I met my guide, Helmut Konitzer, at the airport. A German who visits the West Bank to assist the sisters, monks, and priests living there, Helmut had the look of a well-cut drifter.

I met my guide, Helmut Konitzer, at the airport. A German who visits the West Bank to assist the sisters, monks, and priests living there, Helmut had the look of a well-cut drifter. I wasn’t surprised when he told me his preferred mode of transportation was his motorcycle, especially when medicines have to be delivered quickly to the sisters for their work. Cars are always delayed by the roadblocks. “On my motorcycle, I can just go around, as you will see,” he said.
There was still a little sunlight left in our day, and Helmut thought it important to introduce me to one reality of life in the Holy Land—the checkpoint. He took me to the most dangerous checkpoint on the West Bank, the one that blocks the road leading into and out of Ramallah, home to the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

All the roads in and out of the West Bank have checkpoints. Cities and suburbs that used to be minutes apart are almost totally separated by the time and trouble it takes to traverse these roadblocks. A simple car trip from Ramallah to East Jerusalem or from Jerusalem to Bethlehem—which normally takes only a few minutes—can now take an hour or more. That is, unless you have the yellow license plate of an Israeli citizen.

I realized I would be thankful for Helmut’s motorcycle.

Once we were through the checkpoint, we still had time to look at the Mount of Olives as the sun was setting. I was about to see the most sacred ground in the world. I stepped from the car and looked down upon the place where Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. The late afternoon sunlight was almost blinding and extremely hot as I tried to take it all in.

And that’s when I saw it. Looking north, I could see clearly in the distance a towering concrete wall that wound its way to the spot where I stood. This was the reason I had come. It is being built by Israel to help prevent suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering the country. Thus far, it has met with success. But for Christians, that success has come at a price.

A Briefing in Rome

Before I arrived in Jerusalem, I made a point to meet with Rev. David Jaeger in Rome. A convert born both Jewish and Israeli, he’s the kind of priest who should be the protagonist in a series of detective novels. He has the size of a man who spends too much time at the table in conversation, but once he speaks, I’m grateful that such a Chestertonian character still exists. Given his intelligence and encyclopedic memory, I could see why he occupies such an important position in the Vatican. Father Jaeger is officially in charge of all the diplomatic negotiations between the Holy See and the nation of Israel.

When we sat down in a hotel adjacent to the airport, he thought it important that I first understand the history and status of negotiations between the Holy See and Israel—the purpose of which was to finalize what is called the “fundamental agreement” between the two nations, formalizing their legal and diplomatic relationships. (Catholics sometimes forget that the Holy See is also a political, governmental entity in the eyes of other nations.)

Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the Israeli government had canceled the most recent negotiations just as the two sides seemed on the verge of settling many of the legal and financial issues left unresolved by previous talks.

Shortly following my return to the United States, Israel returned to the talks but disappointed Jaeger by saying they had no authority to actually negotiate. This prompted a letter from Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) asking Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue the negotiations with an Israeli delegation with real authority. The letter worked. As I write, the two nations are back at the table making progress.

Unfortunately, the fundamental charter—the fruit of earlier negotiations that was signed in 1993—was never added to Israeli law, which means it is unenforceable. And thus, Church property disputes cannot be resolved in the court because there’s no legal relationship between the Church and the Israeli government. There are many cases of confiscation of Church property by Israel that have never been resolved or even litigated.

The Wall

There’s something shocking about seeing the wall for the first time, large and imposing as it is. When you stand next to a concrete section, it seems like overkill—its dwarfing presence signifies a resolute intent. But there are good reasons why it was conceived and built. Israel has been plagued for years by suicide bombers, young Palestinians who strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves up in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Since September 2000, 921 people have been killed by these attacks, including many non-Israelis and several American citizens. The rationale for the proposed 400-mile wall (estimates vary between 372 and 466 miles)—officially called a “fence”—is to provide a buffer zone against terrorism. As of September 2004, more than 125 miles have been built. Fifteen miles consist of a 28-foot-tall concrete wall surrounded by security fences; the remainder is made up of chain-link fences, barbed wire, trenches, and land mines.

There is evidence that, at least in the short term, the wall has made Israel more secure. A spokesman for Sharon estimates that the structure has reduced attacks by 50 percent. Others argue that the barrier has been even more effective than that.

