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Archbishop Joseph Raya – Apostle of Peace and Love

posted on: Nov 13, 2014

Joseph Raya was born in Zahle, Lebanon, on August 15th, 1916, the sixth of seven children in a family of devout Christian Arabs. As a result of his formal education, he quickly attained fluency in Arabic, French, and Greek. Educated in Zahle, Paris, and Jerusalem, he was exposed to a variety of formative experiences and cosmopolitan environments. Ordained a priest on July 20th, 1941, he was assigned to Jerusalem, Zahle, and later Cairo.

In 1944, he became the Director of the Diocesan school in Zahle, a position he held until 1946. He was subsequently transferred to Cairo, Egypt to serve as Supervisor of Studies and Professor of French Literature at the Patriarchal College. Raya believed women should have the right to receive an education[1] and generally defended the dignity of women. Raya advised an Arab woman to slap the face of any man who made inappropriate sexual advances toward her, no matter the man’s rank. When the deserved but insulting slap was delivered to King Farouk, Father Raya was maligned and given twenty four hours to leave Egypt. Had Father Raya failed to heed the warning of King Farouk, he would have faced certain death at the hands of King Farouk’s men.[2]

Settling in the United States of America, Father Joseph Raya mostly served as a priest in Birmingham, Alabama. His sixteen years in Birmingham were characterized by a number of ambitious, but successful undertakings: he promoted vernacular (English) in Byzantine Church services, he engaged in deep interpretive study and activity whereby he reframed many traditional Orthodox theological constructs. For example, he redesigned theological constructs that would negate violence, especially towards Jews. He recognized and responded to various racial, religious, and ethnic inequalities, and became a close personal friend of Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, he supported and embraced their philosophies of non-violent resistance.

In the fall of 1968, Father Joseph M. Raya was consecrated as Archbishop and appointed to the See of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all of Galilee. During this very challenging and complex time in his life, Archbishop Raya attempted to embrace Israeli’s Arab Christians, Moslems, Druze, and Jews as his brothers and sisters. Archbishop Raya sought to find peaceful and loving ways to enhance the dignity, equality, and freedom of all people through a series of bold peace and justice initiatives.

Most notable was Raya’s fight for the return of Ikrit and Kfar-Berem, two Christian Arab villages located within his diocese in northern Israel. On October 31, 1948, the Israeli army entered these two Palestinian villages near the Lebanese border. Approximately one week later, on November 8, 1948, the military requested the entire populace vacate for security purposes with the assurance they could return in less than fifteen days. Years passed but the displaced villagers were not allowed to return to their homes and lands, livelihoods and businesses. With their lives in disarray, the villagers presented their case to the Supreme Court of Israel. On July 31, 1951, after much debate, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that it was the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return their villages. Unwilling to recognize the court ruling, the Israeli military decided to continue occupancy of the area and ultimately ordered the destruction of the villages. For twenty-four years, the Palestinians lobbied for the implementation of the Court’s decision and the opportunity to return to their shattered homes and lands.

Various individuals and groups shared their concerns with Archbishop Raya, and asked that he investigate and address their causes. Using non-violent means, Raya:

– attempted to return Ikrit and Kfar-Berem to the Melkite and Maronite communities;[3]

– conducted “illegal” prayer sessions, baptisms, and weddings in defiance of unjust laws;[4]

– organized non-violent sit-ins, protests, and marches to bring to the national and international consciousness issues of injustice and prejudice;[5]

– ordered the Sunday of Mourning for the Death of Justice (no Sunday services for the churches under his authority) to protest the “idolatry of security”; [6]

– challenged the Prime Minister of Israel and the Knesset to revise biased laws and practices such as the law forbidding the gathering of more than 10 Arabs without a permit;[7] and

– boldly criticized the use of violence by individual hierarchs within his own Melkite Byzantine Catholic Church, and brought to the attention of the Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, and Church of God religious authorities the risks and negative effects of their proselytism in the Holy Land.[8]

There are other examples of his nonviolent approach using truth and love as his weapons. Archbishop Raya challenged the Vatican and the Melkite Church Patriarch by selling church land to peasant Moslems as restitution for past injustices. Raya believed that Moslems who after working on the land for 70 years had earned their right to own the land. The Vatican was angered by Raya’s action of selling Christian land in Israel. Furthermore, at a public rally, Archbishop Raya, an Arab Christian, protected a speaker named Rabbi Kahane’s life by throwing his own body around the Rabbi, as some members in the audience wanted to lynch him for saying awful racist remarks against the Arabs. Rabbi Kahane was a radical and racist “enemy” Jew. Moreover, Rabbi Kahane, was an ultra-nationalist writer and political figure whose work became the direct or indirect foundation of the most modern Jewish militant extremist right-wing political group.[9]

