A Letter to the Episcopal Bishops of the United States Concerning Current Conditions in the Holy Land
As we near the end of our “Peace Pilgrimage” to Christian sites in Israel and the occupied territitories we, clergy and lay members of churches in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington are writing to ask for your presence in this land at a critical turning point in its history.
Over the past ten days we have met with church leaders, government officials, members of Palestinian humanitarian organizations and Israeli peace and human rights groups. What we have heard fills us with both hope and apprehension. Our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues tell us that we have reached a precarious moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the first time, Palestinians have a democratically elected leader who does not come from a military background—an event of great significance in the Arab world. This week President Bush called upon the international community to provide every possible form of support for President Mahmoud Abbas at this critical time.
But at the same time the “facts on the ground” are progressively working to the disadvantage of the Palestinians. Fifty-seven Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces since the signing of the Sharm al Sheikh agreement on February 8, 2005. Palestinians are experiencing continued land confiscation and increasing restrictions on their movement, and Israeli settlement construction and the separation wall are proceeding at a faster pace than ever before. In the next 6-12 months the completed wall, Israeli settlements and settler bypass roads will enclose the occupied territories in a cage that will preclude the chance for a viable Palestinian state.
We would like to share with you some of what we have seen and heard in our visits to Christian communities in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. Luke 2:16
Since the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993 Bethlehem has lost one half of its open land to settlement and road construction. The separation wall now runs through the center of the town. Rachel’s tomb sits behind a barbed wire fence, next to a building occupied by a settler family. Without the tourist business they once enjoyed, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala are dying, and thousands of Christians are leaving for the United States, Canada, and South America. The younger generation, we are told, sees only two alternatives: to fight or to leave.
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.
On a lonely stretch of road outside of Hebron we had lunch with the family of Ata Jaber, a farmer whose nonviolent stand in spite of beatings, harassment from soldiers and settlers, and confiscation of his land has earned him support from Christian and Israeli human rights groups. But even the intervention of Knesset member Yossi Sarid did not stop the Israeli authorities from demolishing his home a second time.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:20
At the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus, despite advance permission from the Israeli military authorities, we were prevented “for security reasons” from crossing to reach the bus waiting to take us to Sunday services at St. Philips Anglican Church.
Am I my brother’s keeper? Genesis 4:9
We visited Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, an Anglican institution, on a day when the hospital reached out to its Muslim neighbors from outlying villages by transporting them to the hospital clinic by bus and providing them with a noonday meal. And we viewed the large hole in the roof of St. Philips Church, on the hospital grounds, caused by a direct hit from an Israeli missile on January 24, 2003. The missile, which destroyed the stained glass windows in the church and the hospital X ray and ventilation systems, has left cracks in the church and surrounding buildings. (The Israeli authorities claim the missile strike was an accident, but have not apologized to the church. They say they are unable to send a representative to inspect the damages, and therefore will not pay for repairs.)
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Look, your house is left to you desolate. Luke 13:34-5
Jerusalem is both a holy city to three religions and the economic hub of the occupied territories, accounting for one-third of its economic activity. Without free access to Jerusalem, a Palestinian state will not be viable. Israeli settlers have occupied buildings and opened yeshivas in traditionally Christian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and harass and threaten shop owners in the Old City to try to force them to leave. Palestinians from the West Bank cannot visit East Jerusalem without a permit, and under a marriage law passed by the Knesset in July 2003 and renewed yet again this year, they are not permitted to live with their spouses who hold East Jerusalem identity cards. As in Bethlehem, unemployment, government restrictions and a decline in the standard of living are causing increasing numbers of Palestinian Christians to leave homes they have occupied for generations and emigrate to join relatives abroad. If this trend continues Christian holy sites will become, in the words of one Palestinian Christian, “a spiritual Disneyland without a living community.”
If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Corinthians 13:26-7
We ask for your guidance as we try to address the questions this trip has raised in our minds.
What should we tell our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land about the work and witness of our church? Are Episcopalians in the United States aware of the problems faced by Palestinian Christians, and the threat to their future? Are we willing to share their burdens and articulate their vision of a just peace? What can we do as a church to protect our holy sites and to stem the flow of young Christians to other countries? And how can we make our voices of moderation heard over the extremist rhetoric of Christian Zionists?
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Thank you that you have crossed the ocean and come back to your roots. That you are here gives us energy, and we are grateful. Dr. Raed Moualem, Director, Mar Elias College, Iibellin
We implore you, if you intend to come to the Holy Land, to come now. Even if you have visited before, come now. Some of us, active in interfaith dialogue, are making this pilgrimage for the second or third time. We are here because our Christian sisters and brothers in the occupied territories need our presence as a sign of God’s presence. They also need yours. Come to prepare the soil for peace. We may never have this opportunity again.
It is our role to humanize the West to the Muslims. Nidal abu Zuruf, Assistant Director, Beit Sahour YMCA
The Christian community in the Holy Land can and should serve as a bridge between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, and between the Palestinian people and the global community. They can be instruments of God’s peace on earth, but they cannot create change alone. Will you not come to their aid?
O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence.
Evening Prayer Collect, Book of Common Prayer
Sharon Bogue, Watertown, Massachusetts
Roy Brooks, Annandale, Virginia
Claire Cohen, Falmouth, Massachusetts
Alvina Drennan, New York, New York
Justine Drennan, Seattle, Washington
Ned Felton, Deer Isle, Maine
Robert Flynn, Watertown, Massachusetts
Dilys Hoyt, Little Deer Isle, Maine
Peter Hoyt, Little Deer Isle, Maine
Madelon Jacoba, Stonington, Maine
Lama Jarudi, Westwood, Massachusetts
The Rev. Edgar Lockwood, Falmouth, Massachusetts
The Rev. Fletcher Lowe, Richmond, Virginia
Florence H. Lloyd, Gladwyne, Pennsylvania
Jim Margolis, Brookline, Massachusetts
The Rev. Katherine Mitchell, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts
Ann Morrell, Brooklyn, New York
John Musco, Brooklyn, New York
Francesca Norsen, Brooklyn, New York
The Rev. K. Jeanne Person, Brooklyn, New York
Dr. Leila Richards, Brooklyn, New York
Felecia Shelor, Meadows of Dan, Virginia
The Rev. Elizabeth Starbuck, Kent, Connecticut
Lael Stegall, Deer Isle, Maine
The Rev. Alexander Stewart, Northfield, Massachusetts
Jim Tate, Brooklyn, New York
Maurine Tobin, Deer Isle, Maine
The Rev. Robert Tobin, Deer Isle, Maine
Marjorie Wilson, New York, New York
April 15, 2005