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Facing Vanunu's approaching release from prison:
The visit of Bishop Al-Assal & Reverend Sellors to Vanunu in Prison

By Joseph Algazy
Written in August 2001, but published only now

"We went to visit Mordechai Vanunu in prison, in order to lift up his spirit, but in fact we were the ones who left the visit cheered and encouraged. Vanunu, convinced of the rightness of his actions, told us that when he is released, he intends to continue his struggle against nuclear weapon everywhere around the world".

These were the words of the head of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem and in the Middle East Bishop Riyah Abou Al-Assal, concluding his joint journey with the very reverend Michael Sellors, Dean of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, to Mordechai Vanunu in Ashqelon prison, where he serves an 18 years sentence for revealing some of Israel's nuclear secrets, secrets he became aware of during his work as a technician in the atomic plant in Dimona. Officially, Vanunu is supposed to finish his sentence in April 2004.

Bishop Al-Assal (64), married and father of three, was a reverend of the Church in Nazareth, former to his nomination as the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Diocese. Sellors (64), originated in Derbyshire county in Britain, and has served in Jerusalem for over thirty years. He is married and the father of two sons, "one, of Nigerian descent, and another from Sierra Leone, both of which were brought from African by my wife and me".

The initiative for this meeting with Vanunu came from Bishop Al-Assal. "After Vanunu's arrest", said Al-Assal, "I had a visit in Nazareth from Anglican reverend John McNight from Australia, who baptised Vanunu. We both requested permission from the authorities to visit Vanunu, but were refused. McNight, along with a fellow colleague, who went to visit Vanunu in Ashqelon prison, were arrested for a few hours and were later released, but were not allowed to see him".

When he was appointed as Bishop of Jerusalem Diocese, Abou Al-Assal took a vow that a day after his investiture ceremony on August 15th, 1998, he would ask again to visit Vanunu in prison. He was rejected this time, too. He repeated his application time and time again, and exchanged letters with Vanunu. At the end of July this year, the authorities permitted Abou Al-Assal and Sellors to pay a visit to Vanunu. Explaining his persistence to hold the visit, Bishop Abou Al-Assal said "Firstly, because Vanunu is a member of our church. So is the American couple who adopted Vanunu, Mary and Nicholas Eoloff. In addition, I hold Vanunu a prisoner of conscience, since in his act he demonstrated his deep concern for the safety and well-being not only of Israelis, but also of every other inhabitant of the Middle East".

Reverend Sellors added that "as men of the clergy, we cannot bring about Vanunu's release; however we must manifest to him, all the time, our commitment to him and strengthen his belief in the holy brotherhood that links us together". He told, that when he was a student in London, for three years he used to visit prisoners on Saturday nights, converse and pray with then, and contact their families outside the penitentiary.

The two gave that their meeting with Vanunu lasted an hour and a half. It did not take place in his cell, but in a caravan given for their disposal for this purpose, and was witnessed by one constable, joined by another constable from time to time. At the beginning of the meeting, all three prayed, and then held the Holy Communion service. They gave him bread and wine, symbolising the body and blood of Christ, as told in the New Testament. Holding this ceremony expresses the union and the faith of Christian believers for Jesus Christ.

After the prayer, the three talked, mostly in English, as Abou Al-Assal and Vanunu occasionally exchanged words in Hebrew. The bishop and the reverend wanted to know about Vanunu's personal welfare, his health and the prison authorities' treatment of him. Vanunu informed them that he is in good health, and that he exercises every day in order to maintain his physical fitness. He reads a lot from his books. He lives alone in a separate cell, whose walls have no windows, and the only hatch in the cell is in its door. During the daily walk, he meets other prisoners. Vanunu told that some of the criminal prisoners benefit from better treatment than he does. The moment he began telling the circumstances of his abduction abroad, the policeman immediately interrupted him.

Abou Al-Assal added "when Vanunu accompanied us outside the caravan, in the yard, at a particular moment we kept advancing and he stayed behind. When we asked him why, he pointed at a red line on he floor, saying he is the sole inmate who cannot cross it".

Vanunu keeps a copy of the New Testament in his cell, he prays regularly and celebrates the Christian holidays. He wears a cross on his neck. His guest gave him a small cross [crucifix] to hang in his wall, or place on his desk. Abou Al-Assal and Sellors gathered from Vanunu that the maltreatment of Israeli authorities in he past derived from the fact he became a Christian, and that in his opinion the authorities expect him to be reconverted to Judaism. Vanunu told them that the first time he thought about conversion was as early as when he worked in the atomic plant in Dimona. He was the one who looked for Reverend McNight and asked him to baptise him. According to Abou Al-Assal and Sellors, Vanunu told them that the hope for world peace is based on Christ's mission, on believing in him and his vision.

"In this matter, Vanunu's mind has not weakened", determines reverend Sellors, "Vanunu is a man of great belief. He asks no mercy for himself, which is incredible. As a prison of conscience he endured all the hardship and tests cast upon him, especially during the years when he was subject to total solitary confinement, thanks to his religious faith. Not every person would have borne the tests Vanunu had experienced. Another person would have gone mad, or taken his own life. Vanunu was certain his belief in Christ is what saved him, and prevented him from losing his sanity".

We asked Sellors how come Vanunu, who came from a family and surroundings of Jewish believers from the Orient, found his way to a distinctly Western and European Christian group, and he answered "Jesus did not come from the West", and Abou Al-Assal said, "Jesus came from the Orient, Jesus came from Nazareth, not Rome, neither New York or London, he was a 'Sabra'".

Abou Al-Assal and Sellors left their meeting with Vanunu encouraged, particularly by what he said. "Our impression is that Vanunu is firm in his commitment", emphasised Abou Al-Assal, "he told us, that when he is released from prison he would continue the mission he took upon himself, to fight against nuclear weapon. Vanunu is very optimistic. When we told him we hop to visit him once a month, he said he may be freed earlier. He is convinced there is no justification for his incarceration and that he should be let go.

"The fact that after everything Vanunu has been through, he remains healthy in body and soul, is encouraging. It gives a chance for imprisoned people the strength to survive. And in spite of the difference in terms and circumstances, his withstanding reminds me that of German Protestant reverend and theologist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen, where he was murdered for his persistent resistance to Nazi regime and his defense of Jews' right to live. Although he was conscious if all the threats on his life, reverend Bonhoeffer stood tall in his faith and his spirit had not been broken. Vanunu told us 'They were people who wanted to break me, but they have failed'".

To the question, indeed a hypothetical one, how would have Sellors acted, had Vanunu told him what he intends to do, before he turned to the world media in order to expose some of Israel's atomic secrets - would he have encouraged him in his plans, persuade him to withdraw them rather than take the risk he did, or remain silent - Sellors replied " Knowing that Vanunu acts out of the belief that without nuclear weapon, life on this planet, and particularly in the Middle East, will be better, I hope I would have been decent enough to encourage him to pursue his plans. A person who believes in something should struggle for it. I would have encouraged Vanunu to turn to the media. It is a prime duty to expose evil. And what Vanunu did, was expose evil".

Bishop Abou Al-Assal added "Vanunu told us 'people must act to abolish all nuclear weapons in every place on earth'. Mahatma Gandhi said once, that refraining from fighting evil means forgetting your very humanity, struggling against evil in its won weapon means surrendering to you weak human nature, and by fighting against evil, against injustice, against oppression with god's weapon, you reach your own divinity. If someone bites you, and you bite him back, you have not done much. If someone bites you, and you kiss him back, you are using the Lord's weapon. So you must act in this bloody situation in which we live.

"The prophecy of Jesus originates in things the prophet Isaiah said, quoted in the New Testament. In Luke 4, verse 18-19, Jesus visits a synagogue in Nazareth, on Saturday, takes the book of Isaiah and reads the verse where it is said the 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised; To preach the acceptable year of the Lord'. This is the vision of a new humanity. If we can console the desperate and cheer those of little faith, including people like prime minister Ariel Sharon, and liberate Jews imprisoned by the fears of the past, fears of history and Diaspora, perhaps there will be hope, not only for Vanunu, but for all of us. When I went to visit Vanunu I went to tell him 'I am with you, I came to thank you, even if someone else holds you a traitor'. Israel's government sees him as a traitor, and I do not see him as one; maybe he has betrayed the Israeli government, but he did not betray humanity's best interest".

At the end of the conversation, on his own initiative, reverend Sellors talked about the behavior of one of the policemen who witnessed the meeting in prison. He said "in the locomotion of prison, the constable created a calm atmosphere. During the prayer we held, there is a point when participants hold each other and kiss each other the kiss of peace. At this moment, the constable stood on his feet and shook our hands. Bishop Al-Assal also kissed him. In the caravan, in which we met Vanunu, we sensed the presence of god's angel".

Protests on the 15th anniversary of Vanunu's kidnap

For years, Anglican churches have been conducting a campaign around the world to release Vanunu from prison, titled "I am your spy". In May this year, the University of Tromsoe in Norway granted Vanunu a degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. Stating the reason for granting this honour, the university determined that Vanunu, having to choose between two loyalties, for his country or for mankind, favoured the latter. This year too, the 12th one in a row, various organisations offered Vanunu's nomination for a Nobel peace prize.


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