Mary Jane and Deacon Tom Fox
"On April 2nd, we led a small group of seven Roman Catholic clergy on an "educational pilgrimage" to the Holy Land. Upon arrival at the Tel Aviv airport, we noticed that we were the only "tourist" or "pilgrim" in sight. Questions were asked of our group that never before had we experienced in our previous 22 times of visiting the Holy Land. Questions such as: 'why are you coming in a difficult time like this? Let me see your return ticket. Where are you going during your stay?' We stayed in Jerusalem for five nights at the Knights Palace Hotel in the Old City. We were the only pilgrim group, there were a few journalists and some peace activists from Italy and France. The pilgrim group had a private audience with the Latin Patriarch, heard presentations by Fr. M. Garrity at Tantur and from Fr. Charles Miller SM on the present situation. His Beatitude was happy to see clergy/pilgrims in this time and said that the Holy Land and the local Church needs a pilgrim of faith and hope today, not one of comfort!
The only Holy sites we were unable to visit were Bethlehem, Bethany and Jericho. We asked the soldier at the military checkpoint in Jericho if we could enter to visit and pray with the Franciscan Sisters. The answer was an abrupt 'no', as he (the soldier) held his machine gun in a 'ready mode'. Jericho is surrounded by a six-foot deep and 5 feet wide ditch dug by the Israeli Military. It is extremely sad TO SEE such an incredible way to imprison an entire town! The two major roads were blocked with huge concrete blocks, sniper tower and soldiers. As we drove northward through the Jordan Valley toward Galilee, we saw a couple of sniper towers by the road. These towers are covered with a light net to prevent you from seeing the sniper. We did see a couple of soldiers stop a car driven by a Palestinian man and he was standing with his hands on the car as the soldier the entire time had his machine gun in 'ready mode'.
In the Galilee area, the Holy Sites were empty, many shops closed, restaurants closed and several hotels in Tiberias were closed as well due to lack of tourism. The Franciscan Sisters on the Mt. of Beatitudes said that on an average day, approximately 30-40 Masses would be said by the visiting groups. Recently it went down to 5-10 per week and when we were there, perhaps 1-2 per week. The Carmelite Community on Mt. Carmel are concerned. They have been informed that Israel wants to take a lot of their land, so the Community is trying to think of ways to "work" on the land (archeological work, build a park?). When the pilgrim group returned to the U.S., we both returned to Jerusalem for an additional week. Staying the entire seven nights in the Old City, we had the opportunity to visit with local friends, interview people on video and converse with Jews, Palestinian Christians and Muslims. At the 'grass root' level, they all want to live in peace and say it is possible to live in peace as neighbors – IF only Ariel Sharon will pull out of the West Bank and grant Palestine its Statehood and freedom. We were able to join a convoy of food sponsored by Pontifical Mission of Palestine, Catholic Relief Services, Caritas, World Vision and the Mennonite Community. As we drove to Beit Jala, WE SAW how Israel is putting up a high and strong fence along the road between Beit Jala and Gilo. They have also put up some concrete walls along the same road. The convoy of around 20 vehicles passed through the military checkpoint in Beit Jala. We heard a soldier yell out in Hebrew "So how much did this cost? For what?!"
WE SAW numerous Christian homes gutted and destroyed by military armament in Beit Jala. In Bethlehem, we traveled a short way only on the road leading to the Basilica of the Nativity, many of the buildings were damaged, there were two tanks in the street, the Paradise Hotel newly built was destroyed, some shops were destroyed. As we continued on the convoy to Beit Sahour, we visited the Municipality building, built only a year or two ago, a very new building. The front entrance had been bombed to allow the soldiers to go up to the roof, as they climbed the flight of stairs, they broke windows and put holes in the walls. Leaving the West Bank, we saw some sniper towers, a funeral procession and a young girl's dead body being placed in an ambulance. This day will be one we will never forget for the rest of our lives. What were we feeling?
Anger – anger towards the leaders of a government that would allow this atrocities (including our own government for not pressuring Ariel Sharon), Deep Sadness – for how the people have to live each day under severe threats and terrible military occupation. A bit of Guilt – because I can easily return to the comfort of a home, however, it can and it will bear fruit because we want to take action.
It was an incredible, sad, heavy day, but we were very grateful we had this experience. Would we return? By all means YES! We would return tomorrow if possible. So would the clergy that traveled on the pilgrimage, they are very happy they went and have returned with "open eyes" and the truth."
A few notes: The West Bank is a 80×30 area with 105 military check points and 185 illegal Jewish Settlements built on confiscated land. The Israeli citizen uses 5 times more water than the Palestinian.
Some very GOOD NEWS!!!!
Today, we were interviewed by our local CBS and ABC television stations on our visit to the Holy Land. They actually took some of our video footage taken in Bethlehem. We gave them a few websites (including HCEF), a map of the West Bank with the checkpoint and showed them the graphic photos of Ramallah, Jenin and Bethlehem from Arabic newspapers.
In fact, Father Raed came out on TV, we had him in the video footage as well. One of the news reporters was so impressed with the facts, pictures and stories, she wants to go with us on our next pilgrimage as a media person! We were so happy about this.
We have been sending information to some radio talk hosts that speak on the situation in the Holy Land but are not informed as to what is really happening. We have a lot of names on petition. Here in the San Antonio area, we will keep trying to be a voice for the Palestinians…a tiny one, but a voice.
Peace, Mary Jane and Deacon Tom Fox * Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas