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Remembering Faysal Hijazeen, priest and defender of justice for Palestinians

Aug. 6, 2016 8:52 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 7, 2016 10:58 A.M.)
Faysal Hijazeen (Photo: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)
By: Xavier Abu Eid

Xavier Abu Eid is a political scientist and an adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization – Negotiations Affairs Department. You can follow him on twitter @xabueid.

Father Faysal Hijazeen, Director-General of the Latin Patriarchate Schools in Palestine and the parish priest of Ramallah, was known for his unwavering defense of justice for the Palestinian people. He passed away Thursday Aug. 4 in Beit Jala, Palestine. His funeral was held Saturday in Amman, Jordan.

Father Faysal Hijazeen has left us. “Abouna Faysal” (our father Faysal), as he was affectionately known, was born in Amman in 1961 and spent most of his life in Palestine. In 1973, he joined the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, becoming a priest in 1985. The same year, he was sent as an assistant priest to the Holy Family Church in Ramallah. Soon after arriving, and for no reason, he was severely beaten by Israeli forces. The people of Ramallah, both Christians and Muslims, responded by taking to the streets in order to defend the new young priest. His career would be marked by his strong defense of justice and freedom for the Palestinian people.

The first time I met Fr. Faysal was in 2009. We spent several evenings discussing politics and history. I would ask many questions about his passions: philosophy, ethics, and humanity. The first time I asked him for confession, he made use of the sacrament to speak about the social doctrine of the church and the strong moral values of the Palestinian cause. It didn’t take me long to understand that his firm convictions about freedom for Palestine were not due to his Arab background, but due to his belief that there was no moral equivalence between occupier and occupied. “The church must be on the side of the oppressed” was one of his most frequent responses when asked about his work for Palestine.

Fr. Faysal, like several of his colleagues, was an anonymous hero who lived to fulfill a mission of advancing justice. Just as hundreds of priests have risked their lives for the protection of their communities, Fr. Hijazeen was always a strong voice of justice for his congregation.

Fr. Hijazeen believed that Palestinian national rights could be achieved through non-violent strategies. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian bid for full UN membership and involved himself fully in the “194 Campaign” designed to make achieve this goal. He signed letters to various governments and churches asking for recognition of the state of Palestine, and under his guidance, thousands of students from the Catholic schools in Palestine wrote to world leaders, reminding them of their right to live in freedom. A few months after his work for the campaign, a Palestinian leader asked me about Fr. Hijazeen’s nationality and was clearly disappointed when I confirmed that he was Jordanian, and thus could not be nominated as our ambassador to the Vatican.

In 2010, Fr. Hijazeen invited Dr. Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority’s first foreign minister, to explain Palestine’s internationalization strategy at the Holy Family Church in Ramallah. Over the course of several visits to various Catholic churches by Shaath, the two became good friends. When President Mahmoud Abbas delivered his historic speech at the United Nations on Sept. 23, 2011, announcing Palestine’s request to become a full UN member, there were not enough seats to accommodate the large Palestinian contingent. The delegation of the Holy See offered half of their seats to the Palestinians, and when Shaath gratefully accepted one of the seats, he turned to the Ambassador of the Vatican and said: “Monsignor, our parish priest in Ramallah is Fr. Faysal, you know him? He is doing a fantastic work with our people. We are good friends.”

That same night, in Ramallah’s Yasser Arafat Square, President Abbas’ speech was watched by over 50,000 people. Fr. Faysal had organized a mass march from the Latin Church to the square, with priests and community leaders raising Palestinian flags. Directly after the speech, the governor of Ramallah invited Fr. Faysal to address the crowd. Abouna Faysal clearly wasn’t prepared, and got a bit nervous. But he ended up delivering a few powerful words which have stayed with me to this day: “We are marching towards Jerusalem, we are marching for freedom and justice, and we are marching because we deserve to be free, simply because it is our right.” He received an unanimous ovation from the crowd, including hundreds that replied to his words with “Allahu akbar” (God is great), a saying traditionally related to the Muslim faith. This was the Palestine he was working for: A country for all.

Whenever there was an Israeli attempt to use the old propaganda line of “Christians are persecuted by Muslims in the West Bank,” Fr. Hijazeen was there to publicly state what he experienced as a priest serving in Palestine. In 2012 he responded to false claims of Muslim persecution made by the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, through an op-ed in Jerusalem Post, noting that “several studies have shown that the Israeli occupation and settlement activities are the main reason for Christian emigration.” He wrote: “During our years of priesthood, we have paid visits to many Palestinian Christian political prisoners jailed in Israeli prisons, participated in funerals of Christians who have lost their lives in this bloody conflict, assisted families divided by the Israeli policy of stripping Palestinian residency rights, and lobbied on behalf of our parishioners whose property was confiscated by Israel.”

From 2011 onward, for the final few years of his short life, Fr. Faysal served as Secretary General of the Latin Patriarchate Schools in Palestine. Abouna Faysal took pride in his efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue, and was determined to defend the values of his schools. He rejected Hamas’ efforts to prevent mixed schools in Gaza, promoted a better understanding of Christianity in the Palestinian educational system, and encouraged exchanges with foreign schools -- showing thousands of priests, teachers, and students worldwide the reality of life under military occupation.

It is not easy to bid farewell to a friend. Abouna Faysal was someone who dedicated his life to promoting justice for the oppressed and fully embraced the cause of his adopted nation. He was there when we began prayers at Cremisan to stop construction of Israel’s separation wall in the area, and he was also there when, despite our efforts, Israeli occupation forces commenced with the destruction of this beautiful valley. Thousands of students and teachers have lost a source of wisdom and inspiration, someone passionate about the positive role of education in Palestine, someone who taught Christian values and morals -- but was always open to listening to other experiences and traditions. Someone who was a proud Jordanian and, by his own choice, a loyal Palestinian.

Abouna Faysal, my beloved friend, your blessed memory will inspire new generations of priests that will continue your efforts for humanity, justice, and freedom. Your contributions to Palestinian education will not be forgotten, nor will your words from that cold night in September 2011. We will continue to march on the same path towards Jerusalem. My dear friend, there are no words to thank you for everything you did for the sacred cause of justice and peace. We are bidding farewell to a wonderful and unforgettable human being.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.

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