At an Omaha dinner this week with a prominent clergyman from Jerusalem, the emcee mentioned “the dichotomy of the Holy Land.”
“How can people be so similar,” businessman Mark David lamented, “but so divided?”
Indeed, political and religious divisions among people in the Middle East sometimes lead to less-than-holy divisiveness. And that affects the rest of the world.
The Sunday dinner at the Omaha Press Club downtown honored Greek Orthodox Archbishop Theodosios Hanna of Sebastia, a Palestinian Christian.
He had come to town because of a chance airport meeting six months ago with a Palestinian-American Muslim from Omaha. Naser Alsharif, a professor of pharmacy at Creighton University, invited the archbishop when they met awaiting flights in Amman, Jordan.
In Omaha this week, the archbishop was welcomed by Mayor Jim Suttle, honored by Nebraska first lady Sally Ganem (wife of Gov. Dave Heineman), greeted by Catholic Archbishop George Lucas and hosted in part by Creighton University.
At the Sunday dinner attended by about 100 people — including many Omahans of Palestinian descent — Alsharif presented Christian-themed gifts from the Holy Land to the mayor (a nativity scene) and the first lady (a large crucifix).
All warm and gracious. But mostly beneath the surface lay the seemingly intractable controversies of the Middle East.
The Arabic-speaking Hanna, who said through a translator that his own flock was “100 percent Christian and 100 percent Palestinian,” was an author and signer of a 2009 document, “Kairos Palestine.” It calls for nonviolent resistance, and it states that “Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories is a sin against God and humanity.”
To the Omaha audience, he said in a firm voice: “We demand the end of occupation, 100 percent.”
By coincidence, his appearance came just after last Thursday’s U.N.General Assembly vote in New York to grant the Palestinian Authority “non-member observer” status, the same as the Vatican.
The vote was approved 138-9, with 41 abstentions. The United States and Israel voted against the change, citing the need for bilateral efforts to achieve Middle East peace.
“I have said many times,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated, “that the path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah (the Palestinian Authority center on the West Bank), not New York.”
The problems of the Middle East aren’t being solved in New York, and they won’t be solved in Omaha. Local Palestinian-Americans, though, saw Hanna’s visit as a another chance to make pro-Palestine voices heard.
Alsharif called the archbishop’s visit historic.
“He is a symbol for us as Palestinian people — a man of conviction, a man of God who has asked for a just solution,” Alsharif told me. “He is considered controversial in the eyes of the Israeli government and in the eyes of many Jewish people here whom I consider to be friends and colleagues.”
Alsharif has written pro-Palestinian opinion articles for The World-Herald’s op-ed page that always merit a response from the pro-Israeli side. Or vice versa.
Israel and its supporters counter objections to occupation by citing the need for security. They insist on agreement on Israel’s right of existence.
Before departing Wednesday, Hanna also visited Creighton and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
At the Sunday dinner, he invited Suttle to visit Jerusalem. The mayor urged Hanna to return to Omaha any time with “your message of hope and peace for all mankind.”
Ganem, who is of Lebanese descent and remembered her parents speaking Arabic, conveyed greetings from the governor and provided a lighthearted moment. She gave the archbishop a certificate of appointment as an admiral in the mythical Great Navy of the State of Nebraska, a tradition requiring “all officers, seamen, tadpoles and goldfish under his command to be obedient.”
Hanna this week led religious services at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. He also visited the chancery, headquarters of the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese.
Lucas said of Hanna: “It was a privilege to meet the archbishop. Since I had just visited the Holy Land in October, I was happy to speak of our shared concern for the life and safety of the Christian people of the Middle East.”
Hanna is an official of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried and resurrected, is under the Patriarchate’s stewardship.
In his talk Sunday, Hanna said Jerusalem lies at “the core of Christianity” but also may be second to Mecca among Islamic holy places.
“We are all born equal,” he said. “Christian, Muslim or Hebrew, we all worship the same God, the same creator.”
The life and safety of people everywhere are tied to the elusive goal of peace in the Middle East, and not just in the Holy Land. Sad to say, some who walk the same land as each other nevertheless remain divided.
The visiting prelate may have stirred up discussion here in the middle of America. On the topic of the Middle East, unfortunately, it often seems there is almost no middle ground.
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