The Right Reverend Riah Abu El-Assal is the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. He is an Arab, a Palestinian and a passionate worker for peace in the Middle East.
Riah was born in Nazareth. When the State of Israel was created in 1948, Riah was 12 and happened to be on holiday in Lebanon with his family. Overnight the family became refugees and it took Riah's father 10 years to obtain legal permission for the family to return to their home in Nazareth, which had become part of Israel.
Riah was educated in the European tradition in the 1960s. He attended Bishop's College in Calcutta and the United Theological College in Bangalore. Throughout his graduate studies in the 1970s and following his ordination as an Episcopal priest, he studied Islam. On a visit to America in 1995 he said, "I'm a member of the Arab nation, predestined to live with Islam and they with us. If we want to continue to live in the Middle East as Christians, we need to have a better understanding of Islam."
He served as rector of Nazareth's Christ Church where he worked as a pastor, community leader and champion of Palestinian identity. He became actively involved in the political life of his nation and was a founder of the Nazareth Democratic Front. In 1975 he won a seat in the municipal elections. The following year he co-founded the Committee for the Defence of Arab Land, which organised the first Land Day strike on March 30, 1976.
In 1981 Riah was involved in the formation of the Progressive Movement in Nazareth. Three years later this evolved into a new Arab-Jewish political party, the Progressive List for Peace (PLP). Riah was elected secretary-general in 1985. In the same year, he made a visit as part of a six-person (three Arabs, three Jews) Israeli delegation to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Tunis headquarters. In mid 1986, the Israeli government banned Riah from travelling abroad. No charges were filed but one can only assume that it was because of his political activities. This ban was lifted in January 1991 and Riah resumed his active travel and speaking schedule.
On the 6th of January 1998 he was consecrated as the Anglican (Episcopal) Bishop of Jerusalem. The Diocese he represents includes Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well as Israel/Palestine.
Bishop Riah's commitment to the Arab people and his fellow Palestinians is well known. His own personal example of ecumenism and religious tolerance makes him ideally suited to his current role. He continues to seek the way of peace, truth and reconciliation in a land where many obstacles still remain. Pam Evans met Riah at Christ Church Nazareth when he was Archdeacon. She was immensely impressed with Riah who moved her to tears when he told her stories about the pain and struggles of his people and of his own efforts to make peace between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in his country.
On one occasion when Bishop Riah was stopped and asked if he was carrying any weapons he answered yes. He was ordered by tense Israeli soldiers to move to a safe distance and take the "weapon" out of his suitcase. He complied and slowly removed a Bible saying, "This is the only weapon I have ever carried: the only weapon I have ever needed."
If asked, Bishop Riah will describe himself as a peace activist. When he received news of the Peace Mala his response was:
"Salaam and grace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and blessed greetings to you from Jerusalem. I hope that this finds you well.
Thank you for your letter and for all the information you sent me on the Peace Mala. I appreciate your kindness and find your project very interesting. Please be assured of my support in such an important undertaking and of my endorsement of your mission.
Know that this comes with my prayers and best wishes,
+ The Right Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal"