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The patron of 'Saint Mordechai'

By Aviv Lavie
June 10 2004

At exactly 12:30, Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal turns off his mobile phone, rearranges the cross on his chest, locks the door to his office, and quickly approaches the prayer hall. It's time for the afternoon prayer in the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and a handful of the faithful, including Mordechai Vanunu, are already waiting for their spiritual shepherd. As opposed to the feeling among the public that Vanunu's Christianity is an act of pure defiance against the State of Israel, Abu el-Assal is convinced that it derives from a profound faith.

"Mordechai is very serious on the issue of Christianity. In my experience, new believers are usually more devout than the old-timers. They become more Catholic than the Pope," he smiles, pleased at the irony underlying the image he has chosen. "It's strange - their faith is simple but very strong; it reminds me somewhat of a secular Jew who becomes newly religious. They are very loyal to the faith, curious, like a new immigrant who has just arrived in the country and wants to go everywhere."

Abu el-Assal, the only Israeli citizen who serves as bishop of a church, is not only the spiritual adviser of the released prisoner who served 18 years for revealing Israel's nuclear secrets. He is also my host, and like several other people surrounding Vanunu, he has already received regards from the Shin Bet security services. Yael Lotan's famous interview with Vanunu on the BBC was filmed in the compound of the St. George Cathedral, and the security services, in an exceptional move, detained the bishop for interrogation. Abu el-Assal told them he had no idea what they wanted.

"Two weeks ago, I was invited for a meeting with President Katsav at the President's House," he says. "I returned to my office at noon. A lot of mail was waiting for me. One of the envelopes said "Alexander," and because it wasn't for me, I didn't touch it. When I left I gave the envelope to my secretary, and told her that if someone named Alexander came, she should give it to him, because it wasn't ours. The next day, early in the morning, I went to Jordan, to the wedding of Prince Hamzah. When I returned, on Friday, they approached me on the Allenby Bridge, photographed me, asked me to remove everything from my pockets.

"I asked what they wanted; they said, `We'll tell you later.' They took all the papers out of my hand luggage - I travel with only hand luggage, because the Church has a house in Amman, and I have everything I need there - and they asked, `Do you know whom you're sitting with?' I said no, and then they said, `with the Shin Bet.' I said, `Very interesting. Why?' And then they asked about the tapes. I asked which tapes; I said that I didn't know what they were talking about. They asked me how it was possible that I didn't know what was in the envelopes in my office, and how it was that I didn't know what Vanunu was doing in the church. I said that I give him a place to sleep, not a prison. They asked me why I was hosting him, I explained that he's a member of the Church, and as bishop it's my obligation to help him. They asked whether I talk to him. I said I do, but about the future, not about the past. Then they said that we might meet again, and allowed me to go."

Fivefold identity

Riah Abu el-Assal bears a collection of identities that apparently could be created only in the Middle East. It is reflected in language as well: He conducts his conversations in a mixture of Arabic (his mother tongue), English (excellent) and Hebrew (reasonable), which is possible only in this part of the world. He lists the components of his identity in order: "Arab, Palestinian, Christian, Anglican and Israeli." This confusion is documented in a book he wrote, "Caught in Between: The Story of an Arab, Palestinian, Christian, Israeli." The Korean version, which was recently published, sits on his desk.

Is it difficult to be so many things at once?

"Just as the Holy Trinity is three in one - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - I'm five in one. That can be a disadvantage, and it can be used in order to serve as a bridge. How many people do you know who can talk to Christians - including Bush, or Blair, with whom I have met twice - as a Christian; to Palestinians as a Palestinian and to Israelis as an Israeli?"

It's not a coincidence that in the list of identities, you mentioned "Israeli" last.

"That's the order: I was born as a Palestinian Arab to a Christian family; I was baptized as an Anglican and only later did I receive an Israeli identity card."

The ranking of identities is of course not only an administrative matter. Abu el-Assal was born 67 years ago in Nazareth to a wealthy family whose connection with the Anglican Church goes back almost 200 years. In the first baptismal book of the local church, from 1841, the name of an infant from the Abu el-Assal family already appears. The link to Christianity seems self-evident to the bishop. He believes that Jesus was a Palestinian. "After all, he came from the East, from Nazareth, not from London, Paris or Rome," he once explained. "He was a sabra [a native-born Israeli], and so are we, his disciples."

Young Riah had seven brothers and sisters, two of whom are no longer living. During the 1940s the family moved to Lebanon, because of his father's work in the Iraqi oil company, but in 1949, 12-year-old Riah crossed the border back into Israel, and arrived in Nazareth. His father returned several years later. Fragments of the family are still scattered in Lebanon and North America.

As a young boy he traveled to India, where he studied theology for four years; this is evident in his fondness for citations from the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Upon his return, he began to serve in the Church of St. John in Haifa, and in 1967 he returned home to Nazareth, in order to serve as a priest in the local church. In 1974 he used a sabbatical year from the church to study for a master's degree at the American University in Beirut. The civil war in Lebanon interrupted his plans. One day, when he left his house in the Ein Rumanie neighborhood to buy milk for his young daughter, he was wounded by a shell. He saw this as a sign from heaven, quickly took his wife and children - he has two daughters and a son - and returned to his home base, the Anglican church in Nazareth.

In the coming years, the young priest turned the church into a very political place. He had a small congregation - the Anglican church in Nazareth numbers only about 540 faithful - but he created a broad network of ties with Anglican churches worldwide and carried on an extensive correspondence with members of parliament and leaders from many countries. He often warned about the cruel oppression of the Palestinian people, and shared his views with those who listened to his sermons. The political nature of his appearances caused many pilgrims to prefer other churches. "The tour guides don't like me or my church," he once revealed to a Haaretz reporter.

In the late 1970s, he helped set up a movement that was involved in social matters, literature and culture, which focused its activity on the idea of establishing an Arab university in the Galilee. In those years he, like others on the Israeli left, was in contact with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization - an activity that was then illegal. Because of these contacts, he was not allowed to leave Israel for four years, but at least in retrospect, he allows himself to joke about it.

"In 1986 I suggested to [PLO Chairman] Yasser Arafat that I would arrange an invitation to Vienna for five Israeli musicians and five Palestinians, who would try to compose an anthem to peace. At the time it seemed like science fiction. I wanted to travel to arrange an invitation via Holland, and I bought tickets for my wife and myself for a flight to Amsterdam. The flight was supposed to leave in the afternoon, and in the morning, two people appeared in my office in Nazareth and said they had come to inform me that I was not allowed to travel abroad, and that I had to sign a document confirming that I had received the notice.

"When I asked why, they said that I was a danger to the security of the state. After that, they invited me to the Interior Ministry once a year in order to renew my permit not to travel. I would drive all the way from the Galilee to Jerusalem in order to tell them that my wife and the children thank them very much for keeping me in Israel near my family. Only after four years, in 1990, was the prohibition canceled."

During those years, he was among the founders of the Progressive List for Peace, a Jewish-Arab party that ran in the 1988 Knesset elections. The first candidate on the list was attorney Mohammed Miari, the second was retired IDF general Matti Peled. Riah Abu el-Assal, the secretary general of the party, who was called "the man behind the scenes," was No. 3. He opened the first party convention with the declaration that "There will be no peace and no quiet for Israel until the Palestinians live on their land in their independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital," and then read a telegram from a member of the PLO committee, Abu Mazen, who welcomed the cooperation between Jews and Arabs.

Although the political agenda that seemed daring at the time is now taken for granted, cooperation of Jews and Arabs seems almost impossible today.

"I believe that it is possible. I think that the peace camp can be reorganized, and that there are many silent citizens who want to see Jews and Arabs working together. Sometimes friends call and ask me to come and help organize that, but I can't, I still have a lot to do in the Church."

A divided family

In the Progressive List for Peace, Abu el-Assal was considered radical: Whereas the official position favored a two-state solution, one Israeli and one Palestinian, based on the 1967 borders, a solution that at the time placed the party on the fringes of the left, Abu el-Assal occasionally embarrassed his Jewish partners when he spoke of his vision of a common binational state. And what does he think today?

"The solution at the first stage is two states alongside one another, with open borders, like Germany and Switzerland. There's a city called Konstanz [Constance] that is located at the intersection between the two countries, with a white line that passes through the middle of the street marking the border. When I returned from there, I said that during one trip, I was in Germany 50 times and in Switzerland 50 times."

And in the second stage?

"After the two independent states exist alongside one another in harmony for at least 20 years, the time will come to examine the possibility of establishing a federation or a confederation. But I'm definitely not talking about unification."

Some people claim that Christian Arabs tend toward radicalism because of the need to prove loyalty to the Palestinian issue. Leaders such as Dr. George Habash and Naif Hawatmeh are good examples.

"It's not true. What is true is that under French or British rule, the Christians had an advantage. During the British Mandate, for example, Anglicans had the opportunity of going to England to study. They returned with knowledge of industry, banking, education, and that explains why we led the struggle for equality already in the 1950s. Out of four Arab MKs in the second Knesset, two were Anglicans, including Emil Habibi."

It's no coincidence that Abu el-Assal mentions the name of the renowned writer, an Israel Prize laureate. Beyond the fact that the late Habibi was a relative (the uncle of Souad, the bishop's wife), the network of relations between them could fill a few juicy installments of a soap opera. After years as partners in the family and in politics, the departure of Abu el-Assal and his friends from partnership with Rakah (the New Communist List) in favor of establishing the Progressive List for Peace, was an act of defiance that Habibi, who remained loyal to the Communist Party, found intolerable.

Like what happened in the 1950s in the kibbutzim, the political split tore the family apart. For 10 years Habibi and Abu el-Assal didn't speak, and even stayed away from family funerals. Abu el-Assal remembers the day of reconciliation in detail: "On December 18, 1989, I was at a meeting of the church committee in Nazareth in preparation for Christmas. The telephone rang. When I asked who it was, the voice at the other end said `Emil.' I thought it was my cousin from England calling to wish me a happy holiday, so I said, `Ahalan, cousin.' Then he said, `What cousin, this is Emil Habibi.'

"After a few seconds, when I recovered, he said `I want to reconcile.' He suggested that he come to my house. But I paid him respect, and said, `What do you mean, I'm younger, I'm coming to you.' When my wife and I arrived at his house, he and his wife were already waiting for us downstairs in tears. I sat with him until the morning, and on Christmas we made a big party at our house; the guests didn't believe their eyes when they saw him."

What caused the sudden spirit of reconciliation?

"I don't know. Maybe he was disappointed by communism. It was insensitive to ask him, and now there's no longer anyone to ask."

A few years later, at Habibi's funeral, Abu el-Assal eulogized Habibi on behalf of the family. In any case, he didn't manage to enter the Knesset: The Progressive List for Peace received only two seats; candidate No. 3 remained in the Church.

Had you been elected to the Knesset, would you have given up the Church?

"Absolutely not. I would have entered the Knesset for a week or two in my priestly garb, in order to make history, I would have read verses from the Old and the New Testaments to the MKs, and then I would have returned to the Church."

In order to rise through the ranks of the Church, Abu el-Assal had to lower his profile in the political arena. He tells of a tense meeting with several important bishops, during which he was told to choose. He says that he convinced them that he was doing the right thing, but at least officially, he has been outside politics for several years. In unofficial contexts, on the other hand, he continues to work energetically. Two years ago he took part in a delegation of representatives of the three religions that met in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak, signed a declaration condemning "the murder of innocents in the name of God," and expressed their commitment "to act to put an end to violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and to dignity."

