Saturday, December 09, 2006

 

Trip Newsletter

The following is from a newsletter I wrote for my home church as I reflected upon our trip.

A Journey to the Holy Land

The Bible is filled with different images of the Holy Land: the majesty of God’s creation reflected in the mountains, deserts, and streams; the horrific battles between the Israelites and neighboring armies; the vision of a new Jerusalem where all people will gather in praise of God; Christ’s tears for the people of Jerusalem as they turn away from peace. As Mike and I traveled through Israel and Palestine for two weeks this November, we were greeted with similarly contrasting images. We witnessed violence, oppression, and suffering amidst the beauty of the Biblical landscape.

It was an amazing opportunity for us to deepen our faith as we experienced the land where our Savior walked and as we met Christians whose roots go back to the early church. As we visited the Old City of Jerusalem with its thousands of years of history, our own country’s few centuries of existence paled in comparison. We imagined ourselves living in the Holy Land and worshipping each week at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial – or visiting the garden tomb at the edge of the city, where some believe Jesus was buried. What would it be like to spend every Christmas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Christ was born? Or to drink from Jacob’s well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman? Or to wade in the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River? We would better appreciate Biblical history if we lived in this land surrounded by ancient archaeological sites: visiting palaces and fortresses built by Herod the Great, touching the remains of the outer wall of the temple, walking on Roman roads still in use today, seeing villages where Old Testament prophets were born, and visiting the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. As we took all this in, we felt amazed, spiritually enriched, full of peace, and deeply connected to the Bible.

Such feelings were in great tension with the reality of life we witnessed as we traveled beyond the tourist sites into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to towns like Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Ramallah. We soon found that most of the Biblical sites we had visited are not accessible to the Christians who live in the West Bank. Our sense of the holiness of the land was shattered by the ominous concrete wall surrounding Bethlehem, where we stayed for five nights with Palestinian Christian families. As a security defense for Israel, the wall creates a jagged border between Israel and the West Bank for nearly 100 miles. It encircles some Palestinian communities completely, divides one Palestinian town from another, and separates villagers from their own olive orchards and farmland. When we drove the short distance between Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we passed an Israeli military checkpoint before we reached the wall. This was easy for us as Americans, but most of the Christians we met in Bethlehem have been unable to leave that community for the past six years to work in other towns or go to Jerusalem for Christmas. This was one of the many checkpoints in Palestinian territory that our tour bus passed through with ease.

Only once did we begin to experience what Palestinians endure each day traveling from one town to another. When we arrived at Nablus, a Palestinian city that is the home of Jacob’s well, we had to leave our bus behind and cross through the checkpoint on foot. Although Nablus is located far from the Israeli border and is under Palestinian governance, Israeli soldiers monitored everyone who entered or exited the city. After touring Nablus by taxi, our group was held up as we neared the checkpoint to rejoin our bus. We joined a line of Palestinians waiting to cross the checkpoint on foot. Many of them were university students returning to their own towns at the end of the day. The women in our group made it through the checkpoint after about 20 minutes, but the men’s line was hardly moving, since Palestinian males were subject to lengthy questioning and searching. As I waited for my husband, I imagined myself as a Palestinian woman doing this each day, worrying that my husband might offend the Israeli soldiers. The men finally returned to the bus after an hour, but only because they had been allowed through the women’s line since they were Americans.

This is one example of the restriction of movement that has crippled the Palestinian economy since 2000. We were told that over 50% of Bethlehem residents are unemployed, and in every Palestinian town we found children begging on the streets. Teachers and other civic workers had been unpaid for months because the Palestinian Authority had not received its usual revenues from the international community. This foreign aid has been withheld since the democratic elections in January 2006, which resulted in a Palestinian government led by Hamas, a political party recognized by the US as a terrorist organization. In the midst of this difficult situation, we were saddened that during our trip around 80 people were killed in Gaza by the Israeli military, many of them women and children. In retaliation, a resistance group fired a homemade rocket into a nearby Israeli community, killing one resident. Although the complicated political situation and violent acts committed by both sides raise controversy in the US, we should not overlook the effect the conflict has on the lives of ordinary people. As Christians, we are called to pray for Jewish Israelis who are living in fear, Arab Israelis who are treated as second class citizens, and the many Palestinians who feel imprisoned in their suffering. As Christmas approaches, let us especially remember our fellow Christians who will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in a land devastated by war.

Hope in the Midst of Conflict

Many of the Christian leaders we met in Israel and Palestine told us that they no longer call their homeland the Holy Land because of the terrible violence that has taken place there. They prefer to call it the land of the Holy One, and it is this faith in God’s holiness that sustains them as they endure oppression. The Christians living in the land where Jesus was born are Palestinian Arabs. They are a minority community among the larger Jewish and Muslim populations. Some have Israeli citizenship. Many others live in the Occupied Territories, and we found that the Christian population there has been steadily shrinking as more and more families have immigrated to Europe, Canada, or the US. Some fear that the Christian population will disappear completely within a generation unless true is established in the region.

As visitors witnessing the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we often felt overwhelmed. What kept our spirits alive was our encounter with organizations working for peace and reconciliation, both Israeli and Palestinian, religious and non-religious, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. What gave me the most hope were the Christians we met who are so committed to the gospel of Christ that they are able to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. We drew hope from those who are determined to remain in their land despite the Israeli occupation, to support the Christian community, and to work for reconciliation. As followers of Christ they recognize that peace does not come through the military defeat of one people by another. True peace comes through reconciliation between people, and in this Christians have a great role to play by encouraging non-violence and forgiveness.

One Christian organization, the Middle East Fellowship, which is based in the US, supports Christian churches in the region and organizes tours, like the one we went on, for American Christians (www.middleeastfellowship.org). Another ministry that we encountered, called Jerusalem Evangelistic Outreach, is committed to sharing the gospel of Christ in the midst of the conflict. JEO helps sustain the faith of the Christian community in Israel and Palestine by supporting churches of all denominations, and it also provides food and humanitarian assistance to families that are the hardest hit by the conflict. This ministry is a strong witness to the love of Christ in a land full of injustice and hatred. Mike and I are partnering with JEO to help American churches learn about Christian work in the Holy Land. If you would like to learn more about this ministry, please contact me at deanna.womack@ptsem.edu.

— Deanna Womack

Comments:
If the "Palestinians" would stop committing acts of violence and terrorism, there would be no need for check points and a separation fence. The continued violence by choice necessitates the severe restrictions Israel imposes on the Arab Palestinians. What would the United States do under similar circumstances with the Mexican border? Turn the other cheek?
 
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