HARD LIVES IN THE HOLY LAND
From: Scottish Catholic Observer
The daily difficulties of living in the occupied West Bank
PAUL DONNELLY joined a pilgrimage by the Scottish Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre to Palestine, where they met the parishioners of the small church they help to support
APILGRIMAGE to the Holy Land is always a special event, but for members of one particular Order it has a particular resonance. The bedrock of the Scottish Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre is the Holy Land, that area of the Middle East formerly known as Palestine, now sadly divided between the political entities of Israel and Palestine.
The Scottish Lieutenancy of the Order recently returned from a visit to the Holy Land to meet with the parishioners of a small church it supports.
Our Lady of Sorrows is located in the ancient village of Aboud, in the occupied West Bank area of Palestine some 25 miles north-east of Jerusalem. It is home to 2,500 people. Whenever the Lieutenancy goes to the Holy Land it visits the parish and meets the parishioners.
This time we attended the parish for Sunday Mass after which we were able to talk with parishioners over coffee. We heard first-hand just how difficult life is for Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in the occupied area of the West Bank that, though legally part of the Palestinian Authority, is firmly under Israeli civilian and military control.
Yousef Habib Massad, the village mayor, explained that Aboud is situated on a pre-Christian Roman road, making it highly likely that Christ passed through the village when on earth. The town contains ancient chapel ruins and the sacristy floor in the parish church still retains some third- century Byzantine mosaics.
Present-day Aboud contains four schools, including the Latin Patriarchate school, three churches (one Latin rite, one Greek Orthodox, and one very small Church of God) and one mosque.
The village population is split evenly between Muslims and Christians (Greek Orthodox and Latin rite) who all generally live peacefully together. However, Yousef pointed out that many Christians had left the town at the time of the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, and more after the Israeli occupation of the part of the West Bank in which Aboud is situated.
Intisar Habib Fawadleh, head of the Latin Patriarchate School, spoke of her school’s growth—50 to 55 children attend the kindergarten and some 200 pupils are in the main school, grades 1-9 (ages 5-15)—and she plans to expand to grade 12 (age 18). 17 staff teach the full range of academic subjects, but Intisar highlighted that the school teaches children values as well as subjects—how to be open, to be honest, and to help each other.
Her pupils come not only from Aboud, but also from surrounding villages. Though it is a Catholic school, Intisar told us that the majority of pupils are Muslim, as their parents wish their children to benefit from the ethical values which are taught there. But she spoke too of the difficulties they face because of Israeli rule. Last year troops killed a man in Aboud, and closed off the main road for a month allowing no-one in or out of the village. Schooling was very disrupted as many pupils could not attend. Fr Yousef Riziq, the parish priest, gave us a brief but frank picture of what daily life is like for Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land today. He focussed on three ideas: land, terrorism and violence, and peace.
He explained how the root of the conflicts in the Holy Land is the land itself. Both Jews and Muslims consider the land to be holy, as God promised the same land to each of the religions. The situation has worsened since the green line settlement of 1948. However Fr Yousef, quoting the Beatitude that the meek shall inherit the land, mused whether there was a different sense of a promised land, a spiritual meaning pointing to heaven itself.
But he also told us that with the building of Israeli settlements on village land and the construction of the separation wall round them, Aboud had lost 40 per cent of the land it owned. And we knew from previous visits that when building the settlements the Israelis had capped the wells that Aboud had used for centuries to supply its houses and water its crops (mainly olive groves). Today the villagers have to pay the Israelis for their water, and can only access it when the Israelis allow it.
Fr Riziq then spoke of the problem of violence and terrorism. Though ‘terrorism’ is frequently associated with the Arabs, the priest indicated that Arabs perceive their actions as a ‘reaction.’ Speaking of Palestinians in general Fr Riziq posed the rhetorical question: “When you take my water, when you have taken my country for 67 years, when I am under the control of the army all the time, is this not terrorism?”
