In March I was privileged to represent the Primate, Dr Phillip Aspinall, as the Anglican delegate on a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories with the National Council of Churches. The purpose of the visit was for Australian church leaders to gain an understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and especially to support Christian leaders and programs there.
Our visit included meetings with church and civic leaders, both Israeli and Palestinian. We visited World Council of Churches programs in Hebron, Bethlehem, and in the rural north of the West Bank, an Israeli water project in Netanya, and the very impressive Hadassa Hospital in Jerusalem.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is hard for many of us to follow. Twists and turns in the history, snippets of news, and information packaged by media organisations, mean that many of us in Australia know it is a “problem area” but little more. I have sat in countless church services where I have heard (or offered) prayers for “peace in the middle east” without really knowing what it might mean.
All those we met in Israel and the Palestinian territories were in no such confusion. They know the history of their land, and are not only keen to tell you its ‘ins and outs’, but also tell their own stories of the conflict.
The two Directors from the Israeli Foreign Affairs Department that we met, who both had stories of personal loss from Palestinian violence, and the many Palestinians we encountered whose daily livelihoods are affected by the security barrier, and ongoing violence, represent the two sides of this conflict.
Decades of conflict have many consequences for all who are caught up in it. For example, no-one would deny Israel the right to protect its citizens, and one understands the rationale for the construction of the security barrier, but the impacts on the daily life and movement for Israelis and Palestinians are great. Many Palestinians find themselves cut off from their natural farming lands, water sources and employment. The daily task of the innocent majority, in simply getting to work on the other side of the wall, is indeed a challenge. Many queue at the checkpoints from 4am in order to get to work on time.
But we were witnesses not just to suffering and disadvantage as an artifact of conflict, but also to hope and positive action. One positive example was the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (www.eappi.org) – a program of the World Council of Churches. An international team of volunteers give three months of their time to provide a protective presence within communities of the West Bank. Their simple non-violent presence supports vulnerable people like women and children as they go about their daily lives, passing through checkpoints and making their way to school and work. The instances of documented violence from local settlers and intimidation by the military are often reduced in part because of the peaceful presence of the EAs. Australian EAPPI volunteer Miriam escorted us through the Occupied Hebron.
Claire Anastas owned a business and a home on the main road into Bethlehem. Since the construction of the security barrier, her home and business has been enclosed on three sides by the wall. Passing trade has dried up, and the conditions feel very much like living in a prison. Yet Claire is a woman of faith, and her deep trust in God and hope in Jesus Christ has sustained her resilient spirit, and she is rebuilding. Please visit her on-line store at www.anasta-Bethlehem.com to purchase very fine olive wood nativity sets and much more.
The Christian Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories has suffered greatly in the conflict. In 1967 Christians made up 20% of the population, today they number less than 2%. The causes of this decline are complex. The percentages are affected by the increase in the Jewish population through Israeli migration and settlement, and through high Arab birth rates. But the actual number of Christians has also declined through many leaving the country.
I was told before I left Australia that Muslim pressure on local Christians was the cause of their migration. We were surprised to find that none of the Christians we met agreed with that analysis. In fact many spoke of the respect of Muslims shown to the Christian minority living in the West Bank. Instead, we heard repeated claims that the pressures of daily life under Israeli occupation have taken their toll and caused many to leave.
We should indeed continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And pray that the power of the Christian gospel that removes the “dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) might prevail in this holy land.
Bishop Richard Condie is the Bishop of Tasmania, leader of the Anglican Church in Tasmania and former Vicar of St Jude’s Carlton, in Victoria.