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Mideast Christian Group Gathers: Several Thousand Who Share Palestinian Roots Meet for Convention, Reunion in Metro Area

posted on: Jul 4, 2008


These Christian Palestinians say they are among the dispossessed, yearning for a nation to call theirs. Leaders of Christian denominations around the world say they fear these Palestinians may disappear from the Holy Land forever.

Several thousand Christian Palestinians, members of the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine, are gathering at the Hyatt Regency for several days of conferences and a full-immersion into the Arab-American culture of Metro Detroit this week. It is the 50th anniversary of the organization, formed when refugees fled to the United States from the close-knit town of Ramallah after the wars of 1948 and 1967 between Israel and Arab states.

Part social gathering, part business meeting intended to oversee the finances of their large charitable and educational operations, the convention also is a huge family reunion. Each of the various clans in Ramallah are descendants of the seven brothers who founded the ancestral village in 1515. The Christians often married within their extended families, establishing an intimate, unique culture that exists in various cities in the United States and Ramallah.

“Immigrants from the village came to the United States to study and teach, primarily because of the nakba, the founding of Israel and the beginning of the Palestinian question, those immigrants bounced by heritage and tradition created this organization to keep our heritage and culture together,” said Emeel Ajluni, a senior manager at Chrysler LLC.

On Thursday, they heard about how difficult the work will be.

Archbishop Theodosios Attallah Hanna, of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the leader of many of the Orthodox Christian Palestinians, said that with the Christian presence in the Holy Land declining from 15 percent of the population in 1950 to 2 percent today, Palestinians in the United States and the territories must resolve that the population cannot disappear.

Many Christians have fled because of the long-running conflict, and because they feel trapped between out-sized Jewish and Muslim interests in Israel, the territories and surrounding countries.

“Jerusalem belongs to three religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity,” Theodosios said, through an interpreter. “For us, Jerusalem is the most sacred for our faith; in the whole world, it is the center.

“We have to keep an eye (on) the holy places and to make sure they are safe. And most of all, we have to preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

“I believe in dialogue among the three religions and I am against the extremists,” Theodosios said. “Everyone must be free to practice their own religion, and they cannot use religion to advance their causes.”

Like an increasing number of residents of the territories, Theodosios said the only justice for the people of the region is a one-state solution in which Jews, Muslims and Christians live side-by-side, seized Palestinian land is returned to Palestinians, and all groups vote for a parliament.

That position is anathema to Israelis, who view it as the end of Israel and a Jewish state.

A number of speakers at the convention, including Mayor Janet Michael of Ramallah, complained that the Israeli crackdown on the movement of Palestinians within the territories is gutting the Palestinian economy. Michael and others also said that several Palestinians were not allowed to attend the convention by Israeli officials, who withheld permission to travel.

“We should either be allowed to build our own airport, or to travel freely from the airport in Tel Aviv,” Michael said. “What Israel does is not right. We feel like we are living in a big prison.”

Israeli officials say that economic development in the territories would contribute to peace. But the security concerns raised by attacks from Palestinians remains a paramount concern, including an attack Wednesday by the Palestinian driver of a bulldozer that killed three and wounded 45 in Jerusalem.

“I totally agree that economic development is suffering due to some of the conditions, that is certainly true,” said Andy David, deputy consul general of Israel to the Midwest. “And we see the suffering. And we feel the suffering. And some of the people suffering from those restrictions are innocent people.

“But if they want to stop this, they need to do just one simple thing: Stop the violence,” David said. “It is cause and effect. For there was violence and then there were the restrictions, not vice versa.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pressed Israel to lift more restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, both within the territories and for foreign travel.

David said such moves have only led to more violence.

“In the past, the alleviating of those restrictions immediately caused more terrorist activity,” David said. “Losing business is reversible. Losing life is irreversible.”

There are some 30,000 to 40,000 descendants of Ramallah in the United States. Metro Detroit, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Diego and a few southern cities have significant populations.

The city of Ramallah is home to about 30,000 Palestinians, with another 200,000 in the immediate suburbs. It is the site of most of the offices of the Palestinian Authority.

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Picture caption:

Archbishop Theodosios Atallah Hanna talks with Ramallah Mayor Janet Michael at the American Ramallah Palestine convention. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)