Born in Nazareth, Galilee, Rev. Dr Saïd Ailabouni moved to the US at the age of 19 to become a physician. But he was so angry at God that he went to study theology instead, becoming a Lutheran pastor. Now he is leading the Middle East & Europe desk of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Since leaving his hometown 50 years ago, he visits his Palestinian family regularly. As the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel approaches, Ailabouni agreed to share some of his lifetime observations with the Word Council of Churches.
By Ivars Kupcis*
What is the story of your family?
Rev. Ailabouni: My family lived in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee until 1948 when they lost everything they had because of war, as Israel was taking over the region. They were told in April to leave and come back when the war was over. They found a refuge: the village Eilabun from which my last name comes, where my grandfather lived.
At the end of October, the Israeli army came into the village where there was previously fighting between the Israeli and Arab armies. A massacre took place in Eilabun, where several innocent people were killed including one of my cousins, after which the Israeli army commanded everyone to walk to Lebanon. All our family, including my mother, our newborn sister and other siblings, ended up walking to Lebanon - in the cold, with no food. My father was sent to prison.
When my family came back six months later, their homes in Tiberias were already occupied by settlers. So they went to Nazareth, where my father got a job and they were able to rent a small home. I was born there two years later.
What does it mean for you to be born in Nazareth, growing up in the same area where Jesus spent his childhood?
Rev. Ailabouni: To be honest, I never thought of it as special until later in my life. Our family is Greek Catholic. I went to Christian schools and I was quite religious at the time, so I knew the story of Jesus. We celebrated all the holidays but I did not think it was special to be living in the same town where Jesus lived until I went to the Unites States and people would ask me questions. I started to appreciate it more when I got older, especially becoming a pastor and being able to read the Bible, understanding both the region and geography as well as the people. The people have not changed - Palestinian people are like the people in the New Testament in many ways.
Why did you decide to move to the USA?
Rev. Ailabouni: My dad died of cancer when I was six years old, and I wanted to become a doctor to heal people with cancer – that was my dream. As I was not accepted to study at a University in Israel, I decided to go to the US to go to college and study, becoming a medical doctor and then returning to Nazareth.
But I also wanted to understand the Bible, as it was very confusing for me to see so many different teachings about the Bible when growing up. I had many questions. When I finished college as a chemistry major, I decided to go to seminary – to study the Bible, not necessarily to become a pastor.
It was very enriching to go to the Lutheran seminary in St Paul, Minnesota – I was able to put theology with the Bible together, understanding that God is love. I was previously confused about God – in many cases I thought that God was an angry God, I was afraid of God. There were people who were saying that it was God’s will that Palestinians lose their land because it belongs to Jews. I did not like that, and I wanted to see it for myself if that’s really what it’s like in the Bible.
How did studies in the seminary affect your beliefs?
Rev. Ailabouni: Going to the seminary helped me to see God as the crucified God in Jesus, the God who suffers with the oppressed. Not the God who determines who should get what land, but the God who is on the side of people who are oppressed and occupied by others, the weak, women, children, the sick - all of those who are rejected by society.
I understood God as the God who so loves the world that he goes all the way, suffering as the criminal when he is not guilty. I felt that my people are suffering in the same way – they did not deserve to lose their land, to become refugees, to be on a cross. I was angry at God for a long time, but then I realized through studying Scriptures that God is not a real estate God, but he actually is ready to die for the people who are oppressed. In fact, he suffers even though he does not deserve to suffer.
Palestinian shepherd herds his sheep in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
But the cross is not the end - there is always Easter. On the third day God resurrected Jesus, and no matter what, God will always be victorious – which means I can live as a victorious person too. Not reacting to the suffering, but acting out of the sense that I am not a victim. Even though my family and my people were victimized – I can act and make a difference in the world. God has showed us what it means to love.
You are a Palestinian, lived most of your life in the US. What forms your identity today?
Rev. Ailabouni: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in prison when he wrote a poem “Who am I?”, saying people saw him as strong when he felt down and discouraged, as they did not know the real him. At the end he asks “who am I”, responding - I am God’s child.