He told us of a more subtle form of violence against Aboud itself where more than 100 young men are unable to marry because there is no work for them due to the restrictions on land and travel. Without work they cannot afford to buy a house, or support a wife and family. And the parish priest classed this situation as terrorism ‘when they see in their own country the Israelis controlling their liberty, their freedom, and their life.’
Ramez Massad, a dynamic young villager who speaks excellent English, illustrates the parish priest’s point perfectly. After leaving secondary school he took a Diploma in Mass Media and then a BA in Media and Television. Now aged 28 he told us he would love to work in the mass media, or indeed at anything. He has not had a job for five years. When he heard that we were trying to discover what life in the Holy Land really meant he summed it up by saying: “There is the Holy Land and the Hell Land.”
Quite clearly he believes that he lives in the latter, yet he faces the future with courage. As he put it bluntly: “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”
Fr Riziq also spoke to us about peace, and underlined the radically different meanings of that word for Arabs and Israelis. For an Arab living in an occupied land, ‘peace’ means living free from oppression. For an Israeli, ‘peace’ means living surrounded by security and defence against attack from opponents. These fundamental differences mean it is difficult to have meaningful discussions between the sides seeking peace.
Like 30,000 Knights and Dames from 40 countries worldwide, the 130 members of the Scottish Lieutenancy promise to provide moral and material support for these people of the Holy Land and for charitable works to maintain the presence of Christians in the land of Christ’s birth.
They do this principally by a regular financial contribution to support the work of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, an archdiocese comprising Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus.
Thanks to the Order’s aid, the Patriarchate supports 68 parishes, 100 schools, 12 hospitals, and various housing projects. In addition, each Lieutenancy is often assigned a project of its own.
While the Scottish Lieutenancy has particular concern for Our Lady of Sorrows in Aboud, the Order as a whole also supports Bethlehem University through major financial contributions.
Bethlehem, the town of Christ’s birth, is a town almost completely surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and one where the ten metre high separation wall cuts across gardens and runs down streets in the town. Run by the De La Salle Brothers, the University is an oasis of peace and ecumenism within the city. Approximately 75 per cent of its 3,200 students are Muslim and 25 per cent Christian. 70 per cent are female. Students explained the low percentage of males by the greater acceptability for sons to study away from home than for daughters, by a family’s need for a son’s earnings immediately he finished high school, and because many males are in prison for political reasons.
The students are not immune to the realities of life in an occupied area. Jerusalem, from which about 48 per cent of the students come, is only some 12 kilometres away, Ramallah about 25 kilometres. Yet because of checkpoints on the way it can take between one and four hours for the journey. This disrupts students’ studies and their family life.
The day we visited we ourselves experienced these difficulties because on Fridays the main checkpoint out of Bethlehem is closed to allow Jewish worshippers to visit the tomb of Rachel nearby. Our coach therefore had to make a long detour to return to Jerusalem through another checkpoint.
We questioned our student guides, Laila, Yousef, and Lara, about employment prospects after graduation. They estimated around a 35 per cent unemployment rate amongst graduates, although Nursing, Business and Administration graduates were in high demand.
Teacher graduates were often unemployed as there was insufficient funding for posts. Questioned about chances for Jews, Christians and Muslims to meet, Lara told us of the Seeds of Peace programme, but this runs for only three weeks and is held abroad. Once participants return home they can’t meet up again.
Yousef maintained that ‘the conflict is not about religion, but about land.’ He thought that most students were not against Israelis per se, but he would refuse to sit down with someone who looks down on him and controls his rights, not allowing him travel, water or electricity.
He also spoke of the concept of ‘normalisation,’ which he saw as an attempt by Israel to portray itself as a benevolent country. But he argued that for those born in occupied Palestine ‘normality’ was the presence of armed civilians and the control of their everyday lives.
With our pilgrimage drawing to an end, we set forth from the Holy Land spiritually renewed and re-invigorated in our commitment to work for the good of the Church in the Holy Land, having seen at first hand the effect of the work they do to support it.