ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bishop Selim Sayegh: the Complete Interview

ONE: First tell us a little bit of your background. Where did you grow up?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: I was born in a small village called Rumaimeen in 1935. This is a village surrounded by a lot of fruit trees and bushes, and gardens with a lot of springs. My father was a farmer whose income was not enough for the family, so he migrated in 1943 to Mafraq, where there was a station for the Iraq Petroleum Company. At that time, young people from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon came looking for jobs, since this project was planning to pump petrol from Iraq through Jordan, then to the Port of Haifa in Palestine. In Mafraq, my father took to trading and shoe repairing, but did not succeed.

After finishing the fourth grade, I went from Mafraq to the [Latin] seminary in Beit Jala in 1947. In 1956, my eldest brother migrated to the United States, and the whole family followed in 1962.

ONE: You’ve said that you knew at a very young age that you wanted to be a priest. Tell us about that. What attracted you to the priesthood?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: In my youth in Rumaimeen and Mafraq, I had not considered becoming a priest. Towards the end of the 1946-1947 school year, one of the seminary priest came to Mafraq to meet my cousin Issa, who showed interest in becoming a priest. However, his parents obtained visas to migrate to America. Issa went with them and forgot the idea of becoming a priest. Then the parish priest, Father Fouad Hijazeen, offered to send me to the seminary instead of Issa. At that time I was visiting my uncle in Rumaimeen. My father took me from Rumaimeen to Mafraq at the end of the summer vacation. On the way he asked me, “Do you want to enter the seminary?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He then had to secure a passport for me, because Beit Jala was in Palestinian territory.

A few months after I entered the seminary, Israel invaded Palestine and the West Bank came under Jordanian occupation.

You are asking me, “What attracted me to the priesthood?” I answer: at that time, I did not know. Later, I would gradually discover that “Jesus who resides in the tabernacle” is the one who invited me to him. My confidence in my calling was never in doubt in the course of my life, except when trying the monastic life in Latroun. I was very much into their style of life, their silence, faith and holiness. But I also realized quickly that their lives demanded a rigid strictness that is not in me, so I left the idea of joining them.

ONE: One of your most important initiatives has been Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman. Where did you get that idea?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: Our Lady of Peace Center addressed two prominent needs of the Church in Jordan. The first need is the service of the handicapped. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem established its schools and charitable institutions in Jordan in the middle of 19th century, but it has no institution or activity to look after the handicapped in Jordan. They are the poorest of the poor and most in need of services and help. I saw that the church should have a place to perform her duty and witness to Christian charity in this field. In 1992 we have established a “Faith and Light” team, which is celebrating its 20th year of foundation in Jordan and its 40th year worldwide.

The second need is to assist the church youth movements. The Christian youth in Jordan did not have any place for their spiritual retreats, camps, and other activities. In addition to this, Jordan was and still is the only country in the Middle East that welcomes those coming from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the nations of Europe and other countries. Many times, convents and organizations related to the Church ask us to arrange a place for their meetings in the Middle East.

ONE: Can you tell us about the work of the center? What are some of the services and projects it provides?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: The center provides physiotherapy with a computer lab, and teaches skills that enable the especially handicapped to help themselves become part of society. The center provides a specialized doctor for those severely handicapped — one who meets with their family members to guide them and teach them how to deal, how to accept and love them as they are. What is most important is for the handicapped to feel that he is loved by the people around him. What is the use if we provide material necessities, but then do not extend our hand to share — if we feel too weak to give them a smile?

The center also welcomes the youth and different congregations for their camps and spiritual retreats, on both the local and regional levels.

The center provides several services for the handicapped in the level of Jordanian Society.

* The Aqaba Authority gave Our Lady of Peace Center a piece of land in Aqaba to build a center. The center was built and is now functioning, thanks to the generosity of good people from within and outside the Kingdom, especially the generosity of Manos Unidas in Spain. Now it provides tremendous services for handicapped in Aqaba.

* The center provides physiotherapy to handicapped in Anjara, Fuheis, Mafraq, Zarqa and soon the village of Sakhra, in the north of Ajloun, which has an all-Muslim population. The same is true of Al-Sa’dieh, where the center established the Faith and Light team to care for the handicapped.

* The center organizes voluntary works to bring to the attention of the citizens the importance of the people with special needs, their rights, their dignity and their place in society. These missions are done by a group of Our Lady of Peace Center volunteers in Amman, Anjara, Aqaba, Fuheis, Madaba, Mafraq and Zarqa. They have many activities; for example, they organized rallies in Aqaba, Madaba, Mafraq and Zarqa to raise awareness of the importance of the handicapped and their rights in society. In Aqaba, more than 15 doctors volunteered their services to the especially handicapped — only to those bearing a card from Our Lady of Peace Center. In Madaba, we work with more than 25 doctors.

ONE: Why do you feel this center has been so important and meaningful?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: The center came with a new vision and a new system, which brings together Muslims and Christians of their own free will to help the poorest of the poor. We aim to build upon the human and religious values that they have in common, to bring down the walls of selfishness and to provoke the human conscience.

All services are free to Christians and Muslims alike. Mostly benefiting from this are the Muslims. For example, in the center’s school for the handicapped, for this year, there is only one Christian child, all the rest are Muslims. In the past, there was not a single Christian. All those who benefited from &severe,severely handicapped” program were Muslims.

The services of the center strengthen the patriotic unity, develop understanding and attract Jordanian society’s attention to the needs of the handicapped — their right to a decent life among their families, the community and the country.

The center brings together its volunteers to help the handicapped not only according to the human or patriotic values, but also the common religious motives. The Jordanian society, with its Christian and Muslim populations, is a deeply religious society. And despite the differences between the two religions, they have a common foundation that unites and does not disperse. Muslims and Christians believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth. They believe that God is the source of human dignity and has mercy for all. On this common foundation of faith the volunteers meet to serve the handicapped inside and outside of the center.

As a result of this human, patriotic and religious vision of the Jordanian citizens, the center began a Christian-Muslim dialogue. Our Lady of Peace Center became a bridge, connecting citizens to help the poorest of the poor and to bind them to those less fortunate in life.

ONE: What are some of the challenges facing the people of Jordan today? How can the Church help them?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: Jordan is now passing through a difficult political and economic stage and we pray to God that we can overcome all it in peace. We all know that achieving the best is not done by one push on the button or remote control, but it needs a strong will, time, planning, work and lots of sacrifices.

Regarding Christian and Muslim relations: For more than 15 years, the Ministry of Education made the decision to teach Christian religion in government schools, but refused to implement it until now.

There are verses in the Quran that express total religious freedom like: “There is no enforcement in religion. … Whoever will, can have faith and whoever does not believe, is free. If God wants, He would have made people one nation.” But these verses are not lived out. The Muslim is still not free to change his religion. The Christian who becomes a Muslim loses his religious freedom. It is known in Arabic countries that religion has a civil dimension. For example, a Christian wife cannot inherit from her Muslim husband just because she is a Christian.

Tools of communication, like Facebook and YouTube, operate outside of the state’s control. The question the Church the poses is: How can we use these to make the youth, as Christian believers, turn their attention to their Christian faith and to spread Christian ethics? The technological advances have been great and fast for years, but they have changed our lives and diminished lots of good social habits. This creates many difficulties in raising children.

Those responsible for Islamic religious education in the government schools have become fundamentalists. They are raising the new graduates to refuse the non-Muslims. Christians on the rural level are suffering from the negative results of this upbringing. All books of Arabic language — including geography and history — are full of Quranic verses and our children in schools are obliged to learn them by heart.

We try to transcend difficulties like these in Our Lady of Peace Center, where all services are free. It has 22 employees with monthly salaries. The biggest concern is the employees’ salaries, water, electricity and heating in winter. We are knocking on doors. Some of them are shut in our faces, but some do open. We are depending on God, so that the center can go ahead with the work, to increase the awareness of the Jordanian society on the value of the handicapped as a human being and to promote Christian-Muslim unity.

ONE: What are your thoughts on the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: The state does not consider the Iraqi migrants in Jordan as migrants, but as guests. Lawfully, they are not under the migrants’ laws and regulations. They are living in peace and enjoy security and privileges that cost the Jordanian government millions yearly. The government, for example, supports “bread for all” Jordanians and non-Jordanians. A minority from the Iraqi migrants is rich and does not need any support.

The Church helps them in any way possible, especially through the Caritas Jordan and the Pontifical Mission. As for services for Iraqi Catholics and Syrian Catholic, they are provided at the parish level.

Our Lady of Peace Center has received many Iraqis who are handicapped.

ONE: How has the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission been able to help your ministry and the people of Jordan?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: The Pontifical Mission has contributed a lot to Our Lady of Peace Center; it assists parishioners with funding for Christian education, Christian youth camps, schools, the poor, Iraqis, the Clerical Institute in Iraq and the library. At this time, I take upon myself to offer my thanks and appreciation to the Pontifical Mission for all that it has given and still gives as aid to the church and the Jordanian people.

We all trust that the collaboration between the Pontifical Mission and Our Lady of Peace Center will last, so that it can continue to serve the handicapped freely to the glory of God. Jesus said: “Let them see your good works, that they will give glory to your Father in heaven.”

ONE: What do you hope to do in the future?

Bishop Selim Sayegh: I will reside in the Our Lady of Peace Center. I will have plenty of time to meditate and pray. The new bishop will be responsible for the center. I will be assisting Father Hanna Kildani, the parish priest for Marj Al Hamam. I will help the priests in confessions, in youth camps and spiritual retreats in the center. I will be ready for any service asked by the patriarch or the new bishop.

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