I feel strongly that I belong to God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom includes all people – of all religions, all nations, all tribes, and at the centre there is a loving God who cares for all people. Neither the US nor what is now Israel or Palestine feels like home to me, although I love both. I find myself wanting to help people who feel like outsiders to become more aware of God’s love for them and help them experience God’s kingdom.
In my work now, for example, there is a ministry in Egypt that serves 35,000 refugees in Cairo. There are Muslims and Christians together, and they all feel like they are valued and have human dignity because of the way they are treated. When they leave the church compound, they feel they are oppressed, treated as outsiders, taken advantage of because they are refugees or because of the colour of their skin. But in that setting where they are being cared for, they are of great value and treated with respect. That’s where the kingdom of God is – when people treat each other with respect. Because we are all created in God’s image, and we are all God’s children.
What are your current responsibilities working with Middle East region at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?
Rev. Ailabouni: I am programme director for Europe and Middle East – my job involves building relationships with church leaders, supporting and supervising our personnel who are overseas, including the Middle East. Also coordinating our financial support, such as helping to deal with the current huge influx of refugees, or gender justice, helping women and children who have no capacity to support themselves and are often abused in a world that takes advantage of them.
In the Middle East we are primarily focusing on refugees and migrants, being there and supporting them. The Christian presence in the Middle East is not huge, and yet our Christian companions are important in the world, and we want them to know they are not alone.
One of our values is also Christian–Muslim relationships, and our companions in the Middle East are working hard to enhance those relationships. We are supporting this work both there and in the US.
What are the Middle East countries in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America supports particular programmes?
Rev. Ailabouni: Jerusalem and the West Bank are major areas where we are investing in support to our companions. The Augusta Victoria hospital in Jerusalem is one of the major institutions that we support. It is a health institution providing specialized care for Palestinians from all over the West Bank and Gaza. It is also the only hospital for cancer treatment for Palestinians.
Street in the Old Town Jerusalem. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
We are providing support to refugees in Egypt. Like Jesus 2000 years ago went to Egypt to find refuge from King Herod, there are many people now going to Egypt fleeing from tyrants. They are coming from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq. Unfortunately, they are not always welcomed - Egypt is a poor country and they have plenty of hardships themselves.
We also support two seminaries in the Middle East – one in Beirut, Lebanon, and one in Cairo, Egypt. Besides supporting Lutheran World Federation work in the Middle East we also support a couple of programmes of the Middle East Council of Churches. These programmes provide women the opportunity to develop skills to earn a living, and to provide trauma healing to church workers who have been traumatized by the war, so that they can recover and go back and serve.
We want to grow our support for the refugees in the four countries where we are working now, which are Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
What has been your experience visiting Palestine after you moved to the United States?
Rev. Ailabouni: I first came back four years after I started a college – in 1973. In those days there was no internet or email, telephone calls were expensive, we mostly could just write letters. It was wonderful to go back – my family was still there at the time.
But I was obviously changed, and I was not done with my education yet - I was not even sure I will be transitioning from medicine to theology. That happened after this trip. God was doing something in my life I was not very clear about right then. I just knew there was no future for me back home.
Nowadays, a lot more young people have a future that I did not have back then. There are more people who can go to college and have a future that was not available 50 years ago.
What are your observations on how situation has been changing in Israel and Palestine over these 50 years?
Rev. Ailabouni: A lot more building, lots more settlements, lots more roads. Our church is committed to a two-state solution - but I do not see how that is going to be possible as more and more land is being taken away. I see a real push to Judaize Jerusalem, when my dream and my wish is that people would live together – Jews, Muslims and Christians. That was how my parents and grandparents grew up in Tiberias, living with Jews and Muslims peacefully.
I grew up with both Christian and Muslim friends, we were neighbours, we went to school together – I can never think of Muslims as bad people, they are my friends. Of course, there are also people who do bad things – among Jews, Christians and Muslims, the extremists, but that’s not the majority. It is sad to see this desire in Israel to make it just for Jews – a Jewish state. I know that we can live together and enjoy being together. It has always been my experience that it is possible – but the push now is to say no, we can’t do it.
