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Unable at the Last Minute
to Visit Ramallah, NCC Delegation Meets
By Jim Wetekam*
April 24, 2002, JERUSALEM -- Just before it was to board a bus headed to Ramallah, a delegation of American church leaders learned that it would be unable to travel there today (April 24). A demonstration had led to the re-imposition of an Israeli government curfew on Ramallah. It had been the hope of the delegation to look at damage and talk to persons associated with several Christian institutions hard hit by the Israeli Defense Forces during the past few weeks, including the Lutheran School of Hope.
The American church delegation plans now to travel with humanitarian aid shipments on Thursday, April 25 - one into Jenin and one to Bethlehem. A group of four from the group will accompany others who hope to journey to Jenin from Jerusalem beginning early in the morning. The rest of the delegation will accompany a shipment to the Bethlehem area on Thursday afternoon.
The U.S. delegation is sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and traveled to the region at the invitation and request of the Middle East Council of Churches. The group had previously visited with political and religious leaders in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan before arriving in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening, April 23.
Despite the cancellation of the trip to Ramallah, several meetings were held throughout the day in Jerusalem. These included important times spent with both the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Eirinaios, and with the Latin Catholic Patriarch in Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah. An ecumenical encounter included discussions not only with clergy of these two Christian churches but also with the Maronite, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal churches.
In all meetings, there was much discussion about the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, now in its fourth week. The discussions included reports on the negotiations to end the standoff. Oversight of the Church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Franciscan Order. The Israeli government began negotiating with the Palestinian Authority on the matter in the past few days, but the government has refused to allow the participation of the church leaders in the negotiation.
Other topics were also covered, including the diminishing number and place of Christians in this its most holy site. Churches for Middle East Peace estimates that there are 175,000 Christians living in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank.
Patriarch Sabbah spoke directly to the violence, the roots of violence, the destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure, and the future. He told the group, "If you want really to fight terrorism, you have to take away the cause and the cause is the Israeli occupation. Iraq did not have the right to occupy Kuwait; nor does Israel have the right to occupy Palestine." He went on to say that the Israeli policy and actions of the past few weeks are short-sighted in that they will not produce the peace and security that Israel desires: "Sharon, intending to serve his people, is doing just the opposite."
As they walked throughout the Old City speaking with people on the streets and in the shops, nearly all the U.S. delegates talked of how these same streets were normally buzzing with tourists and commerce. At one point, the Rev. Mark Brown of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shook his head sadly and commented, "This, too, is the destruction of the Palestinian people. You can destroy people and societal infrastructure with tanks and missiles and heavy weapons and bulldozers. You can destroy those same people and that same infrastructure by wrecking the people's economy. Merchants and restaurant owners are going days, even weeks, without selling one item or one meal."
The group spent time in meetings also with key Palestinian Authority members. These included Dr. Manauel Hassassian, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, and Dr. Emil Jarjoui. All articulated honestly the depression and/or rage now present in the Palestinian people. Dr. Jarjoui said that the Israelis were today bulldozing mounds of dirt around what remains of President Arafat's compound in order to prevent cars from getting close." Nevertheless, he concluded, "Our heads are always high; we will never go down to our knees."
During the day also, the leader of the American church delegation, Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., made a request of Prime Minister Sharon's office that the delegation be able to meet with Mr. Sharon and be permitted to see Mr. Arafat, as well. There has been no word received yet regarding the request.
*Jim Wetekam, Media Program Director for Churches for Middle East Peace, is a member of the NCC delegation.
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