This declaration implies clear opposition to Palestinian terror.

"The question is, what is terror? When in Israel or the West they talk about terror, they are referring only to Arabs and to Muslims, and I say that both sides use violence, and that if suicide attacks are terror, then the occupation is terror as well.

I have long been asking myself what we would now call Samson, who said `Let me die with the Philistines,' and committed suicide, taking 3,000 people with him. Why did he behave as he did? Because they put out his eyes, cut off his hair, tied him up and caused him to lose hope. He was so desperate, that the moment his strength returned he said `I and my enemies,' and brought the building down. When we were children, we applauded Samson during Bible lessons. Later, at the age of 18, I saw the film `Samson and Delilah' at a movie theater in Nazareth, and I applauded, too. One day I asked myself, just a minute, is he a hero or a terrorist? I'm not sure what the correct answer is, but I'm sure that it's impossible to relate to Samson one way and to the desperate people committing suicide today in an entirely different way."

We usually criticize the involvement of rabbis in political life. Why is it all right when you do it?

"I don't think that we can allow ourselves to be `peace talkers,' we have to be peacemakers. It also depends what you say, and I'll never speak like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [spiritual leader of the Shas party] for example, in a way that insults other people. The religious dimension of the conflict is very prominent, whether you like it or not - after all, the entire conflict is about a piece of land that each side claims was given to it by God. If Desmond Tutu, Jessie Jackson and Archbishop Makarios, who ruled Cyprus, are involved in politics, then what's wrong with that?"

In 1996, the priest from Nazareth was promoted to the coveted position of Bishop of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. The Anglican Church arrived in Palestine around the middle of the 19th century. At first the local bishop was directly responsible to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in the early 20th century he became independent, and the connection remained primarily ideological.

The territory for which Abu el-Assal is responsible includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The bishop is required to visit each community at least once a year, so he sets out often, with the help of his Mercedes and the airport in Amman, to Damascus and Beirut as well. In every capital, a church and a place to live await him. This week he hopped over to visit the community in Ramallah.

The Anglican Church is one of the smallest of the Christian churches in the Middle East. Abu el-Assal enumerates his community in Israel by geographical location: in Nazareth, 450 faithful, Kfar Yassif 400, Kfar Rayna 250, Jerusalem 200, Haifa 300, Ramle-Lod 100, with another 35 in a small village. In all, barely 2,500 faithful, but a great deal of honor. The visits to neighboring countries, where the Anglican communities are also small, include meetings with leaders and important personages, mainly in the Arab world, such as the late Syrian president Hafez Assad.

Abu el-Assal seems to like rubbing shoulders with important people. Despite his clear-cut opinions about Israeli policy, he proudly tells about his recent reception at the President's House. On Independence Day, there was a foul-up: Abu el-Assal, like other religious leaders, was invited to pay respects to the Israeli president, but the security personnel insisted that he pass through the electronic scanner and take off his cross. "Over my dead body," he told them, "I came to pay respects, not to be humiliated." The security people insisted, and he turned on his heels and returned to the church. "I was so upset that my workers offered me a glass of whiskey and a tranquilizer. Afterward, the president phoned. He apologized and promised to investigate what had happened, and invited me for a personal visit. I told him that in any other country, they would be proud of a citizen like me, who heads a church."

St. George Cathedral blends in well in the section of East Jerusalem that is home to several architectural gems - among them the American Colony Hotel - that provide a refreshing escape to those who visit them. Beyond the electrified iron gate of the church lies a world that seems not to belong to the here and now.

The neo-Gothic complex was built in the 1890s, modeled on the colleges in Oxford. Even from a distance it's easy to identify the church tower, which is named after Edward VII, by its four spires.

Opposite the offices is the guest house. Modest, efficient rooms, which usually serve church people from abroad who come to Jerusalem in the course of their work, or pilgrims who are touring the Holy City. The group rate is $27 a night, including bed and breakfast; an individual pays a few dollars more. There are no exceptions, says Abu el-Assal; even Mordechai Vanunu will have to pay before he leaves. "I assume his brother will take care of it," he says.

In the center of the compound, there is a large patio where the residents of the guest house, including Vanunu, usually spend their free time. Stone tiles, plants and vines, statuettes, green chairs and tables ("Keter Plastic") that don't quite belong here, water bubbling in small fountains and a pleasant breeze that relieves the Jerusalem heat that began to be felt this week. A tall hedge separates this serenity from the clamor of the city.

The corridors with their high arches remain cool even on a very hot day. The clinking of the keys in the iron doors and figures of priests stealing into side rooms bring to mind "The Name of the Rose." Life here is not exactly a film, but at least one resident of the St. George guest house can testify that reality sometimes exceeds anything one could imagine.

A visit to Vanunu

On Sunday afternoon, the church is sunk in a deep slumber - a tranquillity in complete contrast to the uproar here on April 18, when released prisoner Mordechai Vanunu landed at the gates of the church. Vanunu's original plan was to live in the Andromeda complex in Jaffa for a while, but the Shin Bet leaks to the media destroyed his chances of waking up with a view of the sea after 18 years in a locked cell.

Vanunu's choice of St. George is not random. In 1986, in Australia, he was baptized by an Anglican priest, Reverend John McKnight. Vanunu's adoptive parents, Nick and Mary Eoloff, are also members of the Anglican Church.

After Vanunu was arrested, McKnight visited Riah Abu el-Assal in Nazareth, and reported on a new member of the community. The two asked permission from the authorities to visit Vanunu in prison, but their request was rejected. When Abu el-Assal was appointed bishop, he made an oath that the day after the coronation ceremony, he would once again ask to visit the "atom prisoner." He was rejected once again. At the end of July 2001, the Shin Bet finally allowed Abu el-Assal and his colleague Michael Sellors, dean of St. George's Cathedral, to visit Vanunu.

The visit to the Nitzan Prison lasted an hour and a half. The emotional meeting took place in a trailer that was placed at the disposal of the three especially for this purpose, and took place under the watchful eye of a policeman. The three prayed together, and the guests gave Vanunu bread and wine. He told them about the conditions of his imprisonment and how he passed the time, but when he began to tell about the circumstances of his kidnapping, the policeman stopped him immediately.

"In the end, he let us talk in a relaxed atmosphere," recalls Abu el-Assal. "So when I hugged and kissed Mordechai, I gave the policeman a kiss, too. Before the meeting I imagined what kind of person I would meet, a man with a broken spirit, someone who was tired of life, and I found a man in excellent physical condition, sane, happy to see us. I brought him a small wooden cross from Bethlehem, but the Shin Bet took it for an examination and only afterward gave it to Mordechai. When the time came to part, we walked in the yard toward the gate, and suddenly Mordechai stopped. I asked him what had happened, then he showed me a red line on the floor and told me he wasn't allowed to cross it. We shook hands on the red line, and I said that I prayed that one day the red line would turn green."

From that time until Vanunu's release, Abu el-Assal didn't get permission to visit him again, and the two had to make do with an exchange of letters. Religious faith is only part of what connects them. Abu el-Assal doesn't hide his unqualified support for the act that turned Vanunu into a traitor in the eyes of most of the Israeli public. In the summer of 2001, after the visit to the prison, he told Haaretz reporter Joseph Algazy that "in my eyes, Vanunu is a prisoner of conscience, since by his act he demonstrated his profound concern for the welfare and security not only of the Israelis, but of all the inhabitants of the Middle East."

Algazy posed a hypothetical question to Rev. Michael Sellors: What would he have done had Vanunu consulted with him before revealing Israel's atomic secrets to the world. Sellors replied that "since I am aware of the fact that Vanunu is acting out of a belief that without nuclear weapons, life in this world, and especially in the Middle East, would be better, I hope that I would have had the decency to encourage him in his plans. I would have encouraged Vanunu to turn to the media, because we are obligated to reveal what is evil, and what Vanunu did was to reveal what is evil."

