“No! These are my guests, and this is my house!” The admonition is delivered to Israeli soldiers attempting to stop a group of Palestinian women crossing the grounds of a monastery. The messenger is Father Claudio Ghilardi, a Passionist priest from Italy. His message is clear: at least as far as the monastery grounds are concerned, he will not permit the harassment of Palestinians by soldiers. The soldiers desist as long as Father Claudio is present. The Palestinians continue on their way, attempting to cross the monastery and reach Jerusalem on the other side. The continuation of their journey depends on whether soldiers are waiting at the exit, but at least they were able to get this far, thanks to Father Claudio’s intervention. Father Claudio cuts an elegant figure in his long black robe and matching black beret. He seems weary on this particular day, however. He relates how he has been chasing Israeli border police off the grounds and dealing with soldiers all morning. The source of his weariness can be seen looming in the distance; it is Israel’s “separation wall.” An ugly concrete behemoth standing about 30 feet (nine metres) tall, dwarfing the much smaller but more aesthetically pleasing stone monastery walls, the “separation wall” stands poised to invade, as the two gaping holes in the monastery wall attest.
For now, work has stopped only a few feet from the monastery grounds, thanks in part to the interventions of both the Italian consul and the Vatican apostolic nuncio, but much damage has already been done. And Father Claudio does not think that this reprieve will last for very long. “This is not a barrier,” he exclaims. “This is a border. Why don’t they speak the truth?”
The Santa Marta dei Padri Passionisti monastery is located at the confluence of East Jerusalem, Abu Dis and Al-Izariyyeh (Bethany), the latter the biblical home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.
It seems that the Israeli authorities want to build their wall right through the monastery grounds, in contravention of the 1997 agreement between the State of Israel and the Vatican respecting ecclesiastical property.
Not only will the people of Bethany, Abu Dis and parts of East Jerusalem be cut off from the rest of Jerusalem economically, but the 2,000 Christians living in the vicinity of the monastery will lose their spiritual centre as well.
Father Claudio’s church, named for St Martha, is now empty. The faithful are not allowed to come to the church because it is situated on the Jerusalem side of the grounds. They can enter the monastery on the Bethany side but are not allowed, when soldiers or police are present, to approach the Jerusalem side where they could conceivably exit. Many of the Christians who used to fill the church come from the bordering towns of Abu Dis and Bethany, and most lack the permits to enter Jerusalem. Due to these conditions, Father Claudio celebrates mass where they are allowed to go in a church belonging to the neighbouring Comboni sisters’ convent on the Bethany side.
The monastery forms the centre of a Catholic “complex” that includes three nearby convents. The Sisters of Charity run an orphanage for 45 children; the Comboni Sisters have a school for 38 elementary-aged students; and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Douleurs in Abu Dis have a rest home for 74 elderly Bedouins. The convents and the people they serve will be cut off from each other and from Father Claudio.
On top of all the religious and property issues, there is the matter of the archaeological importance of the grounds. The monastery is the site of some large cisterns dating back to Roman times and 12 large tombs belonging to members of the early Jewish-Christian community, with inscriptions in Aramaic. Some of these finds have been disturbed or damaged by the activities surrounding the construction of the wall. “When they came, they damaged these sites,” Father Claudio says. “The government does not respect the history of this land – a history that is important to the Jewish people as well.”
Much has been said by the Israeli government about its need for a wall to stop terrorist attacks within its pre-1967 borders. Much has been written criticizing the placement of the wall in some places deep within the West Bank, de facto annexing much Palestinian land. Israel has stated that the “separation fence” or “barrier,” as the government prefers to call it, is necessary to separate Israelis from Palestinians.
Even if one accepts the government’s argument that the wall is necessary for Israel’s security, most Palestinians can’t understand why it has to go through this area. “There are no Jews here. It’s not going to separate Jews from Palestinians. It will separate Palestinians from Palestinians,” comments Emad, who currently holds a Jerusalem ID and can make the short walk to get to work, but will be unable to do so if the wall through the monastery is completed.
And what will the wall do to the dwindling Christian community in the Holy Land? Christians once made up a thriving and healthy 10-15% of the Palestinian population. They now are officially only 2%, and some say that the actual figure is closer to 1%. Building a wall right through the monastery, separating Christians from their church and community services, will only cause the further exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
“We have lived here for over 100 years, under Turkish, British, Jordanian and now Israeli governments, and no one ever tried to stop the people from coming to pray. This wall will stop people from coming to church to pray. Why? It is scandalous,” protests Father Claudio.
Israel has denied charges that it is trying to force the churches out, but its recent policy denying most visa applications for clergy and lay church workers, making it difficult if not impossible for the churches to continue their work, will also cause erosion in the Christian community here.
Despite difficulties, Father Claudio vows to stay
Driving along the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives on our way to see Father Claudio, we pass Beit Fage (Bethpage), where Jesus stopped to eat some figs on his way into Jerusalem. It is from here that Christians begin their Holy Week celebrations on Palm Sunday, following in the footsteps of Christ as he descended from the top of the Mount of Olives and into the Old City of Jerusalem. Soon, Bethpage will be cut off from many of the Christian communities outside Jerusalem because of the wall, making the Palm Sunday procession an endangered tradition for the local population.
