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Moslem-Christian relations: Sana’a Abu Ghosh

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 06.06.2006:

By Katharine von Schubert, for the Arab Educational Institute

Interview with Sana Abu Ghosh, Wednesday 11th December 2002

Head of UNRWA school in Batir village, Bethlehem, in her house in Beit Jala

Published in The Jerusalem Times

What does in mean to you to be a Palestinian Muslim?

Firstly I am an Arab, second I am Palestinian, thirdly I am Muslim. This is my identity: an Arab, Palestinian, Muslim woman. I have lived in Beit Jala amongst Christians all my life. I never felt I was any different from Christians because I went to Christian schools, all my neighbours are Christian, and most of my friends are Christian. So for me it wasn’t a problem to live here. I am like them. There are other Muslims here (in Beit Jala) that are not the same high class as the Christians. They are not poor, but they don’t send their girls to schools. They sell vegetables in the market in Beit Jala. Because they are not educated and not middle class, the Christians might get the impression that all Muslims are like them. But there are Muslims who are very educated, well dressed and middle class. So there is some discrimination because the Christians are the majority and the Muslims are the minority. But in Jerusalem and Ramallah the discrimination is reversed because they are the majority and Christians the minority.

Can you think of a time when your religious identity was challenged or misunderstood or caused problems?

Many people especially in America say that Muslims are terrorists. When you go to Europe you find the idea that every Muslim is a terrorist. But this is wrong. Muslims are not terrorists. They are like others. It seems like now there are attacks on Muslims and on their religion. From my view, Islam is a very good religion and we tolerate others. We consider ourselves equal with others, we respect others. And this is in our history.

When Caliph Omar Ibn al Khattab came to take Jerusalem and the Christians came to him to give him the key of Jerusalem, he ordered the soldiers not to kill anyone, or cut down any tree, and to respect others. When he wanted to pray, he didn’t go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He refused to go there. He respected the other religions and he went to pray nearby with his soldiers in a place that became the Mosque of Omar (near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

In the Quran it says there is no difference between Arabs and other people. The only thing that distinguishes people is ‘Taqwa’ –that is, respect for God, or a fear of God. So there are no differences between me and a European. These are the beliefs of Islam, and all these things are taught at school. We are educated not to be terrorists. We cannot deny that the Quran also says that we have to fight for the truth in order to protect the Muslim religion, or if someone wants to attack us, to defend ourselves. However, many governments around the world are discriminating against Muslims.

How do you see Muslims and Christians living together here?

We are living here as one family. Even if sometimes Israel tries to differentiate between us as Muslims and Christians. For example the last re-occupation of Beit Jala, during the curfew, some of the Israelis soldiers ordered some very dumb people here to destroy the tombs in the Christian cemetery. They destroyed the Cross there. They started to spread a rumour that the Muslims destroyed these tombs because they hate the Christians here. The Israelis thought they could make problems between us in Bethlehem, because Muslims and Christians live together here, so that we would forget we are all under Israeli Occupation. But the open minded Christians and Muslims got together and discussed it saying it was impossible for Muslims to attack Christians. The Palestinian Authority began to search and they found two retarded Christians with psychiatric problems. The Israelis had given them money to do this thing. During the problem of the siege of the Church of Nativity, they tried to do something similar saying that the Muslims who were there for 40 days made things dirty inside the church. We knew this was the policy of the Israeli Occupation army especially in Bethlehem. They try to distract you from the bigger problems. If you have your own problems you will not look at the bigger problems.

How would you want to communicate the Palestinian religious identity to a Western audience?

We should tell them that we live very well together, and have been for many years. We are all Palestinians first. Then Christians or Muslims. We all the same life and we face the same Occupation. The problem is that many people in the West have a negative image of Islam. Westerners should come here and see how we live. Those who have lived here for a while know how Muslims live, how they pray, how they live their daily lives. They must search for the truth. Even if we try to use media to convey positive ideas – for example, I saw on Jazira TV that the Muslims in America tried to clarify the image of Muslims in USA, it seems that the Israeli media is stronger than the Arab media. Despite this, I know from many European people that they know the truth. They know that we are suffering and that we are good. But it seems it is the policy of their governments to discriminate.…perhaps because they want to benefit from their relationship with USA or Israel.

What do you see as the role of the 2 communities here? Are they distinct? Eg do you think that Palestinian Christians act as bridge builders here?

They try. The open minded people from both groups try to build bridges. In Bethlehem, there are many institutions who try to enable Christians and Muslims to relate together – for example, the Liqa Centre, and the Arab Education Institute, which has been running a project between Hebron and Bethlehem. There are only about two or three Christian families who live in Hebron, a town of 180,000 (check). If you don’t live amongst Christians you won’t know about them. Because I have been living amongst Christians, I know about them. We sang Christian hymns like ‘Halleluja we are saved’ at school!(laugh) I didn’t have a problem with this because I knew what my prayer was (i.e. al Fatiha). My parents knew that when they brought me to a Christian environment this was how it was. I know my religion, and know where to stop. I have many friends. But if my religion says I mustn’t marry a Christian then I couldn’t do it. We are friends, and neighbours and so on, but Muslims would not marry into Christian families. This is forbidden. I know this and they know this.

The Christian environment in Beit Jala is a very comfortable one for Muslims to live in. Why? It seems that they don’t look at women. They do not concern themselves to talk to women – to think of them in a sexual way. They are open minded. We play with the boys here like brothers and sisters. This is comfortable for us as Muslims. Because of this we prefer to live amongst Christians. Christians make good neighbours. They are not curious or nosy. If they want to visit us, they phone, they call. We like relationships but not all day long. For example my uncle lives in the Old City in Jerusalem. All their neighbours are Christians In the morning they go and drink coffee together, Muslims and Christians. In Beit Jala, we’re not used to that. We are sometimes too busy for this. But if we are free we go..and talk, and drink and get the gossip. But it is not like this in our area.

Are there any problems between Muslims and Christians? What is your experience of there being problems.

Discrimination. Sometimes you feel there is discrimination against you because you are a Muslim or a Christian. For example I tried to work at Bethlehem University, but it seems as if I would have more opportunity to work there if I was Christian. In other institutions here, Christians are preferred and Muslims will only be appointed when there are no Christians.

This is discrimination on a religious basis.

Let me give you another example about discrimination which sometimes happens over land ownership. The village of Beit Jala is for Christians. We were the Muslim refugees who came here and bought many lands from them. In 1990 when my family wanted to buy land to build a house, the Christians decided not to sell any more land to Muslims. At the start, my father talked to a man and agreed about land, but then this man who was a Christian changed his mind and said ‘I don’t want to sell my land’. He sold it to a Christian man. Most of the land around Beit Jala is owned by Muslims especially in the Hebron area, because they are rich and can afford it. The land in Beit Jala is the most expensive land in the whole area because it is very nice, very calm, very clean.

[Note to Toine/ Fuad: the following paragraph might not be appropriate because the mayor has just died and AEI went to pay their respects!!]

[Another example: Doha was land belonging to Beit Jala – the mayor of Beit Jala was a Christian. When he knew that most people living there (in Doha) are from Arrub refugee camp and Muslim, he said ‘I don’t want this area’. And they separated and they now treat it as a separate city called Doha, with their own mayor and council. I don’t know why he made this policy – when he found that most of the land had been bought by Muslims and only a tiny bit was Christian. He didn’t want it to be related to Beit Jala council. After that they had their own council. You feel that this is discrimination because of religion.]

How does expressing a Christian identity or a Muslims identity, support or weaken the Palestinian national cause? Does it help or hinder?

It makes the relations and our identities as Muslims and Christians stronger. We all believe that we are Palestinians first. Then we are Muslims or Christians. Our biggest problem is the Occupation. We want to have our own Palestinian State. We have to solve any problem that appears between Muslims and Christians in a good away. We must be open minded and not fall into the Israelis’ hands and create problems amongst ourselves. This is what happened in the Siege of Nativity Church…. But anything that happened inside the church was not the main problem. The Occupation is our problem. If you are weak, you want to be protected, you can go to the mosque or the church. This is a kind of protection, and this is what happened in 1967 – many Muslims and Christians from Bethlehem entered Nativity Church in order to be protected. But it seems that Israel didn’t understand this or they don’t want to – they want to make problems. Because of this, they are putting a lot of pressure on the Bethlehem area.

