Holy Land journey: Misdiagnosis of terrorism, and a visit to my roots

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas (right) of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is on a trip to Lebanon, his ancestral homeland, and to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will attend an international meeting of  bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He has agreed to be a guest blogger for us during the trip.)

DAY FOUR: Jan. 8, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Yesterday I was able to connect with a Lebanese American family from Tucson who are visiting for the holidays. Ziad Safi and his wife and baby daughter welcomed us into their family home which looked out over the city, a magnificent view. Ziad’s father built the building in which various members of his family now live on different floors. This is very common in Lebanon.

His mother seemed so pleased that her son was home for a while and certainly delighted to see her grandchild. Family is so important to the Lebanese as to many other cultures. His mother has never yet visited in Tucson. I encouraged her to come and visit when that is possible.

As always there was food and drink offered and much time to chat. Almost immediately you get into the situation in the Middle East. It is on everyone’s mind. We discussed the many Christians who have left Lebanon which results from opportunities elsewhere as well as fear of violence and conflict. Despite living elsewhere they like to return to Lebanon. Many families, especially those in the Gulf states, have built large houses in Lebanon where they return from time to time. The challenge is how to encourage the young to stay and use their gifts for their country.

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On Friday Bill (CRS Baltimore), Mindy (CRS Beirut) and I went running in the early morning along the Corniche, a beautiful open space that runs along the Mediterranean Sea. This old man had a hard time keeping up with the two youngsters but there is so much to distract you the run was fun. Groups of men smoking on water pipes along with fishermen with large poles set out into the sea lined the walk.

Many people were out walking or running along the Corniche. It was a delight. You get to see so much doing a run. We passed the place where Rafik Hariri was assassinated. He had a great deal to do with renovating downtown Beirut through Solidaiire, a company he owned. Like the urban renewal in Tucson this development left many hurt feelings as many buildings were taken down for development, a difficult tension.

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Our business day began with a meeting with Rami Khouri, a professor at American University in Beirut. This famous university is one of the jewels of Beirut. It is well known throughout the world and is distinguished in many areas of study. Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

He welcomed us graciously. He is Palestinian but pleased to be living in Beirut which provides the freedom to do extensive and challenging research. He told me that his sister is a home nurse in Bisbee, Ariz., in the Diocese of Tucson. What a small world.

Khouri believes that in the West there is a massive collective misdiagnosis of the phenomenon of terrorism and its linkage to religion. He has written extensively on this subject and has a Web site that covers his writings.

There is a great need to study terrorism to understand especially why this happens. Much important research has already been done. Terrorism is a universal and historical phenomenon. He believes it is nationalist in nature. He indicated that 60 percent of suicide bombings are done not by Islamists but nationalists. Most terrorists are directionless. They believe their efforts will get out foreign invaders.

He suggested that it is important to distinguish terrorism from justifiable resistance as hard as this may be in many situations. Most resisters are nonviolent like Dr. Martin Luther King but some turn to violent means. When people feel dehumanized and demeaned they can do things that in other circumstances they would never think of doing.

It is important in his mind that the United States help negotiate a resolution to the Arab-Israeli logjam by encouraging the two-state solution. But to realize a solution, there is a need to address the Palestinian refugee situation. This will demand strong leadership and courage on the part of the U.S. government.

President Obama made promising moves but they were not fulfilled and so more are skeptical.

If a negotiated agreement can happen he believes several things must take place. First the Palestinians need “acknowledgment” of what was done to them in 1948, not necessarily recompense or even an apology. Second, there needs to be some symbolic return of some Palestinians to Israel with respect for human rights. Third, there needs to be the assurance made to Israel that Israel will remain a Jewish state respected by their neighbors along with the acknowledgment by the Arab world that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.

He suggested that Obama may have been naïve in believing that the Israelis would comply with the freezing of further settlements. Asking the Israeli’s to give up further settlements was not commensurate with what was asked of the Arabs, namely to show a sign of acceptance to Israel. Israel had much more at stake in what was asked of them. Finally he should have gotten a better international consensus on what was being asked before making the demand.

However, despite all the false starts, it seemed that Khouri is hopeful especially because of the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East.

Mr. Khouri offered much to think about.

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We went to the Catholic Relief Services office to meet with Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, who has had a keen interest in the plight of the Iraqi refugees. He was just in Syria studying the same issue and had come to the CRS office to hear about the experience in Lebanon. He was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador, Michele Sisson.

I was impressed by the congressman’s passionate concern about this situation and he listened intently to the presentation by Najla and Isabelle from the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, with whom we had met earlier.

The most painful moment of the meeting came when a mother and her 15-year-old son, Fadi, shared with the group their tragic story of flight from Iraq. The mother emotionally described the kidnapping of Fadi when he was 9. He was taken into a car in Baghdad and brought by gun to an undisclosed location. The kidnappers asked a $20,000 ransom, which was absolutely impossible for a family of six that was merely renting a home in Baghdad.

Fadi then described in a very pained way his fear. After many hours of captivity he was finally offered some food but he was afraid to eat fearing that it was poisoned.

The family struggled to raise $5,000 through the church and their family, which the kidnappers finally accepted. The father was directed to bring the money to a certain location. The boy was released but the father disappeared. The kidnappers contacted the mother and asked for the remainder of the ransom, which she was unable to do. She has never heard from her husband again. The father’s family now does not speak to her because she did not get the money for her husband. You could see the guilt and pain this wife and mother was feeling.

She and her son are now seeking to be resettled in Australia, where the mother’s daughter lives. It was so hard for them to share their story but they were encouraged to do so as a way of relieving some of their emotion and trauma.

The congressman, ambassador, I and all present were deeply moved by this painful story, which continues as Fadi has been working to help the family but he has been further exploited in his job. One feels so helpless in the face of such continuing tragedy.

As they left, the mother, Fadi and I had a chance to pray together. I offered a blessing, struggling to keep from breaking down, which they so appreciated. God and God alone consoles in times of greatest need.

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Finally I had a chance to visit Zahleh, where I believe some of my grandparents were born. It was Friday afternoon so the traffic was horrendous. Anis, our driver, moved astutely through the jammed streets, honking and turning from lane to another to get us through the logjam. It is amazing how he ekes by with a hair’s space separating him from the next car. There are no lane markings, cars move where an opening appears like running on a football field.

Zahleh is located in the Bekaa Valley, a very fertile, beautiful place. One has to drive over the mountains, through a number of small towns. Along the way we saw some of the damage from the 2006 war with Israel. One of the bridges that had been destroyed was now being rebuilt by the United States.

Archbishop Mansour Hobeika (left).

We arrived at the Maronite Center and Cathedral and were greeted by Archbishop Mansour Hobeika and Father Vincent, who is the finance director for the diocese. The archbishop studied canon law in Rome and speaks a number of languages, including English. He is from a large family, some of whom now live in the United States.

The Archdiocese of Zahleh is only about 30 years old. It has about 30 parishes and no schools. They are just completing their cathedral, which should open in a few months.

I saw again the River Verdauni. This time there was some small amount of water running. The restaurants along the river, which I remembered from my first visit to Lebanon, were all closed because it was winter. Archbishop Hobeika took us to a restaurant way up in the mountain that looked over the city and river. It was a magnificent view.

It was a typical Lebanese meal that began with a tableful of appetizers which could have filled us. That was followed by fish or meat. We were then escorted to another table where desserts and fruit in great abundance were displayed. We could hardly move having eaten so much.

(Photos courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

We went to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Zahleh, which was a joint project of all the Catholic rites represented in the city. A beautiful image of Mary and her child adorns a large structure which includes a chapel and outdoor worship space. I was amazed to see so many people gathered at the Shrine even some from Scottsdale, Ariz. — amazing!

I am sure many have found great delight in visiting the place where their family has come from. That was my experience being back in Zahleh. Even though I am not aware of any relatives still there, it gives you a sense of from whence you have come.

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On Saturday we will fly to Tel Aviv through Amman for the beginning of the coordination meeting between the episcopal conferences of the United States, Canada, and Europe in solidarity with the church in the Holy Land. This will be my second experience of this coordination gathering.

The focus of this year’s gathering will be the plight and displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

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