(Arab-American News) An outspoken, high-ranking Orthodox Church figure from Jerusalem, known for speaking out in defense of Palestinians and for Christian-Muslim unity, visited Detroit area homes, religious institutions and Arab American organizations last week.
Archbishop Theodosios Atallah Hanna of the Jerusalem Patriarchate addressed crowds at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Basilica in Livonia and the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn on Wednesday, offering a nationalistic message of unity and human rights advocacy.
Not one to hold back, Hanna sharply criticized Israel and said that all Palestinians who have been displaced from their homes should have the right to return.
He reminded listeners that the Palestinian struggle is not only a Muslim struggle, lamented diminishing numbers of Christians in the Palestinian territories and implored Palestinian Americans to maintain contact with their homeland.
He said only around 50,000 Christians remain in the Occupied Territories, but that they stand by their Muslim countrymen in their fight for rights to land, travel and dignity.
He said the Christian church is tied to the Arab World through history and culture.
“Jesus was born in Palestine, not in Paris, not in Washington or anywhere else. Jesus was Palestinian,” he said.
Hanna said to a crowd who squeezed into a Northville home on Tuesday to hear him speak that he felt uplifted when he went into St. Mary’s Basilica and saw Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian and other Americans all worshipping together.
He said to another crowd at the Islamic Center of America on Wednesday that he wants people to stop describing the occupation of Palestine as a Muslim-Jewish conflict but an apartheid system which Christians are also suffering from and fighting against. He also insisted that there is no difference between Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and that both need to be protected.
George Khoury, of the Ramallah Club of Detroit, brought Hanna to the area to address the annual Ramallah Convention — which began Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn. He said he also wanted the Archbishop to tour the area and speak to different crowds, knowing his charisma and insight would move people.
“I always wanted to have him address the community here… In Dearborn, I was walking with him down the street and people rushed out of their shop to shake his hand. They recognized him. I didn’t know he was that popular.”
Rev. George Shalhoub, of St. Mary’s Basilica, said Hanna’s popularity comes from his youthful spirit and “non-stop passion for the rights of our people.
“This man is only 42 years old, he’s like a kid in front of me,” said Shalhoub, 59.
While Hanna’s high-profile political activism, defiant denunciation of the occupation and advocacy for the importance of Palestinian identity have made him popular with Arabs, they’ve made him very unpopular with Israeli authorities.
He was arrested in Israel in 2002 for “suspicion of relations with terrorist organizations”; “illegally entering an enemy country (Syria and Lebanon, which have large Orthodox Christian populations)”; and “incitement.”
Hanna said after his release that he was targeted and slandered because of the intent of Israeli authorities to silence all nationalistic voices in Jerusalem, and to neutralize the position of Christians. He said the purpose of the church in Palestine is to serve all Palestinians.
“We belong to all the Palestinian people,” he said on Wednesday. “Their struggle is just and their suffering is unjust.”
Hanna was also accused in 2002 of “supporting Palestinian terrorism” by Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem Eireneos, who fired him from his position as spokesperson for the Patriarchate after he refused to sign a document condemning Palestinian resistance.
Eireneos would later be defrocked by local church leaders after an uproar over a report that he was involved in selling sensitive church property in Jerusalem to Jewish Zionists.
“Defense of human rights and of oppressed people is one of our duties as religious leaders,” Hanna said at the mosque on Wednesday.
He said that every time he comes to the U.S., he’s impressed by the number of American human rights activists he meets who work to help Palestinians.
He said that while things are hard right now, and often discouraging, Palestinians are still clinging to their rights with their lives.
Palestinians have been “forbidden from freedom,” he said, for last the 60 years, and even if it takes “another 60, or 200 years, they will keep fighting occupation and apartheid.”