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People Top 5
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- June 07, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 22
A Catholic Priest in Beirut, Father Ibrahim Ayad, Is Loyal to God, the Pope and the P.l.o.
Father Ayad, 69, professes to see no conflict between his spiritual and temporal loyalties. He serves with equal devotion as a Catholic priest in the Lebanese capital and as a Central Committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "When you work for the benefit of your people," he says evenly, "you are fulfilling your religious duty."
Maybe, but the realities of Middle East politics are seldom so simple—or placid. Mysterious rumors wafted around Father Ayad at the time of Israel's founding in 1948 and the convulsive Arab reaction to that event. An Israeli intelligence officer in Tel Aviv pointedly recalls that Jordan once put Ayad on trial for conspiring in the 1951 assassination of Jordanian King Abdullah (presumably by Arabs who deemed the King insufficiently steeled in his resolve to quash the new Jewish state). "I had nothing to do with it," Father Ayad protests, noting that the court ultimately acquitted him. Nonetheless, a Palestinian who knew him well in those days remarks wryly: "We realized he could hide a lot of things under that priestly robe."
A wraithlike figure five feet tall and weighing barely 100 pounds, Father Ayad hardly looks threatening. He was born in Bethlehem, the son of an Arab Catholic whose livelihood was carving rosaries. At 14, he entered the seminary of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, and he fondly recalls nine years of "an ordered life" preparing for the priesthood. But he also felt the first stirrings of Palestinian pride. "They made an Italian the head of my class," he recalls. "I protested that it must be an Arab. The Italian was changed," he adds, grinning, "and I was appointed president."
Ordained in 1937, he spent the next five years earning a civil law degree. In the turmoil that accompanied the British pullout from the mandate for Palestine after World War II, Ayad's legal expertise was put to use on the Arab Higher Committee, a council of elders that claimed leadership of Palestinian Arabs. With the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jews caught crossing into the Arab sector of Jerusalem were sometimes executed. "There was a time when a press correspondent was brought to our office," Father Ayad recounts. "He was an American and confessed to being a Jew, not realizing he had sealed his death sentence." The priest used all his persuasive power on the committee before he was able to tell the shaken reporter, "Go, you are free."
Though Ayad successfully defended himself against charges of complicity in the murder of King Abdullah, he spent two months in jail and was banished from Jordan. After a brief stay on Cyprus, he settled in Lebanon in 1951. Ironically, in today's strife-splintered Beirut, he could be killed if he tried to get to his church office in the Christian sector. As a Palestinian, he is anathema to the Maronite Christian militia holding East Beirut.
But with Arafat, whom Ayad first met in 1965, it was mutual admiration at first sight. "To me he is a genius, really honest and sincere," Ayad says of the PLO leader. Ostensibly the priest serves Arafat as liaison to Christian organizations (Ayad, for example, arranged a Rome meeting in March between Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican Secretary of State, and the de facto PLO foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi). But, togged in a frayed cassock and padre's cap and toting a worn black bag, he also has ranged Europe and Latin America as a PLO goodwill ambassador and courier. He flatly denies smuggling contraband on his foreign missions. "Arafat knows how I feel about those things," he says.
How does he reconcile himself to the PLO's terrorist reputation? "When you corner a cat and threaten his life, he has to defend himself," Father Ayad retorts. "We knocked on doors for 15 years and no one, not the U.N. or even the Arab states, would help us. We resorted to the only means left, armed resistance."
As for himself, he contends, "I've never done any harm to anybody. The only crime I'm guilty of is defending the cause of my people." Father Ayad sees no end to conflict and bloodshed but prays he may someday return to Jerusalem. "What I miss most," he says, "is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I used to say Mass in Christ's tomb itself. I felt spiritually at peace there."
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