Amid conflict there is hope
For pilgrims from Colorado in Jerusalem during the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh the conflict becomes real
by the Rev. Weezie Blanchard
Rector of Church of the Ascension, Denver
Recently, 21 parishioners from various Episcopal churches in Colorado (and a few from Oklahoma) returned from a transformative 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our main guides were a Palestinian Christian and an Israeli Jew who led us to holy and historical sites throughout Israel and Palestine and provided distinct viewpoints on the history and present-day realities of life in this ancient and modern land. The stories of the Bible came alive as we visited the places traditionally associated with the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary in Nazareth that she would bear a child, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the birthplace of John the Baptist, the caves and fields surrounding Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem, and various locations in Nazareth and Capernaum where Jesus taught and healed and preached. We followed in Jesus’s footsteps down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, stopping where he wept over the city and prayed in the garden at Gethsemane, and continued to the places where he is believed to have been tried and crucified and buried.
But the Holy Land is far more complicated than the places where Jesus lived and died. It is undeniably a land of conflict between Jews who regard it both as their ancient homeland and the homeland that they deserve in the wake of the Holocaust, and Palestinians who also regard it as their ancient homeland and the homeland that has been taken from them in the past 74 years. The conflict was evident in our visits to places like Yad Vashem, the wrenching Holocaust remembrance museum; the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine that is built on a site that is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike; a 55-year-old Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank; and multiple checkpoints. The conflict was wrenching in the conversations that we had with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, the leader of an Israeli kibbutz, the leader of an ecumenical liberation theology organization founded by an Anglican priest, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and two fathers – one Israeli and one Palestinian – who have joined forces in the wake of the random killings of their young daughters in the conflict.
The conflict came alive in real time when a Palestinian reporter was shot and killed while reporting on unrest in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian and an American citizen, was a 25-year veteran of Al Jazeera and widely respected. The day after her death, we met with Father Fadi Diab, the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority and Abu Akleh’s hometown. He had known Abu Akleh well and was one of three clergy who received her body when it was brought to Ramallah. The next day, we were in Jerusalem at the time of Abu Akleh’s funeral. Although we did not witness the widely seen footage of Israeli soldiers beating her pallbearers and other mourners, some of us did see the thousands of people who gathered for the funeral and the procession of her casket from the Catholic church to the Christian cemetery. Others of us watched the funeral and the assault on the pallbearers in real time on TV, including Father Fadi’s commentary, while simultaneously witnessing the demonstration, with the shouts of the crowds, the wailing of sirens and the ringing of church bells throughout the Old City. The reverberations of her death were unavoidable, and the obstacles to justice and peace are daunting.
But there is hope. Father Fadi and the Episcopal Church are the second largest employer in Ramallah. In addition to the church, there is a hospital and a school that has more than 850 students – half Christian and half Muslim. Our worship at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and Christ Church in Nazareth was a joyful combination of English and Arabic. Dedicated Israelis and Palestinians are working hard to bring justice and peace and overcome the differences that make this a divided and occupied land.
Our pilgrimage was hosted by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), whose Executive Director, Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, has been a guest speaker at several Episcopal churches in Colorado. CMEP is a coalition of 30 national church communions and organizations working to encourage U.S. policies that actively promote just, lasting, and comprehensive resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East, including a shared Jerusalem by Israelis and Palestinians and full access to holy sites by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. To learn more about CMEP, please go to www.cmep.org.
Please pray for peace in this holy land.