When a Jewish school choir asked to perform at the cultural center at St. Paul’s Church in Shefa’amr, Galilee, the rector, the Rev. Canon Fuad Dagher, seized the opportunity to build bridges.

“I invited some parents of our local Arab community to come and to bring their children,” he said Oct. 11 during a visit to the Diocese of Los Angeles, with which his home diocese, Jerusalem and the Middle East, has a companion relationship.

“This is part of our calling, to be able to facilitate the sense of being together. Here were Jewish children, in our Episcopal Church, and they sang the Ave Maria,” he told The Episcopal News. “It was stunning, really moving to see it.”

Afterwards, Jewish and Arab parents and children gathered in the parish hall for refreshments and conversation.

“I thought, wow, why can’t our Israeli politicians and leaders who are the decision-makers do the same thing?” Dagher said. “See how simple it is; a Jewish kid with an Arab sitting here doing music, chanting, smiling.”

His ministry of building bridges is legendary in the Arab city in Galilee’s northern district where, as in much of Israel, peace is more often a desire than a reality.

Located about eight miles from the Mediterranean Sea and about 95 miles north of Jerusalem, Shefa’amr’s population is about 40,000. The majority is Sunni Muslim, with Druze and Christian minorities, and all are welcomed to the center, he said.

Dagher was in Los Angeles to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of St. Paul’s sister congregation, the Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel. Dagher preached Oct. 8 at the church and addressed a gathering of ICUJP (Interfaith Community United for Justice and Peace), a group founded by the Rev. Canon George Regas, retired rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, and which advocates that “religious communities must stop blessing war and violence.”

Dagher also attended the Oct. 7 farewell celebration in Riverside for Bishop Jon and Mary Bruno, and met with Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor and with Troy Elder and the Rev. Pat O’Reilly, co-chairs of the diocesan Program Group on Global Partnership.

A cultural center dedicated to peace and reconciliation

A little more than 16 years ago, Dagher was newly ordained, newly married, and the new rector of St. Paul’s, and nurturing a huge dream: to build a cultural center for all people on an untended lot adjacent to the church — a place where Sunni Muslims, the Druze and members of various Christian denominations, including the Maronites, the Latins, the Melkite Greek Catholic, the Greek Orthodox and Episcopal churches, could gather.

In 2004, he met the Rev. Canon Denis O’Pray, then Our Saviour’s rector, and members of the congregation, including Canons Sandy and Sue Smock. It was the beginning of an abiding friendship that has grown to encompass meetings with Bishop Jon and Mary Bruno, and contributed to the companion relationship between the two dioceses.

Partnering with the L.A. diocese, Our Saviour and others, Dagher purchased the land and enlisted local townspeople to renovate the existing building. The center was dedicated in June 2011.

In addition to the Jewish choir, the center has hosted a recent breast cancer awareness workshop and fundraiser, has showcased local artists and hosted educational workshops, and served as a hub for interfaith and ecumenical gatherings.

In October 2016, Dagher was designated diocesan canon for reconciliation by the Rt. Rev. Suheil Dawani, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and primate of the Middle East, which includes 25 congregations in Jerusalem, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

As he expands his ministry, Dagher is “proud to say that every single parish of our diocese is focusing on interfaith and ecumenical work, on themes of peace-building and reconciliation. Being a priest there, you can’t help but be involved in that.”

Ministry in challenging times; church as the community’s heart

In a nation divided for decades, tensions between Arabs and Israelis have increased markedly in recent years, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace, an agency dedicated to Middle East peace. An Oct. 16, 2017 New York Times article noted the government’s intention to move ahead with Israeli settlements on the West Bank, even though most of the world considers the settlements, built in the territory that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war — the heartland of any future Palestinian state — to be a violation of international law.

Despite challenging political and economic realities, the people maintain “something I have never experienced anywhere else, a very strong sense of belonging to the church,” Dagher said. “The church is something very valuable, precious; it plays an important role in their lives. They cannot be without the church.”

Unlike the U.S.’s separation of church and state, in Israel the church is expected to be involved in the community, he said, “from the smallest issues up to the greatest.”

Dagher said that the complexities of life and the culture sometimes factor into the challenges: “We are Arabs, but not Muslims. We are Palestinians, but not terrorists. We are Christians, but not new converts to Christianity. We are Israeli, but not Jews. We are Anglicans, but not British.

“Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. We are Arab Christians and we trace our origins to the very first Pentecost,” he said.

Yet Palestinian Christians who are also Israeli citizens are lobbying for equality, instead of being treated as second-class citizens, Dagher said. For example, the government reduced funding for Christian schools but not Jewish schools in Israel and Galilee, an action affecting about 33,000 Episcopal school students. The action jeopardizes the schools’ existence, he said.

For those living in the West Bank, the situation is even worse. It is “hell on earth” with residents’ access to basic services severely limited, he said.

Among the most pressing issues are providing young people with a sense of community as well as offering practical aid, such as developing jobs and educational opportunities for them, he said.

Peace-making, bridge-building, hope for the future

Dagher said he wanted to thank the Brunos and the Los Angeles diocese and its people for their support and solidarity, and encouraged a continued deepening of the relationship.

“We are your ambassadors in the land where it all started,” he said. “Therefore we challenge you people to be our ambassadors in your communities, your churches, and we complete each other. We can’t do it by ourselves.”

The cultural center is a symbol of what can happen “when people put their hands together with each other; wonders and miracles can take place,” he said.

Like a group of Jewish kids singing and chanting in an Arab Episcopal church center in Galilee. “To see those kids, to see their faces, which shed peace and love and happiness … I thought, ‘this is heaven. What more do you need?’”

He hopes future partnerships could include linking schools between the two dioceses. And he has another huge dream: to build a kindergarten school near the church on land purchased with the help of partners.

“So many Americans have been in our part of the world where many people think it is hopeless, darkness, that it won’t work out. But the church is always sending this message of hope, of willingness to work despite all of the challenges we face and we can do it together.”

He added: “Your solidarity with my people means a lot. Your visits are a sign of this solidarity. You can’t imagine how important it is for us to have you come and visit and meet our people and tell them how much you love them and stand in support of them, because we need it.”

He added: “We walk the Via Dolorosa every day. Sometimes the cross becomes too heavy for us. But, because of people like you here in the diocese and the Church of Our Saviour who are willing to walk with us … to walk and talk with us, it helps us carry this heavy cross. And it helps us fulfill God’s calling and God’s mission in his land, and in your part of the world.

“And then we will all really be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”