Upon arriving in the area known locally as “Bawabe,” we can immediately see part of Father Claudio’s problem. A temporary concrete wall blocks the road that used to connect East Jerusalem with Bethany. There is a small opening where, today, a soldier is checking IDs. This wall runs perpendicular with the monastery, meaning that part of the property is on what would be the Jerusalem side of the wall and part on the other side. The wall is covered with graffiti: “Love God, love people;” “Peace comes by agreement not separation;” and “God leads us to peace.” Going towards Bethany and Abu Dis is not a problem, and the soldier pays us no mind, nor does he pay any mind to the Palestinian students crossing on their way to Al Quds University or the many other Palestinians going in that direction. But he checks all the IDs of the Palestinians coming into Jerusalem. Those without the blue Jerusalem ID or the proper permits are not allowed passage.
There is a sea of taxis and mini-vans that serve as shared taxis here, on both sides of the Bawabe wall. There are also makeshift stands selling everything from fruit and vegetables to shoes and t-shirts. These entrepreneurs try to take advantage of the foot traffic Israel has created with its plethora of checkpoints; it is a booming cottage industry of sorts in an area that has an unemployment rate of 60% or higher. We make our way through the crowd, to enter the seeming oasis of peace and tranquility that is the Santa Marta dei Padri Passionisti monastery.
The grounds are actually a beehive of activity. There are soldiers all over the place attempting to stop Palestinians, and Father Claudio is intervening on behalf of his “guests.” Members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) are acting as witnesses and advocates. All this in a beautiful pastoral field dotted with olive, almond and pine trees that, at this moment, is simply pandemonium.
Mostly, the Palestinians trying to cross are people who work in Jerusalem but don’t have the proper permits. There are also people crossing to get medical attention, since facilities in some parts of the West Bank are few and far between. This morning, Father Claudio was woken up at 4 a.m. by the sounds of tear gas being fired by border police in what is essentially his back yard. Soldiers have been maintaining a constant presence on the grounds, and recently, the border police have started making regular appearances as well.
“These people help me when the soldiers are in the area,” Father Claudio says, referring to the Ecumenical Accompaniers. Alexandra Rigby-Smith, an accompanier from Sweden, was working at the monastery today. “Many of the people were scared,” she said. “We tried to help them get past the soldiers so they could go to work, the hospital, university, to see family, etc. One Bedouin woman was shaking, she was so nervous. We were able to get some people through, but one pregnant woman, who was on her way to the doctor, was refused a pass. That was very frustrating.”
Father Claudio tells us that a few months ago, soldiers found explosives on one of the Palestinians crossing the monastery. But he doesn’t see that as a reason for collectively punishing the entire community. One of the soldiers tells a member of our group that the Palestinians dug a tunnel below the monastery grounds to bring explosives into Jerusalem. We inspected the “tunnel”, and there is definitely an opening large enough for a person to get through, but not much more.
For Father Claudio, it is hardly surprising that people try any way to get to the other side where they can find work: “The father of one family I know with eight children hasn’t worked in one month. I help them spiritually and I give them some food. Much more than that, I cannot do.”
But Father Claudio does do much more. People see the monastery as a safe haven. The sick come to him and he takes them to the hospital in his car, using his status to get around the closures. He has had to rush women in labour to the hospital as well. Were it not for him, these women would have had to deliver their babies at home, a situation that adds to the infant mortality rate in Palestine. The people call him “abuna” - our father - even if they are not Christian.
But even Father Claudio is not always able to circumvent the authorities, and he’s not immune from the troubles either. He shows us a scar on his arm. “This was a gift from the army,” he tells us. “They fired tear gas and it hit me right here.”
Father Claudio takes us around the monastery on an impromptu tour, pointing to buildings owned by the Latin Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican Churches. Some of the buildings are used as low-cost housing for local Palestinian Christians. The wall will separate all of these community centres.
All the while our group is walking along a dirt path between the rows of olive trees, Palestinians are scurrying by us in the other direction trying to cross. Soldiers are stopping them and the ecumenical accompaniers are advocating for them. When Father Claudio comes by, he tells the soldiers not to bother the Palestinians and, curiously, they listen without argument. Of course, he can’t intervene on behalf of every Palestinian who tries to cross and he can’t be present at all times.
“This wall doesn’t respect the human rights of the Palestinian people,” Father Claudio says. “It doesn’t respect private property because the Israeli government takes the land to build it. It is not the land of the government, it is the land of poor people. What more do they want from these people?”
Father Claudio gets some help with the many caretaking chores from another Italian priest from Abu Dis. Otherwise, he is essentially alone, but it was not always this way. Before the outbreak of the current Intifada in 2000, there were five priests living in the monastery with him. They all left because of the fear and uncertainty caused by the situation. When asked if he will be forced to leave as well, he replies defiantly: “The only way I will leave is if they kill me. This is my home. These people are my family.”
Our tour ended at Father Claudio’s church, where the absence of worshippers is symbolic of the disappearing presence of Christians in the Holy Land. Located just a few hundred metres away is the traditional site where the Gospel tells us Jesus called into the tomb of Lazarus and brought him back from the dead. If the wall is completed, it may take a miracle of a similar magnitude to bring back the Christian community here.
Larry Fata, a Catholic teacher and journalist from USA is managing editor and communication officer of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, launched in August 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Ecumenical accompaniers monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy, and stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation.