In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a bishop is traditionally seen as a living icon of Jesus Christ. He is to be the good shepherd who leads his flock by example, and serves them by continually putting their well-being above his own. Of course, few bishops come anywhere close to living up to such lofty expectations. Yet, among the few who do, we can count Archbishop Atallah (Theodosios) Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, who has for decades not only tirelessly fought for the human rights of his Orthodox flock in Palestine, but for all Palestinians—Christian or Muslim.
Born in 1965 to Orthodox Christian parents in the occupied Palestinian town of al-Rameh, Archbishop Atallah has never known a time when his people were free. Free, that is, from the racist and brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine. However, instead of accepting the status quo, he has devoted his entire life to fighting for a free Palestine. But as the only Arab hierarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, he has often found little support from his fellow bishops. While the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s jurisdictional area consists of Palestine, Jordan, and Israel, and its membership is overwhelmingly Arab, the church is run by a small clique of ethnic Greek bishops who have little interest in the Palestinian struggle. In fact, the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, which is second only to Israel itself in the amount of Palestinian land it owns, is known for repeatedly making under-the-table deals with the Zionist regime and selling away the Palestinian people’s birthright (see here). Nevertheless, despite being surrounded, and at times even persecuted, by corrupt church leaders, Archbishop Atallah has continued to represent the bulk of the Church of Jerusalem’s membership by devoting his entire being to the Palestinian cause.
Archbishop Atallah believes that in order to achieve a free and sovereign Palestinian state that there must be unity among the Palestinian people, both politically and spiritually. Yet, Christians makeup only about 6 percent of the population of an overwhelmingly Muslim Palestine—a number which has dropped tenfold since the beginning of the occupation, with 35 percent of the Christian population being expelled by Israel during the 1948 Nakba alone. However, despite being a part of a statistical minority in Palestine, Archbishop Atallah does not see himself as a “minority.” This is because he believes that the concept of religious discrimination is something essentially foreign to the Palestinian mentality. In truth, spiritual unity for Palestinians has always been manifested in the worship of the God of Abraham. Archbishop Atallah has stated that Palestine is one nation, and that the Palestinian in the church and the Palestinian in the mosque both pray to the one God to grant their oppressed people freedom from the yoke of Zionism.
Archbishop Atallah has always made this vision of spiritual unity a key part of his activism. In July 2017, for example, Israel used the killing of two of its police officers as a pretext to begin placing restrictions on al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa, which is located on the Temple Mount, is revered as the third holiest site by Muslims, as it is believed that the Prophet Muhammad visited it during his Night Journey. Nevertheless, Israeli officials installed cameras and metal detectors at the entrances of the mosque, refusing entry to worshippers who would not go through the checkpoints. Palestinians saw such measures as not only meant to further humiliate them, but also to help pave the way for Israel to eventually hand over control of the mosque to Jewish extremists. Therefore, Palestinians refused to take part in the new “security” measures. This meant that Israel had now essentially barred Palestinians from worshipping in al-Aqsa itself.
While much of the Western world presented the issue as a solely Muslim-Jewish one, Archbishop Atallah did not see it that way at all. For him, it was a matter of justice for his fellow Palestinians. In response, he called upon all Orthodox Christians in Palestine to show their support for a free al-Aqsa and to join their Muslim compatriots in a procession to the holy site. Many Orthodox Palestinians, as well as members of other Christian churches, heeded Archbishop Atallah’s call for solidarity. In fact, as crowds of Muslims prayed outside of the mosque, many Christians, along with Archbishop Atallah himself, took part in their own prayers. The archbishop was quoted by one news source as saying: “The churches of Jerusalem declared their solidarity with al-Aqsa Mosque and we are here today to affirm our solidarity with our Muslim brothers. Those who target al-Aqsa Mosque are the same ones who target our Christian endowments that are seized and stolen illegally.” For him, it was one struggle, regardless of religious affiliation.
In truth, Archbishop Atallah believes that his Christian faith compels him to stand with Muslims against the Israeli occupation. This may seem surprising to some in the West, particularly to those from Evangelical or other politically right-wing Protestant denominations. Many Protestants in the West, especially in the US, tend to believe that Palestine has been promised by God to the Jewish people, and that the modern state of Israel is the fulfilment of this divine pledge. However, Archbishop Atallah rejects such theology as being at odds with the message of the Gospel, and does not consider Christian Zionists to be followers of Jesus.
In terms of the belief that God promised the land of Palestine to the Jewish people, the archbishop has on a number of occasions pointed out that Christian Zionists confuse the promises of the Lord God with those of Lord Balfour. Archbishop Atallah reminds people that Jesus’s entire life on earth was centred around ministering to the poor, the downtrodden, those mistreated and rejected by the powerful. Jesus’s message defied the power of the Roman Empire itself. Yet, Christian Zionists promote the belief that God wants Palestinians cleansed from their land on racial and religious grounds. This is part of the reason why Archbishop Atallah, along with leaders of other Christian denominations in Palestine, put together the Kairos Palestine document. Inspired by a similar document produced by South African church leaders during the 1980s apartheid, the work lays out the horrors that Christians, and all Palestinians, face under the Israeli occupation, as well as the importance of the Christian message in combating this injustice. One very poignant paragraph states:
Our connectedness to this land is a natural right. It is not an ideological or a theological question only. It is a matter of life and death. There are those who do not agree with us, even defining us as enemies only because we declare that we want to live as free people in our land. We suffer from the occupation of our land because we are Palestinians. And as Christian Palestinians we suffer from the wrong interpretation of some theologians. Faced with this, our task is to safeguard the Word of God as a source of life and not of death, so that “the good news” remains what it is, “good news” for us and for all. In face of those who use the Bible to threaten our existence as Christian and Muslim Palestinians, we renew our faith in God because we know that the word of God can not be the source of our destruction.
It should also be stated that it is undoubtedly the case that most Christian Zionists hold such an un-Christian belief because of their Islamophobia—something which the Western media, and Israel itself, likes to exploit. This is why Archbishop Atallah’s refusal to buy into any sort of Christian-Muslim dichotomy makes him so dangerous in the eyes of Israel. He completely undoes the false narrative that Israel is fighting against Islamist extremists, and instead reveals to the world that Zionism is the extremist ideology which has victimized Muslims and Christians for decades.
In light of this, it is no surprise then that Israel has continually targeted Archbishop Atallah. In fact, just last December, the Orthodox leader was hospitalized for poisoning after an Israeli military gas canister was lobbed into his church in what many, including himself, believe to have been an attack ordered by Israeli authorities. Yet, it would not have been the first time that Archbishop Atallah had been targeted by Israel. In 2002, he was detained by Israeli police outside of his Jerusalem home. The archbishop was accused of supporting terrorist organizations and entering enemy countries—Lebanon and Syria—illegally. For this, the hierarch was interrogated for hours and had both his Israeli and Vatican passports confiscated. All of this was, of course, the result of Israel’s fear that Archbishop Atallah was going to help build stronger political bonds between Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. However, as an Orthodox hierarch, he pointed out that he should have the right to visit neighbouring countries in order to serve various Orthodox communities, and that an occupying government should not be able to restrict his, nor any other Palestinian’s, right to travel abroad.
This brings us to another important element of his program for freeing Palestine: Arab nationalism. Archbishop Atallah believes deeply in the right of all Arab peoples to break free from imperialist control, and to become truly independent. This is why he has voiced his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, both of which have fought tirelessly against the brutal Israeli, Western, and Gulf interference in their respective homelands. Moreover, while the archbishop believes that religion should, and will, play a major role in liberating Palestine, he does not want his people to form a theocracy. He argues that no matter what a Palestinian’s views on religion are, he/she remains united in their Arab identity. Further, he outright rejects the concept of a two-state solution. All the land currently occupied by Israel is to be a part of a united Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital. He envisions the future Palestinian state to be an exceptional one: it is to be truly democratic, and all of its citizens, whether Arab or Jewish, are to be treated equally.
Inspired by a profound faith in a just and loving God, Archbishop Atallah continues to be one of the most prominent figures of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation. Regardless of all the difficulties he has faced, the Orthodox hierarch has never wavered in his mission to liberate his suffering people. In truth, Archbishop Atallah represents the unbreakable spirit of the Palestinian people who, despite being endlessly subjected to persecution at the hands of Israel, continue to hope and strive for the day when Palestine will finally be free.