A Palestinian Christian child lights a candle during a Palm Sunday procession at the Nativity Church in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 1 April 2007. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)
6 April 2007
Al-Masiih Qaam! Haqaan Qaam! (Christ Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!).
This Arabic greeting has been commonly heard this week as Christians from across the world traveled to Jerusalem to experience Easter. It is truly an exciting experience. Yet at the same time, we witness with sadness the realities that our Palestinian sisters and brothers continue to face.
The week before Easter had already been quite a full week, here in the “holy land.” The Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, was marked by a huge procession from the historical town of Bethphage, where Jesus began his donkey ride 2000 years ago, up and over the Mount of Olives, and then back down again up to the Old City of Jerusalem. Many languages could be heard along the Mount of Olives as people from all over the world traveled here to participate in this procession. Though it was great to see so many people, our Palestinian friends and neighbors told us that it was not nearly the size it used to be seven or ten years ago, before Israeli incursions into the Occupied Territories. We can only hope that so many people will return to their homes with a deeper knowledge of the oppression of this land, and tell what they have seen. Unfortunately, few of the internationals we saw that Sunday will take the time to even come to Bethlehem to meet their Palestinian brothers and sisters. This is a discouraging and, as a U.S. Christian, an embarrassing witness on our part to the Christians of this land.
I suppose this is one of the reasons why we do not often talk about the biblical sights we are seeing on a daily basis. Though it is an incredible privilege to walk in the steps of so many before us, it honestly can be difficult feeling present in a spiritual sense. It is hard standing in the Church of the Nativity, or in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or up on the Mount of Beatitude overlooking the Sea of Galilee and not also be confronted at the same time by the injustices and the suffering that plague this land, especially as a Christian who believes that when Jesus walked this land his heart was also broken by the injustices and the suffering of those around him, living as they did also under (Roman) occupation.
Knowing that Palestinian brothers and sisters here in Bethlehem will not even be able to travel the short distance of six miles or ten kilometers to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where tradition holds Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected — on Easter Sunday morning is heart-breaking.
For this is also a special time of remembrance for our Jewish friends. This is the time of Pesach or Passover, when Jews remember their liberation from slavery and oppression in Egypt. But in this place, the celebration of liberation from oppression for Jews becomes a time of increased restrictions imposed on Palestinians. Beginning on April 1, a week long general closure was imposed by the Israeli military on the West Bank due to the Jewish holiday of Passover. This undoubtedly affected those Palestinians who were fortunate enough to receive special permits to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. As is often the case during Israeli military closures, no Palestinian can move in and our of their walled-in communities, oftentimes even if they have a permit.
This was the case for one of our Palestinian neighbors who, along with a women’s group from her church, were all stopped at the Bethlehem checkpoint trying to go to Jerusalem this past Sunday. The permits they were all carrying were useless. As a sign of protest, they ripped up their permits in front of the Israeli soldiers who would not let them pass through the checkpoint.
Pointing out this disconnect between remembering past oppression and imposing oppressive measures today, our friend Zoughbi often asks, “why does the right to exercise freedom of religion for Israeli Jews mean collective punishment for the Palestinian people?”
And yet our Palestinian friends respond with such grace. As we were sharing our experiences on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, one friend here in Bethlehem who is a Palestinian Christian (and who has not been “allowed” to go to Jerusalem for about eight years now because the Israeli military will not issue him a permit) responded not with bitterness or hate, but instead told us that though he was not allowed to be there, he was experiencing it as we were telling of our experiences. “I was just now there with you,” he said, thinking back to when he was young and walked in that procession. I almost broke out into tears.
But so many Christians who do travel to this land, seldom take the time to meet with the people, especially with Palestinians. This land is marketed and sold as a pilgrimage destination, a land full of “holy sites” and “dead stones” with little to no attention paid to the “living stones” — those Christian communities that feel most forsaken.
This is why Palm Sunday is such a paradoxical remembrance, for only five days later, those singing the praises of Jesus and the God he bore witness to 2000 years ago were calling for his crucifixion. Indeed, Jesus felt forsaken in more ways than one. This is a great challenge to me and to all of us: how are we complicit in crucifixions even today as we sing Palm Sunday praises?
Nonetheless, we do still appreciate and take the time to be present in a very spiritual way in this “holy land.” Many events throughout this week — Holy Week — are keeping us busy and keeping our minds and hearts reflective. On Good Friday morning there was another procession. This one began at 6:30am in the Old City of Jerusalem, and walked along in prayer through the Stations of the Cross, the “Via Dolorosa,” beginning at the site where Jesus was condemned by Pilate and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On Sunday, we will return to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to remember, pray, and give thanks for the resurrection of our Lord. We will do this later in the morning, after a 5:30am sunrise service on the Mount of Olives, looking out over the Jordan Valley to the see the sun rise, shining down on the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous — a poignant reminder as a concrete wall snaking through the hillside separating Palestinian from Palestinian is illuminated by the sun’s light, that we are to strive to love and pray for all in this broken land. (Matthew 5:45)
For us what has been most meaningful though, has been the time we spent here in Bethlehem, with friends and colleagues. One example was during Holy Week last year, when the staff of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem met every morning to read and reflect upon Scripture. For me, this was more meaningful than even visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Sunday morning. For this is where Jesus truly walks among us today, among the poor and the oppressed and those forgotten and forsaken.
Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past two and a half years. This reflection originally appeared in an update sent out by MCC that can also be found at http://mccpalestineupdate.blogspot.com/.