[Washington Window] Seated in the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations on Capitol Hill, the Right Rev. Suheil Dawani, who will be installed as the new Bishop of Jerusalem in March, is describing his vision for the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
Pastoral care is his top concern, he says. Other priorities include supporting the diocese’s 35 institutions, nurturing Christian families, developing youth ministry, creating opportunities for women and improving the administration of the diocese.
But he keeps coming back to pastoral care.
Dawani, who has served as coadjutor since his election in June 2005, is in town to receive an honorary degree from Virginia Theological Seminary and to attend the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s annual meeting.
During his time in the United States, he’ll also travel west to Seattle, where he’ll pay his sister diocese a visit, and south to Atlanta, Ga., to pursue a partnership between St. Luke’s Hospital in Nablus and the Emory Medical School.
And that brings him back to pastoral care: These days, he says, with the economic and political situation in the Holy Land worsening, travel has become a necessity for the Bishop of Jerusalem. Perhaps too much of a necessity.
Foreign funds and advocacy are important – essential – for the survival of the diocese’s hospitals, schools and homes for the physically and mentally disabled – but in the push to raise money and support, the people of the diocese have been neglected, Dawani says.
“Unfortunately, the pastoral care has been lacking,” he says. “Church leaders have been seeking support for their institutions, and the people have been really neglected and ignored.”
In troubled times, people need to feel connected to the church, he says, and the church needs to be there to serve the needs of the Holy Land’s dwindling Christian population.
“The main refuge these people have is the church,” he says. “Spiritual hunger is something they feel. During their suffering, people come to the church to hear the message of hope – they very much feel relieved when they come to the church.”
As well as offering a message of hope, Dawani hopes to bolster the Christian community, whom he sees as potential brokers of peace in an increasingly polarized region.
“I think Christians, in general, they are the voice of moderation,” he says.
But in order to serve as an effective bridge between Muslims and Jews the Christian community must be reenergized and strengthened from within, he says.
This will be one of Dawani’s biggest challenges. Political turmoil and socio-economic pressures have already forced many Christians to leave the country, he says, and evangelism is frowned on: the state of Israel prohibits it, and the Muslim community also “does not welcome that.”
So it is the work of the diocese’s institutions – the schools, hospitals and hospices – that shows Christian love in action.
“These institutions, they are our witness to the Lord,” he says. “Through these institutions we fight extremism and plant hope in the hearts of despair.”
And there it is, he says – the tightrope walk between fundraising for the institutions that bear Christian witness and caring for the people themselves – the Christians.
Dawani, however, is determined to walk the line.
Since his election – by popular vote, he was not the candidate endorsed by the current Bishop of Jerusalem, the Right Rev. Riah Abu-Assal – Dawani has made it his mission to visit the far-flung and often overlooked corners of the diocese.
He has his work cut out for him: the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East serves 7,000 members in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
In addition to visiting churches in Israel and the West Bank, Dawani has traveled to Lebanon, bringing a gift of $16,500 for families affected by the Israel-Lebanon fighting, and Jordan, where he met with church leaders and conducted pastoral visits.
As well as nurturing the Anglican community, Dawani hopes to strengthen ties with other Christian denominations. Christians cannot hope to do the work of reconciliation and interfaith dialogue without first becoming a more united presence, he says.
“We have to think more ecumenically regarding these topics,” he says. “We have to join our forces together as a church.”
This is more than just talk: In the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Dawani served from 1992-97, he founded an ecumenical center, began a housing project for young Christian couples of all denominations, brought Christian communities together for the main feast days and established the first evangelical scouts group with the Lutheran Church. And in Jerusalem, where he served most recently as general secretary of the diocese, he has been actively involved with Kids 4 Peace, an initiative of St. George’s Cathedral that brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth together.
Dawani has worked closely with the Muslim community, and in an effort to improve relations with the Jewish community, he recently traveled to London to join Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a meeting with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
“This kind of understanding is important, because it means we are serious about reconciliation,” he says. “We are three faiths there. This is what we have to work on to have peace in Jerusalem.”
A native of the West Bank town of Nablus, which is predominantly Muslim, Dawani has served both in the West Bank (Ramallah, Birzeit) and Israel (Haifa) where he made Israeli friends and arranged exchanges between the local Christian and Jewish schools.
“It made me think that we should work together,” he says of his experience in Haifa. “It is really important to enlarge this peace for others.”
If there is peace in Jerusalem, he believes, there can be peace all over the region.
“We always remember that Jesus wept over Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago,” Dawani says. “And people there, they are still weeping over it. Muslims, Christians, Jews – they are all weeping. No one is happy with the situation there.”
By keeping the Christian witness alive, Dawani hopes to help people of all denominations and faiths become better neighbors.
“I think we should build bridges of hope and peace instead of walls of separation and fear,” he says. “We are one. Our ministry there is your ministry here.”