Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ibellin and Israel March 2014

The church of Elias Chacour
The steps leading up to the
church with the Beatitudes
 in several languages
I travelled to Israel on March 2nd 2014 primarily to visit Ibillin in the hope of a personal interview with Abuna Elias Chacour who was the  Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 2006 to just before I arrived. He had only just retired. St John's Church has been supporting his work since Rev. Graham Trasler took groups on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1980s and 90s. Elias Chacour has written several books recounting his childhood in Bir'em, a Palestinian Christian village in the North of what is now Israel. 

In 1948 the villagers were forced to leave their homes and the village except for the church and graveyard, were destroyed by Israeli forces. Much later he became a priest and was sent to Ibellin, where he found Palestinians who were cut off even from books and education. 

The Ash Wednesday Ashing ceremony 
performed by Bernhard, the German priest
Inside the church
Elias set about creating schools and a college and opened it up to Muslims, Christians and Jews, because as the title of an early book of his states, they are all 'Blood Brothers'. His work and journey have not been easy and he has been a frequent attendee of Israeli courts as planning requests were inevitably turned down. 

Even the people I sat with on my flight over gave a taste of the divisions in this land. Next to me was an Israeli avidly reading a huge tome on the background and cults of Islam, and on the aisle seat, was a very tired looking Roman Catholic priest. On the way back it was journalists who occupied the two seats next to me.

 So my journey in Israel began with a rather low powered car that struggled with hills and a useless Sat Nav from Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv. The Sat Nav did not recognise the name Ibellin and nor did most of the people I asked for help on the way. A late night drive on the other side of the road, with all controls in opposite positions to what I was used to was pretty awful, but getting very lost indeed without a clue as to where I was, was so bad that I resorted to approaching an Israeli police car at some road works. One of the many God moments on my travels. The policeman drove me in convoy to Ibellin with lights flashing and saved the day! A few days later that same police officer, off duty, stopped me in Nazareth to make sure I was OK!

An English lesson for 14 year olds
The Mar Elias guest-house is situated above the secondary school. Ibellin is an amazing place; much larger than I expected, with steep hills that were challenging for all cars and almost impossible for mine. I never once found my way around Ibellin without getting lost. The campus has several schools, gym, church and other assorted buildings on it. The rest of the town has several churches and mosques where the Christian and Muslim community live side by side speaking Arabic. Parts of it are very like Bethlehem.

Michael (Mica) Chacour
Although Elias Chacour was away for most of the time I was there, I was fortunate to have coffee with Michael Chacour, his nephew, early on in Abuna's home. He is quite a character and very different indeed to his uncle. In one photo you can see a bullet hole in the front door. Michael told me that they don't always feel safe and later on Abuna himself showed my how the bullet had hit metal and had therefore stopped it from doing any real damage.

Elias Chacour's front door
Staying at the guest house at the  same time, was a German Roman Catholic group lead by a Priest who had been in his parish for 25 years,  but was shortly to retire. This was his last Parish visit to the  area. I was very fortunate that they offered to take  me out with  them and I accepted their offer on a couple of days.

Church of the 12 Apostles
  On one of my days there I drove   to the Sea of Galilee. It was a     beautiful day and very calm. My   favourite place was a church I  have never been to before on the water's edge. It is Greek Orthodox and called the Church of the Twelve Apostles. The murals are stunning and I almost had it to myself as it seems to be off the usual tourist route. It was in a small national park, which was also beautiful. My Sat Nav refused to recognise either Arab towns, except for very large ones like Nazareth, or any Christian sites, which meant that I had to find a nearby Jewish settlement or site and get as close as possible to where I wanted to go! I ended up going wrong a great deal! Thankfully I had a really good map with me from a previous visit. 

Inside the church of the 12 Apostles.
Sea of Galilee

The following day I visited Nazareth. Nazareth is very much like old Jerusalem in places and I felt very at home. I first visited the Greek Orthodox church where they were having an Ash Wednesday service. It is a beautiful church so I was glad to be able to listen and even to see the murals and the spring in an older part that feeds the well that Mary is reputed to have used.

