“Does the world care that we’re being pushed out of our land and that we have nowhere to go?”
Palestinian Christians posed this haunting question over and over to Lisa Barry, Anglican Video’s senior producer, by Palestinian Christians during a February trip to the Holy Land.
Barry, along with Anglican Video production manager Becky Boucher, cameraman Scott Brown and Andrea Mann, global relations coordinator, visited the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which has 27 parishes spread across Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The trip was intended to “really listen, record and gather up the stories of the living stones of the diocese,” and to develop resources for parishes to use for Jerusalem Sunday, which the Anglican Church of Canada celebrates for the first time on June 1, said Mann in an interview.
During the weeklong visit, the team met with the diocesan bishop, Suheil Dawani, and diocesan staff; they also toured various ministries of the diocese in and around Jerusalem and in the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Gaza, and met people involved in diocesan programs. Limitations around “time and opportunity” prevented them from visiting Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, said Mann. A trip is being planned in 2015.
The team also saw, firsthand, the effects of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Barry, who first visited Jerusalem 12 years ago, said she was struck by the growth of prosperous Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. “From little outposts, it becomes literally small cities with tens of thousands of people living in them, [even] up on hilltops,” she said. “They just go on for kilometre after kilometre, well-groomed [homes] with flowers planted around them…and underneath those are Palestinian villages in disrepair.”
The settlements are “illegal,” because they are encroach on Palestinian land. “Again and again, it was said to us, ‘How can they be talking about peace over there and doing this over here?’ ”
Boucher said seeing the settlements made her realize that while people around the world, including Canada, may think that peace talks are progressing, the reality they saw on the ground said something else.
For Mann, who was on her fourth visit to the Middle East in the last 13 years, the greatest shock came from seeing what former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon euphemistically called the “separation fence”-and what Palestinians call “The Wall.” The massive concrete barriers extend for miles in and around Bethlehem, in Ramallah, out into the Israeli countryside and within the Palestinian territories. “There [have] been fewer incursions, fewer suicide bombers, so this has led to a greater feeling of peace and security for Israelis…[but] it has also made the lives of Palestinians, who most have to deal with the impact of the wall and fencing, much more difficult,” said Mann. Palestinians stand in line for hours to go to work or visit families on the other side of the wall, and even then, some are denied entry to their destination. The wall separates Israelis and Palestinians, “which is also not good in the interest of peace and justice,” said Mann.
Entering Gaza to visit Al Ahli Arab Hospital, an institution run by the diocese, was an “eye-opening” experience, said Barry and Boucher.
“…It was extremely controlled and it felt like you were walking into prison, in an area that’s walled…you feel like you’re entering a place that would be very difficult to leave,” said Boucher. “The poverty that exists there is just palpable when you drive down the road.”
Barry was taken aback at the difficulty of “getting into Gaza, getting out of Gaza, moving around in Gaza, passing a bomb site with smoke still coming out of it” and passing through several Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints. It made her realize what Canadians take for granted, including personal safety and logistics. “We can get into our car and we may face traffic, but we’re not going to be stopped because we’re Anglican or be held and [be unable to] get to work. This is what people face every day.”
However, both Boucher and Barry noted that in spite of the difficulties, the diocese and staff continue to do good work in Gaza.
Barry said she was deeply moved by people’s “tremendous courage, [their] eagerness for peace and reconciliation” and how they were living out their faith. “It stuck me that in the face of such injustice, there’s still hope and faith.
Visiting other diocesan programs, including schools enrolling both Christian and Muslim students and a medical centre for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, Barry said she was impressed by the “deep faithfulness on the ground, a deep commitment to work under sometimes very difficult conditions.”
Operating more than 30 institutions, the diocese employs about 1,500 people, has 6,400 students enrolled in its schools and provides about 200 hospital beds.
The diocese, its bishop, Suheil Dawani, and staff “see their roles as healer and teachers, as they said to me, the way Jesus walked the land,” said Barry.
“They let us into their world in a very personal way and they showed us the things that we needed to see in order to be able to help them tell their story,” added Boucher.
Barry and Boucher also talked about the warm hospitality extended to them during their visit. “Everywhere we went we were presented with a wonderful Mediterranean meal that was wonderfully prepared and laid out and delicious,” said Boucher. “No matter how humble the place,” added Barry.
The experience of seeing how people made a point of introducing the server in the kitchen in the same manner as the bishop has deeply affected and changed her, said Barry. “Not to say the bishop wasn’t given his due, but we saw people being treated with great courtesy and respect, no matter what their station. I realized that [in Canada] we have a hierarchy.
With regard to the videos, photographs and interviews they gathered during the visit, Barry said it is her hope that they would help “to be a conduit to letting people know what’s happening [in the Holy Land], trying to support people who share our faith, our dreams and our desires for safety.” She also expressed the hope that Canadian Anglicans would understand what Palestinian Christians are enduring “and learn to walk with them and provide support in any way.”
As to the oft-repeated question raised by Palestinian Christians whom she met, “Does the world care?” Barry said, “I think that we, as Canadian Anglicans, would care if we knew.”