Sabeel Conference in Bethlehem Encourages Local Ecumenical Movement

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Sabeel Conference in Bethlehem Encourages Local Ecumenical Movement

An ecumenical version of Lord's Prayer read by Archimandrite Attalah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem served as an opening for the local conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center held at Bethlehem University on March 11. Sabeel (Arabic for "the way" and "spring of life-giving water") is an ecumenical grassroots movement among Palestinian Christians based on the concepts of liberation theology and reconciliation for the various national and faith communities in the Holy Land.

The organization has sponsored three international conferences: the first in March 1990 on "Faith and the Intifada"; the second in January 1996 on "The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians"; and the third in February 1998 on "The Challenge of Jubilee" -- all held in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The local conference of Sabeel was conducted in Arabic and followed the first Synod of the Catholic churches Feb. 8 through 12 in Bethlehem, the first ever to be held in the Holy Land (see March Washington Report).

Sabeel director Rev. Naim Ateek in his opening remarks referred to the gospel of John 13:35 and the Christian call to unity which "must come before anything that separates us," he said. He addressed the gathering of leaders of the Christian ecumenical movement in Palestine, clergy and laity with a vision for revitalizing the local Christian community. These included addressing the tradition of celebrating Christmas and Easter on different days, and for sharing scarce financial resources, church and school buildings and coordinating projects in education and community service.

Samira Wahbeh from Nablus, a recognized lay leader for over 20 years within the ecumenical movement, set the tone of the conference with a personal testimony of faith. She was followed by Dr. Nader Abu Ghattas of the Al Ihsan Orthodox Association in Belt Jala who said that "petitions are being signed by the people themselves," to encourage their priests and bishops to work on uniting religious services. "There is no reason not to pray together," he added.

A session on the practical ways to promote unity and co-existence included a presentation by Sr. Hortense Nakhleh of the Rosary Sisters in Jerusalem. "Our order is indigenous," she began. She explained that in the Latin schools in which Rosary Sisters serve as administrators and teachers she encouraged her sisters to take students to different churches and to teach them about the variety of traditions. She said that her school in Belt Hanina in the northern area of Jerusalem consists of 90 percent Muslim students and spoke of the difficulties in recognizing all Christian and Muslim feast days. She said she is now "keeping to the main holidays" because if she closes school for every feast "it would be closed all the time." She said another problem she is facing is the lack of support among parents for co-educational schools.

Jack Khazmo of the bi-monthly pro-Fateh magazine, Al Bayader al Siyasi, echoed concerns that money from outside private sources and targeted for the Christian community was not reaching them, and that a proposal considered by a five-member ecumenical council to charge pilgrims an entrance fee for the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was opposed only by the Orthodox member. He called for a bigger volunteer commitment from members of the Christian community to fill the void of inadequate paid staff in churches and schools. …