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Face to Face in the context of occupation – Faith in the face of Empire

Report by Elisabeth Sweeney on a Trip to Palestine August/September 2018

A visit to the Holy Land is something I have wanted to do for many years but it was only in April this year that an ideal opportunity presented itself via the Council for World Mission “Faith in the face of empire” programme. Along with 14 other hopefuls from the four corners of the world, students studying theology or conflict resolution or preparing for ministry, I set off to Palestine for a trip of a lifetime.

Face to Face Visit to PalestineThe trip was to last four weeks beginning with a weekend in Istanbul and a chance to visit the Hagia Sophia and a boat trip down the Bosphorus – the perfect opening into a different world for all of us. It was a chance for many who had endured very long flights to rest and for us all to start to get to know each other. The CWM representative Sudipta Singh from Singapore, as well as our host from Bethlehem Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, joined us to explain what we could expect of the trip and what was expected of us by way of written assignments during the month ahead.

Flying into Tel Aviv we were taken by air-conditioned minibus (thankfully) to Galilee where we stayed in the Hotel Tiberias. The visit to the ruins of the synagogue which Jesus attended in Capernaum as well as the ruins of the home of Peter’s mother-in-law and the ride on a boat on the lake Galilee was a wonderful introduction to the places where so many miracles and teachings of Jesus, after he left Nazareth, took place. The month to follow was packed with similar such visits to places of special religious interest as well as sites highlighting the more difficult political issues facing Palestinians and Israelis.

Our accommodation for the majority of the trip was in the West Bank at the International Conference centre attached to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Our hosts and guides were in the main Palestinian Christians (Greek Orthodox or Lutheran denominations). Bethlehem itself is 80% Arab Muslim and 20% Arab Christian. As well as numerous visits across the West Bank and in Jerusalem, to shrines and church buildings (due to religious Jewish and Muslim holidays it was not easy to access synagogues or mosques) we were fortunate enough to attend several Christian services including the Lutheran Evangelical service in Bethlehem conducted in Arabic. A very warm welcome was extended at a service at St. Georges Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem where a child baptismal service was conducted in Arabic/English – we joined drinks afterwards under the shade of grapefruit trees. The following Sunday I and an Indian Mizorum participant went into West Jerusalem to a Baptist American service where ice cream instead of tea was served afterwards – our first and last over the month! Visits to the Western Wall were interesting as we watched families celebrate the first visit to the wall of boys who had done their bar mitzvah – as expected male and female were separated for the actual wall festivities. But by far the most significant service for me was the Syriac Orthodox one in Bethlehem. A very impressively decorated curtain was draped across the altar as I entered the building and then as the pews began to fill up with ladies with lace head coverings and the men sitting on opposite sides, one of the 8 priests in white pulled the curtain back to reveal a long bearded man in gold and red robes who I took to be the “chief priest”. What a sight! The whole service was very ceremonial (slightly lighter touch than the Greek Orthodox wedding we had attended) and conducted in Aramaic so obviously I had no idea what was being said or sung but there was such a sense of reverence that I felt guilty trying to record some of it for the church back home to enjoy!

Sunday was a special day but each day of the week offered us so much richness in experience. From visiting a refugee camp in Bethlehem, the UN organisation coordinating the humanitarian relief in the West Bank, the Banksy Walled Off hotel opposite the huge concrete wall around Bethlehem, the visit to Jericho the oldest inhabited city in the world and the mountain of temptation in the desert heat, to the visit to the Samaritan community and their offer to accept women of child bearing age to help them combat extinction of the 800 remaining Samaritans! The whole programme was managed by CWM in collaboration with the International Bethlehem Centre and we felt so privileged and safe as we traversed the West Bank, the desert and the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem. The highlights included a wonderful visit to a gallery of Palestinian art and we were treated to a cooking lesson and a music festival of local youth who were taking an Arts degree at the DAR Al-Kalima college.

It goes without saying that all the activities were taking place against the background of inequality of opportunity and access to essential services due to the poor outcomes since the Oslo Accord of 1993. The various trips on the Arab bus from Bethlehem to the Damascus gate in East Jerusalem (Arab part) and back clearly identified the necessity to hold the right sort of Identity card – unless you had a Jerusalem ID, a tourist passport or a special permit for Palestinian ID holders then you were not able to pass into the Greater Jerusalem region. The most striking aspect of the political situation, in addition to the awful concrete wall around Bethlehem, the wire fences across the open countryside as we passed through, the jewish settlements on Palestinian land, was the presence of uniformed juveniles holding automatic weapons on the many check-points. At no stage did I see anyone in uniform of mature appearance – all seemed under 20 years old and yet they were responsible for calming down tense situations which in many respects they were creating by their nonchalant power games in taking time to lift a barrier for a car or in making a decision to allow someone to stay on a bus.

The political disappointment felt by many on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem about the role of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate on behalf of the ordinary Palestinians was very clear. A sense of abandonment by the Arab neighbouring countries and a lack of hope in the character of the politicians, mainly wealthy ex Palestinian Liberation Organisation members who do not live in Palestine, has led many to believe the only way forward is for a one state rather than two state solution.

I finish this very brief report on what was a full and fascinating month in the heat of the Israeli/Palestine cauldron by quoting what our host Rev Dr Mitri Raheb has put on a stone pillar outside the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Bethlehem.

“God has put us in the right place, Bethlehem: at the right time, though difficult; with the right vision and people, to proclaim the gospel of liberation and lift up a culture of life and hope.”

It was a privilege to spend a little time with such people of faith in the face of Empire.
Elisabeth Sweeney