Greek Orthodox Church Nazareth 
Inside the Basilica
I was also fortunate that the main Basilica in the town square below had lovely organ music playing. Chiefly, I was delighted to have a long conversation with the warden of the Anglican church and recorded some of it. He told me about the situation for local Christians and his hopes and fears. 

Church warden of Anglican Church 
Anglican Church Nazareth
Before coming back to Ibellin I managed to find, despite my Sat Nav and car, the church at Cana, of wedding fame, though I am told now that there are 2 contenders for the title.

Mica looking out over Safed
The next day I was very pleased to visit Safad and Bir'em as well as Rosh Hanikra on the border with Lebanon with the German group. Mica came with us and so I was very glad that the commentary was in English and not German, although it was efficiently translated for the others. Mica sadly found Safed very difficult as, what was once a thriving mixed community is now Jewish only with many old Palestinian buildings either left empty and derelict or taken over by Jewish families. An old Mosque is now an art gallery while another has been built over. It was still a beautiful town, but now it has a terrible history. 

Mica at the door of Bir'em Church

Inside Bir'em Church
Bir'em is the village where Elias Chacour lived as a child. It was a surprise in many ways because the cemetery and the church are still complete and in good condition and although all the houses are ruins, there is more to them than I had expected. The old villagers still return to bury their dead in the cemetery and now a couple of them stay in the village to protect what is left and to keep it alive as much as possible, but the area has been turned into a National Park and Israel refuses to allow them to return in a meaningful way. That is no doubt partly because of the ancient remains of 2 synagogues from Roman times that lie right next to the village. The village had existed there for 150 years in proximity to these ancient ruins, but now the Israeli tourist guides only refer to the Synagogues. Nothing else matters. After we had finished there and had lunch we arrived at the coast right on the border with Lebanon. You can see the actual border in the photo. It is a beautiful shoreline with interesting caves, but we arrived too late to visit them.
The remains of Bir'em

The Lebanese Border
I joined the German group again the next day for a visit to the Golan Heights, and the Tel Dan and Banias Nature Reserves. It was a day full of mixed motions and incredible blessings. Much too much to share here, but we visited, nature reserves, archaeological sites dating back to Canaanite times, waterfalls, Paneas, otherwise know as Caesaria Philipi, both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, eaten the most amazing picnic cooked by our coach driver, attended a celebration at Ibillin with a lot of singing and cake with Micah Chacour and friends and finally met Elias Chacour who would give us a talk the next day and agreed to meet me as well!  We did rather more walking than intended as we got a bit lost in at the Banias nature reserve after already having completed the 2 1/2 hour trail at the Tel Dan reserves in 1 1/2 hours, but on a beautiful day, it was wonderful exercise!.

The Caananite Gate

Israeli leaflet
I am interested to know of the views of others on this information found in the Israeli tourist leaflet for Tel Dan Nature Reserve? Usually killing is either instructed by God or is because the Jews were either afraid or fighting for their lives. But here it seems to clearly state that the Philistines were 'a people tranquil and unsuspecting', and they slaughtered them just because they did not get on with them! It seems to be a surprisingly honest statement. 

We then travelled further into the Golan heights very close to the border with Syria. It was a strange place to be and felt very quiet and 'peaceful' - very eerie.

A Syrian town in the distance

Picnic at Caesaria Philipi

After a morning talk by Elias Chacour, I finally had a private meeting with him on the afternoon of Saturday 8th March.  I have two recorded messages  from him. One is about Islam and  the relationship between Islam  and Christianity in the Holy Land, which I include here. the second  is a personal message to St John's which I will share when I do a presentation on June 3rd.

I arrived safely in Jerusalem despite the Sat Nav and it was a relief to hand the car back. Having had a glorious week it began to rain and steadily got colder. Little did I know what was in store!

Elias Chacour gives his views on Islam
 in  the Holy Land
Entertainment, food, company and fun
at the Ibellin Guesthouse
On my first day in Jerusalem I went to visit a member of Combatants For Peace in West Jerusalem. It is an Israeli human rights organisation for Israelis and Palestinians who have put down their arms and want to take the road of non violence towards a just peace. I am honoured to be helping to set up the UK part of this organisation, but that is another story.

Palestine March 2014

Nawal looking very fed up in her shop
A neighbour's shop not so well 
cleaned up
I had a very sad meeting with Nawal at her shop in the Old City of Hebron. Leila, her sister, who I have got to know well over the years, is very ill, and on Sunday night the old City was flooded very badly. They discovered it at 6am on the Monday when they found dirty water a metre high in the shop and much of their stock ruined. In the past few months because there has been so little rain, Israel has reduced the amount of water available in Palestinian areas and so the PA have had to ration it. There was therefore no clean water available to clear up the mess. CPT, EAPPI and others came to help and thankfully the PA did allow water for a while. They are expecting floods again on Thursday night. The drains and sewers in the Old City, which is under Israeli control, badly need repairs and Israel refuses to allow this. So while the farmers are thankful for the rain the Old City fears it.

I could see the damage to theirs and other shops and you can get some sort of impression from the photos. The sadness was palpable and like everyone else I have met in both Israel and Palestine on this trip, they say as one, that they have no hope and that the so-called peace talks are making things worse for them.A good rhetorical question they ask is, if Israel says it is willing to make land swaps and evacuate some settlements, why is it spending so much money building more of them on stolen land? In all my time here I have never felt so much despair. 

You can see the Rajabi building in the
That is not just water flowing down
the steps!
After my very brief visit to the old City I had a lovely lunch with my friend Naheel who works for the UN before going to the UNOCHA offices where I met with Hamed. While with him I kept on hearing more and more sad news about the success of the settlers in the courts over a large Palestinian house, The Rajabi building, which has been in dispute for along time. The fear is not just the loss of the house, but the celebrations that will bring misery to the local Palestinians. This is a house in the middle of a Palestinian area that has been acquired in a very underhand way by local Israeli settlers, who it seems have won their case in the Israeli courts to take ownership of the building. The case has been going on since 2007. It is a very strategic building for the setters and there is one more hurdle for them before they can actually move in. If they do so, the humanitarian impact it will have on the locals will be very great indeed and these people are already suffering at the hands of the large settlement of Kiryat Arber. Last night I watched torrential sewage flow down into Hebron from that settlement adding to the flooding misery below. You can see it pouring down the steps.

Israel always goes on about their security, yet no one seems to care a jot about the security of the Palestinians who live here by right and have never hurt anyone.  There are also reports of 5 Palestinian deaths just today. 3 in Gaza and 2 in the West Bank, not to mention the Jordanian judge who was shot at the checkpoint coming in from Jordan. Whatever you may read, there were witnesses and the truth is that the Judge told the IDF off for the way they were treating the Palestinians so they just shot him 3 times and then said he had tried to grab their weapons!

Rabbi Ascherman and others climbing
down to the cave
The cave dwelling in Beir il Id where
the meeting was held
The following afternoon I finally met Rabbi Erik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. He is someone I greatly admire. Hamed toured around picking up leaders from the South Hebron Hills communities of Susyia and Um Al Kher, having first picked up an ex-inhabitant of Beir il id to attend a meeting at Beir il id. We met Rabbi Ascherman and Quaman, the head of their legal department, to discuss the terrible situation that Beir il id faces. 

The man, Ismail Ibrahim al-Adara,  Hamed first picked up had been beaten up badly by the settlers and on return to the village his son was murdered by them as well, though it is a longer story. He does not want to go back to the village for fear for his own life. However, the village is in a very strategic area and it is essential that villagers continue to live there. One way might be to persuade villagers from Jimbe to move there, but it would mean supplying fodder for their sheep at a cost of 90,000 shekels a year. The local settlers are trying to obliterate Palestinians from the area, as they have already done with the road signs and they want to join the various settlements up. Many settlers are paid by Israel to live in the area, so to help the indigenous Palestinians in this way is a small thing except that there is no money to do it. 

Hamed had also taken me to a very interesting meeting in Hebron in the morning. It was at HRC in Hebron and was a multi agency meeting that was instigated by the Christian Peacemaker Team, 
 because of the recent school invasions, detention of children, teacher and other staff, and even tear gas and stun grenades thrown into schools by the IDF for no obvious reason, if there ever can be a reason for such behaviour. On one occasion a cleaner was abducted and just abandoned in the Negev to try to find his way back. Even head teachers have been detained for short periods. Children are frequently detained and some arrested and this is happening in regard to many schools and not just those whose pupils and teachers have to use checkpoints 209 and 29, which were of particular concern to CPT. We were told that children from Cordoba School suffer from nightmares and bed wetting because of the stress. The purpose of the meeting was to look at ways of dealing with all the issues. There were people from the Ministry of Education, DCOs from the Palestinian army, a lawyer, Betselem, EAPPI, CPT, ISM, TIPH and others. It was a useful meeting and there seems to be a united effort towards rights information for pupils and parents as well as contacts for the various organisations to ring when events occur. The fact that these are basic human rights violations were not something that could be addressed realistically.

Bob Roberts
That night in Hebron was as cold and windy as I had every experienced it. There was torrential rain, thunder and lightening directly overhead and the high winds made doors bang and windows rattle all night! I sleep better when it is cold, but this was extreme and I spent both night wearing my coat and a fe other things! The following morning I left Hebron early to go to Bethlehem where I attended one day of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. I did not arrive in a very good mood, but only a short while into the first speaker I heard, I was glad to be there. Bob Roberts of North Wood Church, Dallas said that he had been invited to preach in mosques after Muslims had visited his church. He said he believed in a totally inclusive Christ and that many Christians are too obsessed with speculative theology. I don't think I would have enjoyed a full 5 days of it and was worried it would be too evangelical for me, but it was about the sort of inclusive Christianity that I believe in and antidote to those in a God who loves only His chosen and condemns the rest of his creation to abuse and even annihilation! Far too many Christians and Jews seem to have created a god in their own egotistical image and forgotten the foundation of peace and justice that all 3 Abrahamic religions are based on.
Andrew addressing the gathering

In the evening a very enjoyable 50th Birthday party was given by Andrew Ashdown in Beit Sahour. Delicious food and great company. 

Some of the American Jewish 'Encounter'
group listening to Hamed's talk

It was also wonderful to have Andrew's company with Hamid from rather too early the following morning for a remarkable meeting with a group of American Jews who were on an 'encounter visit' to the West Bank. Their party also included some local Jewish settlers. 

Hamed and the head of the village
After a presentation by Hamed we visited a small village south of Bethlehem, surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. 
Since 1948 the village has been refused any building permits or infrastructure improvements by the Israeli government, who have civil responsibility for the village. 
The all-purpose village school
with demolition order on it

We had a moving speech from the Village Council leader in the small, poorly equipped all-purpose building that the village has built themselves without permission to act as a school, clinic, and meeting place. This building has now received a demolition order. Meanwhile, on the hill overlooking the village in the illegal settlement, you can see the 3-storey new school that has been built for the settlement along with all other modern facilities. When the village children ask why they cant have a nice school like those on the hills around them, their father does not know what to tell them. It was fascinating to see the reactions of the group, most of whom were clearly moved, and who asked some very good questions. Hamed explained the situation so well to the group and in answer to questions, that I was able to learn a great deal from being part of this gathering..