Last year we were under curfew for approximately 6 months. The curfew puts us under pressure and makes us nervous. At the beginning of the Intifada, the Israelis destroyed many homes in Beit Jala and both Muslims and Christians had to move to other areas or emigrated. They fired at my home here…(she takes me outside to see the bullet holes)…..We didn’t have electricity, they cut the cables, including the phone. A bullet came through that window. It was only 5 cm from my father’s head. He was convinced that this was the safest place in the house..And when they were shooting he told me, ‘Sana’ come, I don’t want to die alone’. We suffered for a long time. For 20 days we were without electricity and without water. Every time we went outside the army said ‘don’t move’. All the roads were damaged by tanks – it took one year to repair them.

What do you think is the PNA’s strategy to emphasis the plural nature of Palestine?

Yasser Arafat always tries to strengthen the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Because of this he gives Christians the very sensitive places in the Authority and they give them the quota. This is so that they feel that they are not the minority – they are part of the bigger majority. I don’t mind this. Every year he insists to attend the Christian celebrations in Nativity Church. He also married a Christian woman.

What kind of activities would you support to help develop Muslim-Christian relations here? Tell me about the Belgium exchange

It was an exchange between 4 Palestinian schools here in Bethlehem, Battir, Frere, Mar Yusif and Bethlehem Secondary, and 4 schools in Belgium: St Nicholas, and Khint, and another 2. My school is grade 9 (age 15-16) It was part of the Eye to Eye project. Four ambassadors represented the school in Belgium and to sent emails from outside the school – an electronic exchange. Last December (2001) the Belgium students should have come here but because of the Intifada and the curfew and the occupation it was too dangerous to come. So the 4 schools made a project there and collected money for the Institute in Belgium who funded the project and for us, in order for us to go to visit Belgium. On 28th June, we were under curfew, it was a very difficult trip – we separated into 2 groups, one went the day before to Jordan and most of us flew the same day to Europe. The Israeli tanks wanted to shoot us here in Beit Sahour and we were not allowed to cross the checkpoint into Jerusalem and Wadi Nar was closed by road blocks so it was very very difficult. We went to Italy and from there to Belgium. We went to St Nicholas for 4 days and 3 days to a Belgium family and one week in a camp with 400 Belgium young people.

I was responsible for my girls in Battir (and Miss Elham) and another Bethlehem teacher went and Elias and Fuad went to represent the AEI.. So there were 12 of us – 4 girls, 4 boys and 4 adults. It was a very good experience. In the camp we formed into groups to talk about the Palestinian problems and many people asked about the relationship between Muslims and Christians. They thought that all Muslims wear a veil. We told them that our religion orders us to put but if you don’t want it is up to you, and your family and how you live – the stereo type about Muslims. But they didn’t know I was Muslim, because of my hair and the way I look. They thought that I was Christian. This is life and people. They are not all open minded..

The best way to learn about each other is to do things together: for example, to fast together, or to have a good meal together as Muslims and Christians; social activities – parties, celebrations and so on, or practices in the institutions. Because we are living here amongst Christians we learn not to discriminate, but to accept the one who deserves, whether Muslim or Christian – on the basis of their ability not their religion. Some people like to send their girls to the Good Shepherd Swedish school. The majority of its pupils are Christians, and they do take a few Muslims.

In Battir we are all Muslims, we don’t have Christians. All the teachers are Muslims

How would you talk about Christianity in your school in Battir?

The Palestinians curriculum tries to mention churches and Christians. We try to do activities through local institutes – Eye to Eye. Many of my students and teachers share these activities – there are Christians schools like Frere or Mar Yusif.

So its purely through cooperation with Christian schools that they get the exposure to Christianity?

Yes, and through the Eye to Eye project. 2 Muslim girls – one from Batir participated and 2 Christian girls. The information has come back to the school through her from the trip. We did field trips during our project for 3 years, and many people Christians and Muslims visited Batir and we showed them round the village.

So in your opinion, the best kind of activities for promoting Muslim – Christian relations are social ?

And sometimes educational, workshops and so on. I prefer to go outside the school in order to change – to see the thing in their environment. For example we have visited many of the Muslim and Christian holy places.


[biography details

BA in Chemistry and Maths, Bethlehem University

Diploma in teaching Science, Bethlehem University

Masters degree in Teaching Science, Birzeit University]

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