That scares me, because what is going to happen - does it mean Palestinians will be pushed out? If that’s the case, it would be really sad and catastrophic.
How do you see the situation has changed for Palestinians still living in their land?
Rev. Ailabouni: Palestinians in Israel have more opportunities to have jobs, to go to school, grow economically. But Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza have a struggle. Christians or Muslims living in Bethlehem cannot go to Jerusalem which is just six miles away. They need a permit, and that makes it very difficult. There are kids who have grown up just a few miles from Jerusalem, who never have seen Jerusalem, or the Mediterranean Sea. This division is oppressive. And it is also a humiliation of people under occupation. Seeing how people are treated at the checkpoints – it is hard to watch.
Qalandiya checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem, where thousands of Palestinians try to make their way to Jerusalem each day. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
Do you think Christians worldwide are understanding what is happening between Israel and Palestine?
Rev. Ailabouni: Unless people go there and see it with their own eyes – they won’t know. Media does not cover that very well. And often Palestinians are portrayed as violent stone-throwers – people never see nonviolent resistance to the occupation. Not even the Jews in Israel know, because they are never going to Palestine, they are not allowed.
Now more and more Israeli soldiers are coming out talking about their experiences working in Hebron and other places, saying – we did what was wrong, and we are not happy about it. They come out talking about how they treated Palestinians, and they don’t like what they did. But most Israelis do not know it. And most people are not interested – they are interested in their own lives, they are not concerned about the people they do not see. And you don’t see a Palestinian unless you are working in the particular areas.
What do you think are the causes of oppression and suffering taking place? Why would still today someone go to another land, try to take it away and oppress people who have been living there for generations?
Rev. Ailabouni: Unfortunately, some, including Christians and Jews, use the Bible to justify what they are doing. You can justify whatever you want using the Bible.
But there are also a plenty of other Bible verses that talk about welcoming the stranger, treating them as equal, taking care of widows and orphans – there are plenty of verses reminding us of what God’s justice is intended to be for all people.
Certainly Jews have suffered a lot in their lives, and desire to have a place where they can be free and secure and not be oppressed again. But to oppress the Palestinians in the process - I do not think it is fair or just.
We hear about situations when violent acts are done at the both sides of the conflict... Can violence be justified?
Rev. Ailabouni: Certainly as Christians we should be against any kind of violence – we are not supposed to kill one another. I do not think violence is the right answer to anything. For more than a year Palestinians in Gaza have been demonstrating nonviolently, but some of them have been killed for doing that.
Neither side should use any kind of weapons against each other. Humans are too valuable to be killed. We all should be against any kind of destruction and murder.
With your work at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America you are supporting refugees and contributing to peace in the region. What do you think other churches in the world can do to support justice and peace in Israel and Palestine?
Rev. Ailabouni: Imagining that all of our churches have policies about human rights and anti-racism, we all have values as Christians that we should lift up and hold everyone accountable for. Human rights is an international treaty for all people. And we are against racism no matter who is being attacked.
There is a lot of racism and a lot of abuse of human rights and dignity, and therefore we as churches should speak up against all that. We should be persistent and as loud as we can working with our government officials to help them realize this is not God’s intention for humanity.
Leaves grow through a fence in Bethlehem, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
How could churches more actively support peace in the Middle East region?
Rev. Ailabouni: We need bold prophetic voices to continue speaking. The God we know is the God who loves all people. Including those that we don’t like – God calls us to reconcile with each other, to love the enemy, to be peace-makers, because peace-makers will be called the children of God. We have a mandate as individuals and as churches to be that kind of light to those in darkness, whether we see results or not.
I’ve struggled with hatred myself, and as I grew older, I asked myself can I continue like this, or can I just love, even my enemy. I think we all have to struggle with what’s in our hearts, and really to love the other in our lives, whoever they are - especially the ones we do not like. We all can do something, but we have to start with looking at what’s inside us and how can we change that for the better.
*Ivars Kupcis is communication officer for the World Council of Churches