But while the number of suicide bombers has measurably decreased, they’re still active. In one case, terrorists resorted to firing rockets over the wall into Jewish neighborhoods. Thus far these attacks have been largely symbolic—no one has been killed by them and little damage has resulted. Nevertheless, with each terrorist strike the rationale for the wall gains strength, and debate about specific problems with the structure recedes from public view.

This is a shame, since I’m concerned that there’s a larger, long-term price to pay here. And those footing the bill are too often the few remaining Christians left in the Holy Land—most of whom are Palestinian—and by the Christian apostolates who minister to the West Bank communities.

Unfortunately, even the mildest criticism of the wall is considered by some to be an outrageous breach of support for Israel. Shortly before I left for Jerusalem, Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) took this risk by writing an open letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell protesting the construction of the barrier, the confiscation of Church property, and the breakdown in negotiations between Israel and the Holy See. Like Congressman Hyde, I do not question Israel’s right to exist or its absolute obligation to defend its citizenry against heinous acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, I do fear that this structure has actually deepened the hatred between the two neighbors. Given how bad the blood has been between them, this is a tragic achievement.

According to the Israeli government, when completed, over 95 percent of the wall will be made up of a “chain-link fence system,” utilizing 60 to 100 yard-wide cleared areas with ditches, roads, razor wire, watchtowers, cameras, and electronic sensors.

The walls and fences follow, roughly, the boundaries of what is termed the “Green Line,” or the truce lines of the 1948 war of independence. However, in several significant places the wall juts out into the West Bank to surround various Jewish settlements. In doing so, it often separates Palestinian farmers from their fields or convents from the schools they run.

The structure was politically controversial from the beginning. President Bush, Israel’s most important political ally, said on July 23, 2003, “I think the wall is a problem. And I discussed this with Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank. And I will continue to discuss this issue very clearly with the prime minister.”

A month later it was reported that the Bush administration was actually threatening to withhold billions of dollars in loan guarantees from Israel if the Sharon government continued to build the wall through the West Bank. Yet the Israelis, led by a determined Sharon, never halted the construction. And two months later, after some alterations in the wall route made at the request of the White House, the administration ended its public opposition.

But the story doesn’t end there. It can’t. Too many have been harmed by the wall and its winding route. It was time for me to meet them.

The Daughters of Charity

The Daughters of Charity have ministered to the people of the West Bank for centuries. At present they offer services to both Palestinian and Israeli foster children. On the second day of my trip, I was welcomed by Mother Josephine and Sister Lodi. They are a study in contrasts: Josephine tall and reserved; Lodi short, talkative, and ready to show me exactly where the Israeli government stole their land.

Apparently, in early April 2003, Mother Josephine was approached by a group of Israeli military officers who told her that a wall was to be built “very close” to their property: Did they prefer to be on the Israeli or the Palestinian side? This was a tremendous dilemma: The sisters had served this community of East Jerusalem for hundreds of years and were now being asked which neighbors—those to the east or those to the west—to cut off. After much deliberation, they felt constrained to choose the Israeli side because it would interfere less with their staff and the children they house.

The nuns were soon shown a map of the area and were assured that the wall wouldn’t touch their property. But later that month, Sister Lodi heard a loud noise at the back of the monastery property. She went to investigate and found a bulldozer breaking through their stone fence. When she asked one of the soldiers accompanying the construction crew just what they were doing, he pointed a gun at her chest and said, “Sister, go back to your house. We are not to talk to you; we are ordered to come here to do what we are ordered to do.”

The men used the bulldozers to prepare the area for construction, destroying the nuns’ orchard of olive and lemon trees. Since it was nearly time for the olive harvest, the sisters asked if they could at least pick the olives before the trees were bulldozed. They were refused.

Split in Two

But the Daughters of Charity isn’t the only religious community to suffer. Not far away, Russian Orthodox Mother Agapia—the sister of former Clinton-adviser-turned-media-star George Stephanopoulos—runs the Bethany School, owned by the Orthodox convent of St. Mary Magdalen.

Unfortunately, the wall has actually separated the school from the convent itself. The sisters now must go around the winding wall and through the numerous checkpoints to get to their school. The Christian children on the other side will soon be unable to attend at all. Mother’s first concern, though, was that the 80 or so Christian families who still remain in the Bethany area will leave. For centuries Bethany, like many cities around Jerusalem, was almost entirely Christian. Not so anymore.

"Out of 15,000 people living here, there are only 70 to 80 Christian families left," she told me. "Most of them have Jerusalem IDs, and up to this point they’re educated people. They’ve had jobs, whether in tourism or accounting or working for the Franciscan Press, but their lives are on the other side of the wall. So if this wall becomes a case where the people are sealed off, it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to consider moving out of there."

Mother looks at the future and sees only the physical remnants of Christianity. “We’ll still have the churches,” she said, sadly. “Lazarus’s tomb is down the road about one-half kilometer from the school here, and there’s a Greek convent across the street from us. So the churches themselves may stay, but there won’t be life—the living stones are going to be gone. And I think the situation is going to repeat itself in Bethlehem and within the center of Jerusalem, because the life for the normal people is being squeezed out. They see no hope for the future for their children, and even trying to conduct daily life is becoming increasingly impossible. The Holy Land is being mutilated.”

I asked her if being covered from head to toe in a black habit made it difficult to get through the checkpoints. She nodded. “There’s a route that we should be able to easily get from Bethlehem, and we can’t do it. I have sisters, nuns in our community, who during the nativity season, tried to enter Bethlehem to go to a church service and were turned away by the Israeli soldiers.”

This is the tale I heard again and again as I visited the religious communities of the Holy Land.

Before praying the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday in Old Jerusalem, I took one more look at the wall and the damage being done to Catholic property.

There was once a time when you could walk the path between the Franciscan and Greek Orthodox monasteries and see the beautiful panorama of the Mount of Olives going down and up the hill on the other side. Today, all one can see is a 28-foot wall of concrete. The structure behind the Franciscans hadn’t yet been finished, but that would soon change—the bulldozers and dump trucks don’t observe the holy day. Behind the monasteries—amid the roaring engines—construction workers were excavating the hill and clearing a 25-yard space on either side of the wall. The area was to be transformed into a militarized zone.

Walking up the hill from the Franciscan monastery toward the creek, flanked by a big earth-moving shovel truck, I looked at the freshly turned earth. It wasn’t hard to imagine that some relics from the time of Christ—Roman coins, maybe?—might still be in that dirt. We’ll never know, as the piles were later removed and discarded.

For a moment, I stood in the gap of an unfinished section of the wall and looked out over the beautiful sight of East Jerusalem stretching up to Lazarus’s Tomb. Will anyone ever see this view again?

A Meeting with the Nuncio

The papal nuncio of Jerusalem is Msgr. Pietro Sambi and he welcomed me in the manner of a natural diplomat: I felt immediately at ease, and he treated our meeting as if it were the most important event of his day (though it surely was not). Among his many responsibilities as nuncio is to represent the political and legal concerns of the Holy See in Israel. This is no small task. When I met with him he was not only very concerned about the wall but also about the disturbing number of religious worker visas that were being turned down by the Israeli government.

When I asked him if he thought the construction of the security wall would backfire on Israel, he didn’t dodge the question. “The wall will damage the image of Israel in the sense that it contradicts the values of the Israeli people,”
he explained.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t understand their reasons for building the structure. “It must be clear, terrorism has to be condemned, especially when it is against [a] civil and innocent person. Secondly, terrorism will never bring peace. There is a Chinese proverb that when the fish is swimming, it means that there is water. If you want the fish to stop swimming, you have to take away the water. And you have to take away the reasons for terrorism, by which those in this region justify themselves.”

Sambi felt that the “road map” formally proposed by Middle East negotiators in May 2003 was a good way to remove the conditions that promote terrorism—by creating a Palestinian state, most notably. The wall accomplishes just the opposite: “It is a monument to division and to a future of conflict. It’s separating students from the schools, sick people from the centers of health, people from their places of work, faithful from their places of prayer and what is extremely important in the Palestinian society is creating a belief in family relations…and this is disrupting the basis of Palestinian culture.”

Meeting with the Patriarch

I could not end my trip without a visit to Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. (I am privileged to be a knight in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and the patriarch was going to give me a palm for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.) His reputation preceded him: Sabbah is considered the bête noir of the Catholic Church for the Israeli government—fiercely outspoken in his criticism of Israel for their treatment of Palestinians. He didn’t mince words with me either.

