My last blog for a while.

I am back in England for a while – I need to have some medical treatment and have been told that it will likely be the new year before I can return to Bethlehem.  I am still hoping to be back before Christmas!

Traveling back as ever there was the need to respond to the many questions security pose when you are leaving Israel. I was flying from terminal one and a very pleasant young lady from security was asking me a whole series of questions. She had gathered that I lived and worked in Israel Palestine and so asked why I was going to England. I replied “Iam going to have some surgery.” She seemed to have good English but I wondered at the time if she had understood me. At the end of the conversation when she had decided that I was in all probability not a major security risk – she let me through and cheerily wished me “Have a nice …surgery!”

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“The Armed Man.”

For some months now I have been singing with a choir in Bethlehem – the “Olive Branches Choir.” We recently joined with two other choirs, a soloist and members of an orchestra to perform Carl Jenkins “The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace,” in the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem. The piece was written in the aftermath of the Kosovo massacres. It is a dramatic and descriptive piece of music, with pieces of very different styles and using both ancient and modern forms of music, portraying the agony and futility of war and – as one section of music says – “better is peace than always war,”

It was a musical performance but, being sung where it was – in the Old City of Jerusalem- in an ancient abbey near to significant religious sites, David’s tomb, the “upper room” and many others it was also a statement and an affirmation of the need for peace in a country that often seems to deny the reality of the conflict within.

The Dormition Abbey was a great setting for the performance. The following slide show gives some idea of the event.

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The audiance was about as large as could get into the abbey, and judging by their response at the end they fully appreciated the performance.

It was very good to do and I will remember it for a long time. My hope is that it’s message will go far and wide sowing seeds that might just one day be a part of bringing peace to the Holy Land.

The Hope School – Bet Jala

One of the projects supported by the Methodist Liaison Office is the Hope School. It is located at the top of Bet Jala – in an area known as “Everest!”

The school was created originally to give second chance to secondary school children who for one reason or another had dropped out of, or been thrown out of school. It stills does some of this work but also takes “main stream” students. It is a school that under its present head teacher has been developing its facilities and its educational programme in many ways.

During last year I have been to the school many times, attending the opening of the new all season football pitch and the opening of a kindergarden there. Calling in a few days ago we visited the new grade one class, with some of its pupils coming from “graduates” of the kindergarden. The plan is to increase the classes right through to the fifth grade – that the school already has – so that it will provide education from preschool right through to what in England we would call “sixth form.” To allow for this expansion they want to build a second floor onto their existing building, its an ambitious project but certainly much needed.

The school has a mix of Christian and Muslim pupils though the ethos of the school is clearly Christian. There is a daily assembly of a Christian form, but the Muslim students happily join in.

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One of the current projects that caught my eye was the Peace Education programme. Around the school there are key words posted on the walls, “forgiveness,” “understanding,” “justice,” and both in assemblies and in class the significance of these concepts are taught. It is primarily a focus upon Peace within the Palestinian society, however it clearly has resonance with the wider situation in Israel Palestine.

A project like this is never going to be as exciting as some other pieces of work but in the context of the needs of Bet Jala and the area – The Hope School is doing a great job.

Ten Day closure for the West Bank.

For the first time in at least twenty years Israel has decided to close down the West Bank, and prevent any access into Gaza for ten days throughout the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Checkpoint 300 will be closed for that time, and the only ways in or out of the West Bank will be on the checkpoints on the settler roads.

I, as an international, am in a privilaged position as I am allowed to use the other checkpoints, along with the setters, however all of my Palestinian colleagues will be forced to stay in the West Bank. Those who work in Jerusalem – in hotels, or in offices will either have to stay over in Jerusalem – and therefore not be with their families for this time – or stay at home and not work.

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Checkpoint 300 Closed.

The explanation given is that this is for security reasons as a result of concerns about violence during the Jewish holiday and to allow army and security staff to enjoy the holiday.  However newspaper reports in Israel suggest that the Army suggested closing on the first and last day of the holiday – as in previous years – but that the defence secretary decided, after the recent attack outside East Jerusalem, that it should be a ten day long closure. To me that sounds suspiciously like collective punishment.

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The Bet Jala Checkpoint, through which no Palestinians can go by car. From 4th to 14th the Palestinians buses that usually go through here will not be running.

I do hope that my Jewish friends will enjoy their Shavuot Holiday but I do feel that this closure is unnecessary and vindictive.

Friday Prayers by the wall.

Faithfully every Friday at 6pm there is a gathering just by Checkpoint 300 for prayers. In format it is Roman Catholic. The Rosary is said, and most of those who come are nuns from one of the many Convents present in Bethlehem (I asked a RC colleague how many there were and he counted twenty two, but wasn’t sure that he had them all)! However quite often Protestants like myself or even Orthodox folk come along. There is a lot of appreciation expressed by the Catholics that others will come and join in prayers outside their comfort zone! I often get asked to say a blessing at the end.