Archbishop Raya successfully lobbied and negotiated with the Israeli government to eliminate segregated identification cards for Arab Israelis, and modified liturgical texts to eliminate anti-Semitic phrases from Christian worship services. Due to his dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the issue of Ikrit and Kfar-Berem, Raya undertook a personal fast in front of the Knesset (July 16–19, 1973), which raised the profile of the issue yet again in a non-violent way.

Archbishop Raya organized public debates, and personally defended the individual rights (and, in some cases, the physical well-being as stated above) of his guests and speakers. These initiatives were strongly supported by the Jewish, Moslems, Druze, and Arab Christian populations. As demonstrated by the example of Rabbi Kahane, Raya constantly sought open, non-aggressive means by which to understand the opinions and positions of all factions in Arab–Jewish disputes and controversies.

His own patriarch did not like the fact that Archbishop Raya recognized the State of Israel[10] and that Raya openly criticized his own Melkite bishops who had reverted to violence. Furthermore, amid international controversy regarding the political future of Jerusalem, Arabs at the time claimed the city for Moslems, Israel claimed the city for Jews, and the Vatican claimed Jerusalem for Christians. Archbishop Raya believed Jerusalem should belong primarily to the Jewish people and openly voiced his own opinion. “Deep in my heart I feel it is and should be Jewish.”[11] Patriarch Maximos V was also very jealous of the tremendous love and respect both Arabs and Jews had for Archbishop Raya. A personal rift erupted between Patriarch Maximos V and Archbishop Raya. To avoid greater public debate and controversy, Raya reluctantly resigned as Archbishop of Akka, Haifa, and all Galilee in 1974.

From 1974-1986, Archbishop Raya wrote numerous articles for religious periodicals, authored and published several books, composed music in the Greek and Arabic traditions, and taught at several North American universities and seminaries: John XXIII Center in New York, New York; Franciscan University in Buffalo, New York; Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario; and Christ the King Seminary in Buffalo, New York. For over a decade, he also renewed the theological studies in all Melkite seminaries and monasteries worldwide.

Archbishop Raya, at age 70 and with a heart condition, assumed temporary responsibility for the See of Beirut in 1986, and later took over leadership of the war-torn Arch-Eparchy of Paneas in Marjeyeoun, Lebanon, on July 25th, 1987. In a country decimated and demoralized by war and violence, Raya established programs to renew hope and peace for the people. Faced with war, seemingly insurmountable religious strife, and terrorism, Archbishop Raya consoled all peoples still residing in Lebanon. As in other situations in the Middle East, Archbishop Raya served as the spiritual leader not only to the Melkite but also the Maronite Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Moslems, Druze, and Israelis occupying southern Lebanon. As acting Archbishop in the Eparchy of Caesarea-Philippi in southern Lebanon, Archbishop Raya portioned out land, housing, olive and fruit trees, supplies, food, and hope. He attempted to rebuild the churches damaged or destroyed by the heavy shelling between Palestinian factions and Israeli troops. Archbishop Raya interacted with Moslems, Druze, Christians, and Jews, serving as an intermediary between Moslems groups and Israelis, Israelis and Christians, and Christians and Moslems. Tens of thousands of trees and vineyards were planted by the Lebanese refugees, 5,000 planted by Raya himself, to rekindle hope in the people. Raya encouraged the people to invest themselves in their own land. He fundraised millions of dollars for various projects. The last fifteen years of his life, while living at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, were dedicated to writing theological books, advising the Melkite Synod of Bishops, and preaching.

Archbishop Raya’s extraordinary life combined social action and justice making with incessant care. His own habitus of religious peacemaking continuously and consistently developed wherever he served. The model of Martin Luther King Jr. represented only a portion of what Archbishop Raya internalized. Because of his Orthodox Trinitarian theology, his focus was relationship building. Archbishop Raya never systematically wrote a coherent theology for the practice of peace within the Eastern Church but he lived his teachings and worked through an informal but multifaceted peace theology framework. His legacy continues in the Catholic[12] and Orthodox Churches,[13] in Israel and Palestine,[14] his spiritual children[15] and the lives of generations touched by his leadership.

Lesya Sabada
Peace & Conflict Monitor