Easter should be a time of joy and celebration, yet for Christians in Beit Sahour and other parts of Palestine it is a time that tests one’s faith. It is a time to give thanks to God in the midst of endless uncertainty, humiliation, confinement and growing poverty. It is a time when one must go through the motions of celebration and be faithful even when God seems distant. And so it was these past three weeks in Beit Sahour. Things were relatively quiet but very tense. Everyone; both Israeli and Palestinian was waiting for the expected retaliation of Hamas to the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader, Sheik Yassin.
Upon arrival at the Bethlehem checkpoint that first afternoon I was amazed to see a huge concrete section of ‘the Wall’ jetting up 8 meters or 24 feet deep inside what was once land belonging to Bethlehem. Three months ago it had been a barb wire fence. The entire Bethlehem district is slowly being strangled by a series of walls, fences, settlements and bypass roads. Several days after our arrival, a 16 year old Palestinian boy was shot and killed at the checkpoint for throwing rocks. Such things are so common that they are rarely if ever reported in the West.
The entire West Bank was under complete closure the whole time we were there. Closure is a network of road blocks and checkpoints authorized by Israeli military orders that prohibit Palestinians from moving on certain roads, entering certain areas or requiring special permits for them to do so. This in effect confines the local people to their own district and many times their own towns and villages. Palestinians who work or go to school in other parts of the West Bank are forced to try to find ways around checkpoints and roaming bands of soldiers. We heard frightening stories from university students traveling home to Beit Sahour for Easter. One group, who arrived at the first checkpoint with permits in hand, had their IDs confiscated by the soldiers. They were made to stand at the checkpoint under guard from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 10 o’clock that night when the soldiers finally returned their IDs and told them to go back. Thankfully the next day they were allowed to pass and after many hours made it safely home. As Americans we were able to move around quite freely. Even so we thought it prudent not to travel much beyond the Bethlehem district and Jerusalem.
We did have to venture out to Tel Aviv one day to get visas for travel to Jordan. As always the Jordanian Embassy was very courteous and issued our visas promptly. Since we were so close we decide to visit the beautifully restored old city of Jaffa which is now basically a part of Tel Aviv. The little narrow streets of Old Jaffa are lined with charming shops, galleries and restaurants, but unfortunately when we arrived there in the afternoon everything was closed and the place was utterly deserted. Most Israelis, fearing another suicide bombing, were staying away from public places.
During our stay we made four trips to Jerusalem, combining business and mission with the wonder of just being in the Old City. Because of the expected retaliation from Hamas the city was crawling with security personnel, armed soldiers and the usual settlers carrying machine guns. Despite all this, Jerusalem remains one of the most wonderful places in all the world – this city of peace which knows no peace. It is an intricate mixture of Jewish, Christian and Islamic history and holy places. Conquerors have come and gone yet it remains. I was very glad to see that a few tourists and pilgrims had braved the dire warnings and predictions and had come to Jerusalem for Easter. Most of the tourists it seemed were from Greece, Cyprus, and Eastern Europe. For the first time in years we were not the only ones in the churches and holy places. The long suffering shopkeepers were cautiously optimistic that they might actually have a customer. We made our rounds of meetings and visits and then many times just acted like tourist ourselves visiting our favorite churches, holy sites, shops, and restaurants. By late afternoon we inevitably met our friend and driver, Hanni, by the Jaffa Gate or caught a cab back to the DCO checkpoint in Beit Jala in order to avoid the main checkpoint in Bethlehem. At the DCO checkpoint we were never asked for our passports and only one time did we actually see a soldier so much for absolute security.
One morning a friend had arranged a very special tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. We arrived early and met our guide by the Damascus Gate. For the next several hours he took us through the alleys, tunnels and backstreets of the Old City. We learned of the 17 different settler groups operating in the Old City whose mission is to displace resident Palestinians. Little by little Christian and Muslim families, who have lived in Jerusalem for centuries, are being forced out by a series of racially motivated discriminatory laws, poverty and scare tactics. They have no recourse but to leave and in doing so become stateless refugees. The Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters of the Old City are being repopulated by ever expanding numbers of Jewish residents.