This is what the entrance to the Gilo
checkpoint looks like when empty
I returned to Jerusalem via the Bethlehem Gilo checkpoint that afternoon. Even as an International I find that checkpoint intimidating. There are so many long wire tunnels, and different turnstiles and checks to go through even when it is empty. When full of Palestinians desperate to get to work in Jerusalem, who queue from the early hours every morning, it is inhumane. 
This is what it looks like when safely
through to the other side.

I was thankful to arrive safely back at the very comfortable Austrian Hospice. When I stayed there a few days before, I had been given a room on the ground floor without a view. This time I had an amazing balcony on the second floor! Last time I was woken at 4.30 am with a beautiful call to prayer. This time the same speakers were on a level with my window - perhaps a little too close for comfort, but I certainly didn't complain. The view from my room was a real tonic. All I needed for my last day was a little sunshine and warmth. 

My wonderful balcony view in
On my last full day in Palestine I had a lovely time in Nablus with my friend, Manar. It hds been ages since I had seen her in Hebron she is now married with 2 children, but still working for the UN. I was treated to a wonderful Palestinian speciality desert, which was delicious, the old city market and a huge and delicious lunch. It was so nice to meet her children and husband as well as see the apartment in which they all live.
Manar and Palestinian feast for two!

I had thought the 2 hour plus journey from Jerusalem by bus via Ramalla had taken a long time, but the return journey was much worse, because of the checkpoints, particularly the entry to Jerusalem. The traffic was almost at a standstill and all Palestinians under 45 have to automatically leave the bus and go through on foot. Not only did some of them not return to our bus, but the IDF came onto it asking questions of us all and thankfully they accepted my explanation, but 2 German tourists were not so lucky and were removed from the bus. We continued with only half the passengers. After a relaxing day, it was a final reminder of what the occupation means to every Palestinian and anyone else who dares to visit the West Bank!

 My final reflections on my time here:

Ernst, the Austrian monk
I am sitting in glorious warm sunshine at last, just before I make my way to the airport!
Even my bus travel and breakfasts here have led to some wonderful encounters including Ernst, an Austrian monk, who was so interested in everything I have done during my time here. Sadly he is not on the internet, but it was odd how, over the few days I got to know him, we developed a bond and he was always eager to come and listen to me as I was to share with him. We must have looked a very odd couple! I have made several new internet and Facebook friends among Palestinians, Israelis, Germans and Americans. I am sitting in the garden of the Austrian Hospice now listening to church bells pealing and birds singing. The Jews celebrate Purim today and this evening will have big parties and dress up in fancy dress and make merry. It is so sad that their revelry will mean more unpleasantness for many Palestinians forced to share space with those who want to make life so unbearable for them that they leave. 

I think that the words I like best about any religion is that, 'if your religion does not help you to love your fellow human beings, no matter what culture they belong to and no matter what they believe, then you should look again at your beliefs'. Every religion begins at heart with love and justice and both are so lacking here. Though that is certainly not the rule, I have heard words of love, acceptance, and forgiveness from many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian and some of the Israel Jews I have met. Thankfully I have also witnessed the shock of a party of American Jews who were taken on a field trip by Hamed. I have felt so looked after and blest while I have been here and have surprised people, both Palestinians and Jews, at the way things have just worked out and help has appeared from unexpected places. In fact when I remember the Israeli off-duty police officer who stopped to ask if I was OK in Nazareth, after helping me to find Ibellin, on duty, a few days before, and the complete stranger, a Palestinian who got in my car to show me the way, or the car lifts that materialised from Andrew  when I really was not expecting it I feel quite emotional. 

I don't think I have heard so many people here express despair at the situation in the past. The only ones to express hope have been those who hope through Christ or Allah, not because of anything hopeful actually happening here, but because hope is essential. For many here that is all they have to live by. 

It is almost time to somehow get, my rather overweight suitcase up out of the Damascus gate to the transport. I am glad to be coming home, because it has been very intense, difficult and lonely at times, but hugely worthwhile and I have to believe that it will somehow make a difference, though in what way I have no idea.