Presbyterian moderator brings message of peace to Baltimore

Church leader recounts life as Palestinian `child of war'

January 27, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The spiritual leader of the nation's largest denomination of Presbyterians, a Palestinian-American who as a boy was displaced by war from his home in Galilee, came to Baltimore yesterday with a message of hope and peace for his homeland.

The Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, 58, a minister from Atlanta who is serving a one-year term as moderator of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church USA, told an audience at Second Presbyterian Church that peace will come to the Middle East only through prayer and nonviolent struggle. Abu-Akel's speech was the first of a series of events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Guilford congregation.

"I am still haunted by that injustice of what happened to the Palestinians," he said, denouncing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. "I'll always pray for Israel, I'll pray for the Palestinians, that a real reconciliation will take place."

But he holds no illusions that such a peace will come easily.

"Unless the Palestinians look the Israeli Jews in the eyes and say, `You took my land, you took my church, you took my mosque, you took my shop. Now I forgive you. We need to live together,'" he said. "And unless the Israelis say to the Palestinians, `You quit the suicide bombings of our mothers, you are a nation and we need to live in the West Bank and Gaza side by side.' ... Unless that kind of peace takes place, I don't see any hope in that part of the world."

Abu-Akel, who was an early and outspoken opponent of a war in Iraq, frequently recounts his early experience as what he calls "a child of war," a story he repeated yesterday.

He was born to a Palestinian-Arab Orthodox Christian family in a small village in Galilee, northwest of Nazareth. In 1948, when he was 4, the Arab-Israeli war broke out and his family fled to a refugee camp. But his mother stayed behind, refusing to leave their home.

"And as I grew up I always wanted to say to my mother, `Why did you not come with us?'" Abu-Akel said. "And I discovered that she was strong and said to my dad, `You can take the children, you can protect them. I'm going to stay here. This is our home. This is our land. This is our church. If they want to kill me, they need to kill me as a Christian Palestinian Arab woman in my house.'"

Abu-Akel was later greatly influenced as a youth by two Scottish Presbyterian missionaries who stayed in his parents' home. The example of the ministers gave birth to his desire to become a Presbyterian and to be ordained a minister. He left his homeland in 1966 to complete his college education and attend seminary in the United States.

Abu-Akel is considered a moderate in a denomination that has been polarized in theological disputes in recent years, particularly on the issue of homosexuality. His focus as moderator has been to encourage spiritual renewal.

The subject of homosexuality did not come up yesterday, although the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination is facing a petition filed by a group of conservative ministers and elders calling for a special session of the General Assembly, the denomination's annual meeting, to address the issue.

Rather, Abu-Akel focused on work of the Presbyterian Church, challenging congregations to undertake two mission projects, one in their local communities and one overseas. And he called on all Presbyterians to invite one person to their congregations, saying that if they followed through, "a revolution will take place in the life of the Presbyterian Church USA."

Many of those who heard him yesterday said they appreciated his diverse viewpoint.

"I was fascinated by his own personal history. What a different view of the world that must give him," said Leslie Owsley, a member of Second Presbyterian from Arlington, Va. "I hope people take to heart his words and his interest in peace."

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