Posted by: Titus Presler | October 31, 2009

“Our role is reconciliation,” says Bp. Dawani of Jerusalem

“As an Anglican church we are very active in interfaith work,” said Bp. Suheil Dawani of the Diocese of Jerusalem at a fund-raiser in Westchester County on Oct. 30.  “Jews, Christians and Muslims live side by side in the region.  In a council of religious leaders in Jerusalem, we feel our role there is reconciliation.  We often bring Jews and Muslims together.”

Bp. Dawani was speaking at an event convened by Bishops Mark Sisk and Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York, sponsored by the Congregational Life for Mission Commission of the diocese, hosted by St. Bartholomew’s Church in White Plains, and promoted by the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.  About 75 people attended from all over the New York Diocese, which includes Staten Island, Manhattan, Bronx, and the counties of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Rockland.

As the Christian population of the Middle East continues to dwindle, as widely reported, the Diocese of Jerusalem has just 7,000 members in 27 congregations in the five countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.  Its largest congregation, with about 1,800 members, is located in Amman, Jordan.

Much of the church’s witness and ministry is offered, the bishop said, through its 33 mission-founded institutions, which include hospitals, clinics, kindergartens and schools, vocational training programs, as well as institutions for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly.

“We witness to the living Lord through these institutions,” Bp Dawani said, citing how the church’s hospital in Gaza tended the injured during the recent war between Israel and Hamas.  “75% of the students are Muslims” in the church’s 13 schools, he said.  “We present the Lord Jesus Christ through our ministries of health and education.  Muslims prefer to send their students to our schools, where they appreciate our values.”  The bishop’s talk echoes the common twin emphases on witness and reconciliation in missiological thought, emphases often thought to be in conflict but now increasingly seen as complementary.

Muslim children educated in Christian schools tend to be more moderate in their stance toward the world, the bishop said in later conversation, echoing the experience of the Church of Pakistan, which likewise has many educational institutions in a troubled Muslim country.  Dawani cited the work of Kids for Peace, established in 2001, in bringing children from the three Abrahamic religions together for mutual understanding and relationship-building.

Asked about Muslim interest in Christianity, the bishop cited in later conversation how a Muslim shariah law judge (now deceased) asked to visit with him when he became rector of St. John’s Church in Haifa.  “We are brothers, you and I,” the judge said on meeting Dawani.  “Yes,” Dawani agreed, thinking the judge meant that they shared worship of the one God.  It turned out that the judge meant that they shared Christian faith.  He and most of his family had actually been baptized privately and kept a low profile religiously because public notice of his conversion would have nullified his many legal decisions under shariah law.

“The ministry of the church is one,” the bishop said in his closing appeal.  “What we do in Jerusalem is your work as well – the work of glorifying God and being of service to people in need. We want Jerusalem to be a welcome place for everybody.  Come and visit us and meet the local people in their churches and in their homes.”

The Rev. Deborah Dresser, corporate secretary of the American Friends and rector of St. George’s Church, Newburgh, N.Y., encouraged attendees to visit Jerusalem and contribute generously to the work of the diocese.  A picture show depicting scenes from the life of the diocese ran throughout the event, which also featured refreshments in the sanctuary of St. Bartholomew’s to the accompaniment of a quiet jazz trio, much of this arranged by the Global Hospitality Fund within the diocese.

Bp. Dawani is accompanied on his weeklong visit to the USA by the Rev. Canon Samir Habiby, long active in communion-wide life and mission and now special assistant to Bp. Dawani in Jerusalem as a volunteer missioner by special appointment from the Episcopal Church USA.  Canon Habiby was formerly executive director of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief (now Episcopal Relief and Development), and he worked closely with Terry Waite, at the time the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary  for Anglican Communion affairs.  When Waite was taken  hostage in Lebanon, Habiby participated in the effort that resulted in his release after five years of captivity.

A similar gathering is planned for next week in Connecticut.

Anglicanism in Jerusalem dates from 1841, and the Diocese of Jerusalem was formed in 1976 as one of four dioceses of the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, the others being Cyprus and the Gulf, Egypt, and Iran.  Bp. Dawani, consecrated in 2007, is the 14th bishop of Jerusalem and its fourth Palestinian bishop.  The diocese’s three full companion diocese relationships are with the dioceses of Olympia, Los Angeles, and Washington (D.C.).

Update 12.19.09: An expanded an altered version of this posting appears in the December 2009 issue of The Meeting Point under the title “Telling Stories: The Centrality of Narrative for the Encounter among Christians and the Many Religions.”  It focuses on the question of how to design encounters between Christians from diverse parts of the world and between representatives of different religions.

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