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This week the Friday fell on Yom Kippur, and as a result the checkpoint was closed – and there was no queuing traffic! In all the years I have been coming to Bethlehem I had never seen the door closed – I knew that it had been closed – but I had never seen it closed. I felt quite trapped in. It reminded me again of the privilage I have to travel – which so many of my Palestinian friends do not.

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The prayers always end at the beautiful icon of Mary weeping, which has been painted on the wall just near to the Convernt of the Emmanuel. We stand in silence praying for peace and then a benediction is said.

EAPPI (The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel) Bethlehem team give support.

It is a simple thing – but its consistent presence every Friday is a real witness for peace from a very different group of people than you would see at a demonstration.

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Another Church attacked by Jewish Extremists.

One of my coleagues at the Church of Scotland, Rev Loren McGrail and I visited the Monastery at Bet Gemail (there are a whole range of spellings for this Monastery near Beit Shemesh) yesterday. We visited as we had heard of an attack on the church. It fits into a series of attacks on churches in Israel that have taken place over the last few years (the most famous of which was the arson attack on the Church of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabga). I had just returned from Syria where I saw icons defaced by Jihadist Islamic groups such as Isis. Many of them had the faces of the figures on the icons disfigured. I was appalled by the similar destruction at the Church of St Stephen. We were told that this had been carried out by extreamist Jews from Beit Shemesh. I deplore any desecration of holy site of any religion. I was shocked to see this church left in this state.

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A Statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus destroyed in the attack

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A set of stained glass window with images of saint were broken with a focus upon the faces of the saints, other damage was done that was clearly aimed specifically at the Christian nature of this place of worship.

This was the second attack on this church – two years ago the graveyard was attacked and the crosses on the graves were all destroyed. Crosses in the Church were also a target.

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It is thought that the attackers got into the Monastery through a side gate that had inadvertently been left unlocked.

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It important to say that some Jewish Rabbis having heard of the attack have visited the church and expressed their horror at what has taken place. However there is real concern that the perpetrators of the last attack, two years ago, have never been apprehended – and that there is a scepticism on the part of those at the church whether there is any serious attempt being made to find those who untook this attack.

The church is an ancient one and quite beautiful, traditionally thought to be near to the site where St Stephen – the first Christian martyr – was buried.

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It is hard to find out how many churches in Israel have been attacked – there don’t seem to be any statistics available, but it is clear that there have been a significant number – and it would seem that the frequency is increasing.

Please pray for an end to this destruction.

End the Occupation!

When Israelis and Palestinians are protesting together about matters of injustice, I do my best to support. “Combatants for Peace” is an organisation that brings together Israelis and Palestinians. Some of the leading lights in it were combatants either in the Israeli Army or through the military wing of Hamas, or other parts of Palestinian society involved in violence. “Combatants for Peace” members are now dedicated to non violence, whatever their past.

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Above where I live is an area known as Everest. It’s at the top of Bet Jala and being in Oslo area C, and some area B (*please see note below) it is an area where Israelis and Palestinians can gather, (it is illegal for Israelis to enter area A). This was chosen as the meeting place for a demonstration organised through “Combatants for Peace.” The plan was to march to the Palestinian village of Al Walajah, past the Israeli Settlement of Har Gilo. In the village there would then be some street theatre. In the event, though the mayor of the village had agreed the plan, many of the residents did not want the demonstrators to go into the village. (Exactly why I am not clear – apparently there was some concern over Israelis entering the village – it lies close to Har Gilo and bounded by the Separation barrier, and there was it seems some concern that a demonstration in the village might lead to further trouble after the event).

Something between 200 and 300 people gathered for the march, and it headed toward Al Walajah, but due to the concerns of the villagers only proceeded as far at Har Gilo and there stopped and spent some time in chanting and expressing the anger felt over the continuing occupation – as the banners made clear.

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Clearly there was some frustration about the lack of support in Al Aalajah for the demonstration and the march was watched very closely by Israeli soldiers. Expereince has shown that when Palestinians and Israelis deonstrate together it is less likely that tear gas will be used, and again this proved to be the case. After a couple of hours the march broke up and the watching soldiers returned to their base.

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The EAPPI Bethlehem team were there and it was good to see them and be able to give them a lift back into Bethlehem. The event was clearly not as successful as hoped, but there were positives from it. For some 200 – 300 Israelis and Palestinians to march together was good. The residents of Har Gilo (a settlement illegally under International Law), clearly heard what they might well not often hear – the continuing call from Palestinians and Israelis alike for a just ending of the Occupation.

I was glad to be there – albeit only for a part of the time – and to meet others sharing my longing for an end to the occupation.

* Under the Oslo process most of the West Bank was divided into three area, A, B and C. Area A under full securuity and planning control of the Palestinian Authority, Area B under joint control, Area C under Israeli control. In 1993 it was agreed as a temporary arrangement for up to five years, … it continues to this day.