Many permits were issued by the Israeli authorities over the holidays allowing Christians permission to go to Jerusalem to pray in the churches. My dearest friend, Suzan Sahouri, had received a permit and it was decided that she and her two daughters, Salam and Luna, would go with us to Jerusalem the Thursday before Easter. We had all wanted to attend the foot washing ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Suzan had no trouble at the checkpoint in fact they did not even ask to see her permit or ID. Others, we found out later, had arrived at the checkpoint only to have their permits torn up by the soldiers and were forced to turn back. After leaving the crowd at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we went to the American Colony Hotel and had a lovely breakfast. Suzan and the girls did some much needed shopping while I took a cab to Yad Veshim for a short visit with an Israeli friend. We met back in the Old City and had ‘Kannafa’ a delicious Palestinian sweet made with cheese for lunch. It was wonderful just to be in Jerusalem with Suzan and the girls it had never been possible before.
Most of our time was spent in the Bethlehem district visiting church, school and municipal leaders and also various organizations, friends and businesses. Our mission is to find out the needs of the Christian community and to try to act as a liaison between them and churches here in the States. The situation in Palestine continues to deteriorate, and if the Christian community is to survive beyond remnant pockets here and there, they must have help. The constant stress, frustration, uncertainty and confinement are taking a very heavy toll on the people. There were only a handful of tourists in Bethlehem for Easter this year, nothing like the good old days when every hotel was full. The economic disaster for Palestine continues to deepen. The wall continues to be built deep inside the West Bank imprisoning whole towns and villages. Those in a position to bring about peace seem intent on continuing the cycle of violence and revenge. The future looks rather bleak.
With the coming of Easter hope somehow seemed to surfaced in the midst of all the tension. The beautiful services of Holy Week inspired me and for just a few days the people could forget their burdens and rejoice in their faith. On the Saturday before Easter the Holy Fire is sent out to all the churches in Palestine from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. A special car had driven to the Bethlehem checkpoint to bring the Fire to Beit Sahour. My husband and I together with the majority of the townspeople stood waiting expectantly at the Beit Sahour Municipality for the arrival of the Fire. While we were waiting, we warmly greeted one another and watched as the Girl and Boy Scouts of all ages from all the different churches marched through the streets playing their drums, horns and bagpipes. When the car finally arrived at the Municipality bearing the Light we all began to walk behind Father Issa, the Mayor and church officials down through the narrow winding streets of the old city to the Greek Orthodox Church.
On the way Muslim friends threw candy down from upper story windows for the children. Once we arrived at the church there was organized confusion as everyone tried to get into the church to light their candles and lanterns from the Holy Fire. After lighting our candles we were invited by the mayor and friends to the Orthodox Club next door for drinks, sweets and Easter eggs. Abuna Issa (Father Issa) and Fuad Kokaly, the Mayor, gave short speeches. Each asked the people to continue to pray for peace and to remember that as Christians they are called to be peacemakers. Both made a special plea to those thinking of emigrating to reconsider and to stay in the land of their birth and uphold the faith.
Easter Sunday was a bright warm beautiful day. In Palestine it is traditionally a day to visit friends and family. We spent most of the day with the Salsaa family visiting relatives and eating a huge Palestinian Easter dinner. As we went from house to house making our visits I wondered how many would still be there next Easter. How many would succumb to stress related illnesses? How many would die being in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many would emigrate? It was then that the words of the Psalmist came to me. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?. How long before there is peace in the Holy Land? How long must your people suffer Lord? I have no answer, nor do the Christians of Palestine, but they have faith that God hears their pleas and their prayers and that in His own time He will act.
April 25, 2004