been all the time demonstrating that there are Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims. Nobody tries to hide who we are. On the contrary, for me I find it really an excellent example when we have both our Christian and Muslims leaders walking or demonstrating together and trying to show that as Muslims and Christians we are together in refusing this or accepting that. I feel this is something really good. It gives so many positive messages to the people. The religious leaders are playing an excellent role in this regard and they become role models for the population. Once you see your leaders uniting and standing together and speaking with the same voice on many issues, the whole population will look up to those people. And this is a very important factor in our religious reality in Palestine.

Arafat has appointed Christian mayors to 10 West Bank cities, regardless of the proportionality of Christians to Muslims within them.

It is not just in the Palestinian areas. It is also in Jordan and other Arab countries where they try to keep the Christian presence visible. First they start with a quota for Christians. However, you will find a lot of Christians who have really proved themselves.You cannot just appoint a Christian because he’s a Christian – he has to be qualified for such a task. I hope in the long run that this will become our strategy – choosing the one who is really most suitable for such a position regardless of whether he is a Christian or a Muslim. Yes, you can start by having quotas and so on, just to ensure that this group of people are not forgotten; but gradually and in a tolerant context, qualification becomes the most important issue.

Have you experienced any local problems of Muslims and Christians living together?

Of course we have some problems. We are a real society. As a society, we might face different problems related to having different religions. But what is important is how we deal with these problems; how the leaders in a community are dealing with them, addressing them, whether on an educational level or societal level. It is natural to have problems. We are not an artificial community.

You can have problems on a community level, or on the level of neighbours. I remember, for example, in Jifna village, where they live close to Jalazon refugee camp. Jifna is a village dominated by Christians. Social drinking is not an issue in a Christian context but alcohol abuse and getting drunk is of course an issue of concern. You rarely find Christians who are drunk; they are used to dealing with alcohol. Alcohol is in their homes, their stores, restaurants. But for Muslims, especially the youth who are growing up, alcohol is something tempting, something they want to try. It becomes something very attractive. They want to try alcohol; they want to consume alcohol without limitation. Now this is an issue of concern not only to Muslims because alcohol is forbidden in Islam but also for Christians because alcohol abuse is also forbidden in Christianity.

It is natural to have differences and to have problems but what is important is how one deals with the problems. Do you just leave it up to the people to make their own laws and regulations or do you really address community leaders, people at the mosque, in the church? Are you working on a society level to see why young people want to drink? What is good in our society is that we really try not to get carried away after small problems but to deal with them.

Can you tell me about projects or initiatives for expressing a Palestinian religious identity, or which serve to develop Muslim–Christian relations?

PYALARA is a youth organisation. What we have been trying to do until now, is to educate young people on the importance of “accepting the other”. The value of tolerance and accepting the other and believe in the right of the other to have rights is a value that people aim at reaching whether in relation to religious differences, gender issues, minority rights and other categories.

At PYALARA, we teach young people tolerance and common values through practice. Last Christmas, for example, we had a group of young Muslims and Christians together with Santa Claus who visited sick people in hospitals and gave presents. The group of young amateurs, accompanied by Santa and a guitarist sang Christmas carols, national songs and songs of [Lebanese singer] Fayruz in an attempt to bring some happiness to the hearts of people. Also last year during a Muslim feast, Christians and Muslims together worked to make a difference in the life of a poor family in Am’ari refugee camp. Together we wanted to make a very poor family happy at the end of the Ramadan feast. So a group of young Christian and Muslim members of PYALARA went and worked on improving the quality of living of this family. We managed to mobilize the community where some people donated money, tiles, cement, windows, and clothes. We even managed to get them a stove and a gas-heater. What was special is that the young people, Muslims and Christians, did all the work and managed together to work for a bigger value; helping the needy and the elderly; a value called for by both Christianity and Islam.

How do you look at present-day relations with the West?

I think the attitude of the world is just giving Israel a green light to do whatever it wants. We have reached a level of existence where we, as Palestinians, are really ‘Waiting for Godot’. We feel that our value as human beings who have the right to live in freedom, with dignity, the right to dream, to have a past, a present and a future have never been a priority on the international agenda. The recent international grass-root refusal of the American aggression against Iraq, represent a slim light of hope in the heart of darkness we are living in. Nothing justifies injustice; neither power, greed, nor historical or religious pretexts, nothing at all. We see some hope in the way some individuals and groups around the world are responding to our suffering. The US succeeded in becoming enemy number one for so many people around the world, and even occupies the same status (pushing Israel to enemy number two) in the Palestinian context. Rachel Corrie, the young American of 23, who refused to surrender to the Israeli aggression, paid a very heavy price; her life. Corrie and the demonstrations by the American people and many other nations against aggression showed us, the underdog, that there is still some hope, that there are people whose conscious are still alive and that those might influence the mechanisms of power one day.

In the unprecedented deteriorating context that we as Palestinians are living through, religious identity becomes a zero factor when compared with the value of human life and dignity. When a nation, specially its young people stop to see any light at the end of the tunnel, then what Shakespeare said in Henry V “Let life be short; else shame will be too long” represents a warning. Our collective mission should be focused on keeping a ray of hope in the hearts of people while actual and concrete steps are taken to alleviate the tyranny and shame of occupation.

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