From the Gulf Coast to the West Bank…

I realize, it is an odd combination, but here I am in Jericho, the West Bank, and I wanted to share a bit of the experience with yáll (for my Mississippi friends!). Just as a side note, Jericho is like the Palm Springs of Israel, but due to the occupation, Israelis, I understand, are not allowed to travel here (it is in the West Bank) so our group has this beautiful hotel to ourselves…

I am here in the West Bank and Israel as part of a conference with a group called Sabeel (www.sabeel.org for more info). They work with Palestinian Christians (yes, there is such a group) specifically in issues of suffering, justice and peace as it relates to the ongoing Israeli occupation. I realize this is a rather volatile topic to discuss, and it is not my intent to offend any of you, but I also have to say that I am finding myself less and less ‘neutral’on the situation. I am sorry that this email will not be as lighthearted as my encounter with the Austrian mad cows, but I do feel compelled to share with you what I have seen and heard. Yes, there are definitely two sides to the conflict here, but I would say that the two sides are not Israeli and Palestinian but those who are seeking peace and those who are resorting to violence.

Today we visited Bethlehem. At the risk of ruining a favorite Christmas carol, today the phrase ‘how still we see thee lie (or is it lay? I am not sure the song or the grammar…)’ was most definitely true, but not in the sentimentality of the song. Bethlehem is a Palestinian community, about 75% Muslim and 25% Christian. It is now surrounded by the Separation Wall (some would call it a ‘Security’Wall and others an Apartheid Wall, depending on your perspective). The people of Bethlehem cannot leave the town without a permit, which is very difficult for them to obtain. Bethlehem is about 10 minutes from Jerusalem and has traditionally been a suburb of it, with its residents working in Jerusalem. Its other economic livelihood has been tourism. Both have come to a near standstill due to the Wall. As I saw the Wall today and heard stories from Palestinian Christian leaders about the plight of their people, I struggled as to how I could possibly communicate the direness of the situation to you, without you being here to see it yourself. As I am using the hotels one computer, and there are others waiting to check email, I am afraid that I cannot be more polished in my presentation. To find out more and to see more statistical data you can check out the site Open Bethlehem, which I believe is http://www.openbethlehem.org . At the least, I would hope that if you find yourself singing that Christmas carol this year, you would remember the people of Bethlehem. I am sorry, I don’t mean to be Scrooge, but I feel that possibly the only thing that I can do to help the situation is to at least make it known.

One highlight of the trip is one of the other conference attendees, Eddie, who is the secretary of the World Council of Churches for South Africa. He was jailed during the apartheid struggle in South Africa and has been sharing his story over meals of hummus, pita, tomatoes, olives… It has also been wonderful to reconnect with five of the trip participants from my last year’s visit: Pat from NY, Sue and Sandy from CA, and Roger and Enid from England.

I do not want to keep the woman from Nicaragua waiting any longer (this conference is international and ecumenical, representing many continents and all major branches of the church including Catholic, Easter Orthodox, and many flavors of Protestant, but more on that later…) for the computer, so that is it for now.

Peace, Salaam (Arabic) and Shalom (Hebrew)

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