The meeting--held in 1998—took place at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., which has a sister church in Birzeit, about 15 miles outside Jerusalem. Many of the congregants had recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and made a stop in Birzeit. Rabie’s family came from the village, and although Rabie was born in Jordan, according to Arab tradition Birzeit is his home town and its residents his kin.
“I was astonished,” Rabie recalled during a recent phone interview from his Maryland office. “They knew my relatives, and they knew them more than I know them.”
The experience led the Arab-American activist and then-businessman to co-found the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Christians in the Holy Land. Since 2004, the foundation has helped restore 305 Christian homes Rabie said, adding that dilapidated housing is a major reason for emigration. The nonprofit also has a child sponsorship program, helps foster connections between American Christian school children and their Palestinian counterparts, and runs pilgrimages that travel through Jordan, Israel and Palestine. It also funds and operates a senior center in Birzeit.
Rabie, the nonprofit's president, said his organization focuses mostly on Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, because they are less well off than their Israeli counterparts, who have access to better education, jobs, and enjoy greater freedom of movement. West Bank Palestinians face checkpoints, restricted movement, and Israeli army incursions.
The organization comprises mostly lay members and has partnerships with American churches, regardless of denominations. In fact, the majority of funding comes from non-Arab-American Christians, Rabie said.
Christians make up about 2 percent of the Israeli population, according to the CIA World Factbook. Christians and those who are neither Muslim nor Jewish account for 8 percent of the West Bank population.
Most Americans are so unaware of Arab-Christians, Rabie says, that people, assuming he was born a Muslim, inquire when he converted.
“Christianity didn’t start from Rome for the Catholics or from England or another land,” Rabie said, referring to the religion’s birth in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In a nod to the region’s Christian heritage, as well as a future state, the Palestinian Authority recently asked UNESCO to place Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on its list of World Heritage sites. Rabie said recognition would help maintain the holy site and let the world know that “Bethlehem is a Palestinian town and the Holy Land is not only in Israel.”
Helping educate Americans about Arab Christians living in Palestine and their struggles is an important goal of the foundation and was a core reason for launching the nonprofit, Rabie said.
“I said, ‘My God if I can multiply [the National Presbyterian Church’s relationship with Birzeit] with a lot of churches around, look at what could happen for people to understand, and for people to change what is happening between the Americans and the Palestinians at large through the Christian faith.’”
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