Bishops vow to fight against silence in Middle East

June 6, 2004

"No one is a child here." That was the poignant remark of a teenager in the Remember the Innocents Club in Bethlehem to a delegation of Episcopal bishops and spouses visiting Palestine and Israel May 6-14, 2004.

Under the guidance of Bishop Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts, Bishops Mark Andrus (suffragan, Alabama), David Bane (Southern Virginia), Tom Ely (Vermont), Gary Gloster (suffragan, North Carolina), Barry Howe (West Missouri), and Larry Maze (Arkansas) made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with visits to the West Bank to learn more about the effects of the ongoing turmoil on children in the Middle East and young people and the response from the Episcopal and ecumenical community.

Education--signs of hope

The Rt. Rev. Riah Abu Al-Assal, Bishop in Jerusalem, greeted the group upon their arrival. During the stay they met with a variety of people, including local clergy, school officials, non-profit leaders, students, and Palestinian and Israeli human rights advocates. Amid the hardship and the challenge, the group was inspired by signs of hope in the work that is ongoing.

Despite interruptions because of the intifadas, over 60 Christian schools in Palestine continue to educate Muslims and the dwindling number of Christians. Access to schools has become an increasing problem as the Israelis build a "security barrier" in the West Bank. Where it is a "fence" it consists of three parts--a razor wire fence with electric sensors, a road, and then another fortified fence. In the most populated areas it is a concrete wall up to 25 feet high. Checkpoints at the barrier may not be near the schools and workplaces, and the hours that the gates are open can be irregular or non-existent. The separation of Palestinians from markets and fields results in economic dislocations for all, and dietary and nutritional problems which can have particularly harmful effects on children.

For some students, the barrier means long waits at checkpoints, and for girls in particular, it can mean an end to education, as their fathers may not want them to go alone but often cannot escort them. Yet at the Ramallah Evangelical Home and School, which began with 22 students 50 years go, there are now 560 students--Christian and Muslim--gaining a quality education and enjoying a recently dedicated new building. Just across the street is the Episcopal Technological & Vocational Training Center, where some of the 300 students learning electronics and mechanics proudly showed visitors their drawing and mechanical projects. They hope soon to include hotel and restaurant training.

General Director Hanna Abu El-Assal heads Christ Church High School in Nazareth with its state-of-the-art science and computer labs. In Bethlehem, 240 children enjoy the Dar al-Kalima School at the Ecumenical International Center, where art and sports are an important part of helping traumatized children. Director Rev. Mitri Raheb said, "We don't want the young to believe in a good life only after death."

During their day in Bethlehem, the bishops spent time at the Azza Refugee Camp where, for some, three generations of families have now grown up. With a population of 2,000, it is one of the smallest camps, and parents must send their children on walks they feel are dangerous to schools in other camps until 9th grade. As school vacations near, parents face the challenge of keeping young people positively occupied, despite the fact that some 40% of the camp is under age 18 and yet there is no soccer field and little for teenagers to do. The intifadas have also resulted in significant periods when Palestinian schools were closed.

But Christian organizations in the region continue creatively to find ways to engage young people. In Nablus, Episcopal priest Hosam Naoum gathers some 150 young Christians every Friday for social time together. A few of the young men met over lunch with the bishops' group. When asked what they dream of doing, one responded, "To visit Jerusalem." Jerusalem is only a short drive from Nablus, but an impossible distance away for a young male Arab who would not be permitted to pass a check-point.

Isolation and fear

At the Remember the Innocents Program of the Holy Land Trust, the bishops' group was treated to a lively exchange among teenagers who shared stories of classmates lost during the fighting as well as their own dreams for the future--including being a TV correspondent and a dress designer. They asked young people in the US to remember them in these hard times.

"There was much that was troubling in our visit, but perhaps most troubling of all was the lack of opportunity for young Palestinians and Israelis to meet," said Shaw. In the village of Beit Umer the group met with the Bereaved Parents Circle, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a first degree family member and work together for mutual reconciliation among themselves and in schools. "One father shared with us this Arabic saying: ‘What is away from your eye is away from your heart,'" Shaw recalled, which captured the isolation and fear that ensues when people sharing a small land cannot meet with one another.

It was hard to find opportunities for young people to meet eye-to-eye. In Ramallah, for instance, a conflict resolution program for 10th graders no longer exists, and Palestinian and Israeli teachers must meet in Turkey because of travel restrictions. Remember the Innocents teens can no longer travel to Israel to meet other teens. The Co-directors of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, which has worked to publish a narrative booklet for schools to tell the Palestinian and Israeli experiences of 1920, 1930-40, and 1967, have found it easier to meet in Europe than Israel or Palestine.

The bishops learned a great deal at Kibbutz Metzer, founded by Argentinean Jews in 1953 and one place where Arabs and Israelis do mix. The kibbutzim have learned to farm the rocky land and have taught the Arabs about modern agricultural techniques; they now share a water source. The kibbutz brought suit in an Israeli court to prevent their Arab neighbors in another village from being cut off from their olive groves and land by the "security barrier." A decision on the suit came at the same time as a tragedy within the kibbutz. Adults and children from the neighboring Arab village of Maisir were regular visitors, enabling an Arab gunman to enter without notice and murder five people in the kibbutz in 2000. Despite their loss, the kibbutz continued its suit on behalf of their neighbors in Qafin. While unsuccessful in court, the communities continue to struggle together against those who would divide them.

And there are those who do work to heal the divisions. During the visit, renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim gave the $100,000 from a humanitarian award he had just received to Israel and Ramallah for music programs, and conducted the first performance of the Ramallah Youth Orchestra. "My way is music, and as a musician, I fight against two things; against loud noise, but also against silence," Barenboim said.

Vowing to fight against silence, the bishops have promised to meet with Members of Congress to talk about the trip and encourage other bishops to make a similar trip.