Abu el-Assal's consent to host Vanunu was therefore a natural continuation of the relationship that had formed between them. The first days were stormy. The bishop preferred to make light of the new situation, in which the church was surrounded by Shin Bet agents: "It gives us a sense of security," he said at the time. Paparazzi manned the sidewalk opposite the gate to the church in 24-hour-a-day shifts, in the hope of catching a frame of the newly released prisoner. When their patience ran out, they decided to ignore the rules of the game, climbed on the garden fence and from there photographed Vanunu sitting with friends. The photographer for the Tel Aviv weekly Kol Ha'ir actually entered the church and introduced himself as a photography student. Meir Vanunu, Mordechai's brother, discovered the ruse and made sure the man was removed. The photographer continued to ambush Vanunu and stuck with him when he finally left the compound; the angry Vanunu gave him the finger, and the photo appeared on the cover of Kol Ha'ir.

At the time there were also rumors about dissatisfaction in the church at the commotion the new guest had brought with him. Abu el-Assal firmly denies this: "It's true that at first we thought he would leave the country quickly, but that didn't happen; he needs a refuge and I don't intend to give in to pressure to get him out of here. I'm sure that was the purpose of interrogating me. During World War II many Jews, maybe not enough, found refuge in monasteries and churches, so we have an important role here."

People say that you suggested he move to the church in Nazareth, so that everyone would have a little more quiet.

"Not recently. Maybe they mean that when they asked me a year ago if I could give him refuge, I said that there was also the option of Nazareth, because the place is more spacious and more distant. And we also have a school there, where he could teach history if he wanted."

Maybe you took advantage of him? Thanks to him, a modest church with few members has achieved worldwide publicity.

"I'm familiar with that claim. President Katsav also told me with a smile `I don't know who's more popular, Vanunu or you.' But of course that's not true. I travel around the world enough even without Mordechai, and I don't need to take advantage of anyone."

At this point, Bishop Abu el-Assal surprises me. It turns out that he has such high regard for Vanunu that he has thought about declaring the "atom prisoner" a saint of the Anglican church some day.

"It's definitely possible," replies the bishop. "If, God forbid, something should happen to Mordechai, if some crazy right-winger should harm him, I'll make sure that according to church tradition he is declared a saint. I want to emphasize that in our Church, saints don't turn water into wine. They are heroes who change the world through acts that help people open their eyes, and I think that Mordechai has definitely contributed to world security."

Almost two months after his release, Vanunu's life is more relaxed, but as long as he is not allowed to leave Israel (the appeal submitted on this matter by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is awaiting the decision of the Supreme Court) he is far from being a truly free man. Although he does leave the church compound more often, goes to restaurants in East Jerusalem or to the cafe in the American Colony, in at least two instances, right-wing activists tried to harass him, both verbally and physically. He devotes most of his time to catching up with technological innovations, surfing the Internet and corresponding by e-mail, reading newspapers and books and meeting with his few supporters from Israel, and the many more from abroad. His brother Meir also lives in the church guest house, and is helping him to adjust to life outside the prison walls.

Bishop Abu el-Assal says that as far as his special guest is concerned, he has another two missions to accomplish: "To help him leave this place to freedom - and even the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to President Katsav on this matter - and to help him reconcile with his family. Mainly with his mother. I told him and Meir that I want to visit his parents. I said `Just arrange the visit,' but meanwhile they insist that the time is not yet ripe. I have patience. I want to shake their hands, at least his mother's; I know what a mother is.

In the East, a mother is something special. I only want them to let me speak to her, tell her that she has a son about whom people may be saying many things, but who in world history will be recognized as a person who contributed to the security of mankind, and that she must take him back."

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