By Claus Grue*
As a student back in the seventies, it took a while for Rifat Kassis to come to terms with being both a good Christian, and a Palestinian living under occupation. His call to become a reverend in the Lutheran Church in Palestine brought him to Germany to study theology 40 years ago. But his enthusiasm quickly faded when he realized the discrepancies between his own faith and the realities in his home country. Without any guidance or support from clergy, he felt he could not finish the studies, so he returned home and became politically active instead.
“Not only must religion and theology interact with reality, it must confront reality and play a role in shaping it”, Kassis points out.
He eventually finished his studies and came back to the church when a new generation of clergy with a new thinking emerged. With that, a more progressive atmosphere followed, embracing social, economic and human rights issues.
“Finally, I managed to see the balance between my faith and my belonging, so I became very active again in the church and its social institutions”, he explains.
Today, Kassis’s accomplishments show a lifetime commitment to a non-violent struggle for the Palestinian cause, where his Christian faith remains at the core of his engagement.
“Theology is not only about meditation and praying, it’s about understanding reality and the liberation of mankind and the oppressed. It is to see, understand and work for the oppressed”, Kassis says.
Local and global work
In 1988 he was appointed director for the YMCA rehab programs in the West Bank, and in 1992 he founded the first Palestinian independent Child Rights non-government organization, a national section of the Geneva-based global child rights movement, Defence for Children International (DCI). In the 1990s, he also gained international experience by representing ecumenical donor agencies in central Asia and by involvement in rehab programmes for Chechen children. In 2005, he was recruited to WCC in Geneva to lead the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
But perhaps most of all, Kassis, now 59, is known as one of the driving forces behind Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian movement advocating for ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just solution to the conflict.
“I’ve witnessed how the Kairos Document became flesh and an international movement. The document features hope and what hope means. Hope requires action. You cannot just let God act, you need to be the legs and arms of God. Without action, hope is just wishful thinking. But your actions should be encapsulated with love, which is the meaning and understanding of Kairos Palestine. You act in faith and love, and God will guide you”, he says.
He also points out that the bulk of the Palestinian resistance always has been a non-violent struggle, in spite of attempts by political opponents to portray it differently.
Having participated in the recent World Council of Churches (WCC) peace consultations in his hometown Beit Sahour, Kassis feels especially encouraged by the commitment reflected by the WCC, representing the wider ecumenical movement.
“I am confident that Kairos document will continue to be a core component in WCC’s overall advocacy work, and that the open letter from the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine (NCCOP) to the WCC and ecumenical movement can be a vehicle in this work”, he concludes.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.