Only in the West Bank do we have Freedom to Worship

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the final account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by Liam, Bethlehem team

God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”

As the 52nd EAPPI team in Bethlehem, we found our first week in placement coincided with Easter; a momentous occasion for Christians around the world but especially so for those living in the Holy Land. We were walking not far from our house, by ‘Ayda refugee camp, when a woman called out to us from her car.

“Hello! You are the new team; you must come to my house. My name is Antoinette. You like coffee? I make you coffee! You like cake? I make you cake too!”

As we have quickly found, one thing Palestinians are not in short supply of is hospitality. Here, sharing tea and coffee is a declaration of friendship. How could we refuse such a kind offer? Sitting in her house, we were introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, her nieces and nephews, their children and offered two types of cake, particular to Easter: ka’ek bi ajwa and ka’ak bi ma’moul

We spoke with Antoinette Knezevich on Thursday  April 17, the day before Good Friday, and discovered she was still waiting for her permit to be able to travel to Jerusalem for Easter celebrations. Antoinette used to teach at Schmitt College just outside of the Old City in East Jerusalem but, when the Separation Barrier was built by the Israelis; she was no longer permitted to drive to work and is not physically able to walk the distances required to pass through Checkpoint 300 – which cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem though they are a mere 7kms (or 4.4 miles) away from each other. Now she lives with her brother and his family, close to ‘Ayda refugee camp, with the Separation Barrier and its cameras looking into their kitchen.

The Permit Lottery

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette's window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette’s window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Antoinette described how, before the permit system, she used to attend St. George’s Cathedral, the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and tended to the garden there:

“My husband and I were members of the church…my husband had a British passport because his father [Alexander Antonio Knesevich) was the first British Consul to Gaza during the British Mandate for Palestine”.

As is Antoinette’s case, if you have a Palestinian ID, Israel requires you have a permit even if you have an international passport. She continued:

“But since the building of the Wall I cannot anymore go to Jerusalem and to the church there. So flowers now make me sad. Can you imagine?”

Antoinette explained the process of applying for permits to worship:

“We are catholic and the priest took all the names and gave them to the Israelis and some got permits and some not. The husband might but not the wife – you see what they do?”

Individuals cannot apply for worship permits and are “awarded” permits much akin to a lottery yet preventing people access to worship is in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. Her brother and his wife succeeded but Antoinette did not. Antoinette questioned us:

“Since Jesus was here, we have been here. Do you need permission to visit the Church by your government? Where’s the justice?”

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

The Catholic Church in Bethlehem requested 5000 permits for the Easter period and received just 700 from the Israeli District Coordination Office, which were given across families forcing them to make the decision between only some of the family visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem or the whole family forfeiting the possibility. Antoinette decried:

“God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”.

Freedom to Worship

Antoinette told of how Muslims and Christians live peacefully with each other, with Muslim families even sharing Santa gifts at Christmas and coloured eggs at Easter:

“They respect us and we respect them. Near my home are Muslim neighbours and we have no problems. The only problem is the occupation.”

Stood on her balcony, looking out towards the stark grey wall with its imposing watching presence; Antoinette shared:

“When they built the wall, it was like they built it on my heart…too heavy”. Her gaze dropped then and she looked deep in thought then quietly but firmly said: “It is like they took me up from the root of myself and threw me away”.

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

We worked Checkpoint 300 on the morning of Holy Saturday, greeting and wishing a “Happy Easter” to those passing through. Later in the afternoon, we saw many of the same people in Beit Jala for the parade to welcome the miraculous light from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we asked why they were in Beit Jala and not the Old City, we were told how the Israeli administration had put the Christian Quarter on lockdown so, despite being some of the lucky few to receive a permit, they were still not allowed to enter the holy sites and engage in worship.

One man said: “Only here do we have freedom to worship”.

Occupation, Olive Branches, and Discomforting Challenge

An EA reflects on the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel

by Chris, Bethlehem

An EA walks near the separation wall in Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/G. Galmen.

An EA walks near the separation wall in Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/G. Galmen.

This year for the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, many of the EAs joined in a service with the Benedictine Sisters at the separation wall in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem – where Jesus was born in a country the Romans occupied at that time.

Bethlehem –  still under occupation today, but now where  freedom to travel is more restricted than it was for Mary and Joseph 2000 years ago.

At the service, each of us was issued with a “permit”  which allowed us past the “barrier” into the monastery where we could worship.  This action was a sobering reminder of the continuing difficulty Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, who have restricted access – their Holy Sites, face. 

To pray you need a permit!!! Photo EAPPI/G. Galmen

To pray you need a permit!!! Photo EAPPI/G. Galmen

Worship began with a reading of a letter church leaders wrote last Easter concerning this reaction. Then, several local ministers from various Christian traditions, led the packed congregation. We exchanged the peace along with olive branches, traditionally a symbol of peace. For me, olive branches have an even deeper resonance with the very life blood of this land, particularly as olive harvest approaches.

For that reason, this passage from the service resonated with me:

The destruction and uprooting of olive trees by the Israeli occupation is not only an expression of ecological disrespect and vandalism, but also an insult to God’s creation and people who, despite their oppression and suffering, can still extend their hands with an olive branch to soldiers and oppressors.

It was, however, the benediction at the very end of our worship which I found particularly challenging and which has remained with me.  It was based on the Franciscan prayer of discomfort:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of peoples, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of the One who Creates, Redeems and Sanctifies, be upon you and all you love and pray for this day and forever more.  Amen