I first asked him about the dwindling presence of Christians in the Holy Land. According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 40 percent of all Christians have left Israel since 1967. There are now around 72,000 Latin-rite Catholics in the whole of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan combined. I wondered if he thought this was an intentional effort on the part of the Israeli government.

He shook his head. “It is not the intention of Israel. But the fact is, the government creates pressures—such as the visa question—which threaten the existence of the Christians in the Holy Land. The Holy Land Christians themselves are caught between the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” he explained. “You cannot distinguish Palestinian Christians…. Siege is imposed upon all villages and towns, whether they are Christian or whether they are Muslim…. Therefore, this situation of Christians depends absolutely on the general situation of peace and violence in this land.”

But given the spiritual importance of Israel, I asked, why haven’t Catholics in the United States responded more substantially to the crisis? Sabbah noted that it’s partly due to their ignorance of the full situation but also because Americans are far removed from the realities of the Holy Land. “Awareness is needed because Christians everywhere have an obligation towards the Holy Land, and not only towards the Christians, but towards Jews and Muslims, as well. The basic call of any Christian is reconciliation. Catholics, and all the faithful in all of the churches, should be made aware of what’s going on here, the truth of what’s happening, and be asked not to [take] sides but to help both the Israelis and Palestinians move towards reconciliation.”

The Only Catholic University in the Holy Land

If there is any Catholic institution in the Holy Land that inspires hope, it’s Bethlehem University. The complex sits on a hill close by the Church of the Holy Nativity. Since 1973 it has served thousands of Palestinian students, only a small percentage of whom are Catholic.

The entrance to the university was well-guarded by sturdy-looking security men with guns visibly displayed. But once inside, the atmosphere was that of any other college campus—filled with smiling and cheerful students studying, chatting, and laughing as they moved from class to class.

Brother Vincent Malham has been president of Bethlehem University, owned by the Christian Brothers, for more than eight years. As we sat and talked in the school cafeteria, he told me how much he worries that the wall will soon encircle all of Bethlehem. At present, 20 percent of the students—including many of the Christians—come from Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the placement of the wall may cause the already low number of Christian students to dwindle even further. It will also affect the ability to keep faculty and staff. Even today, the Palestinian faculty members who live in Jerusalem must park their cars at the checkpoint and walk to the university.

"It’s the systematic strangulation of Bethlehem," Malham said. Indeed, he thinks the Israelis want to see the further deterioration of the Christian presence there. But if that’s true, why don’t the Evangelical Christians-frequent pilgrims to the Holy Land-see the same thing? "I don’t think they get it," he answered. "I don’t think they’ve even been over to this side. It’s just like so many of our congressmen who are wined and dined on the other side. They’re met at the airport, they’re given red-carpet treatment, they’re given a very specialized, a very restrictive, a very wonderful visit in Israel itself. They’re told to avoid mixing with the Palestinians."

After lunch he gave me a tour of the new library where a packed room was watching The Passion of the Christ with Arabic subtitles. I shook off the urge to hold an impromptu focus group and followed Malham up to the third floor, where he pointed to the spot Israeli rockets were fired into the building shortly after it opened during the riots of 2002. The Israeli commander claimed that a sniper was shooting at the soldiers from the library, even though eyewitnesses reported that the shots came from nowhere near the university. 

We climbed up onto the roof of the chapel at Holy Family Hospital and stood alongside a statute of Mary that overlooks the town. The statue itself had just been restored from the damage it suffered when Israeli troops used it as target practice for their automatic weapons.

A Terrible Mess

My time in Israel left me with one overriding conclusion: The few Christian institutions remaining in the Holy Land must be protected and supported. Where else in this area—except for Bethlehem University—are Palestinian students, Muslim and Christian alike, filling an auditorium to watch a screening of The Passion? What will happen when the remaining Christian children are walled-off from schools run by the likes of Sister Agapia? What will become of the elderly when they can no longer receive care from Sister Josephine?

Against Israel’s history of conflict and the layers of hatred on both sides, the Christian remnant is being crushed. Something must be done to protect what’s left of their presence in the Holy Land. And that’s why the wall deserves our attention. For it isn’t simply a barrier against terrorism, but yet another obstacle to those who persevere in the land where Jesus walked.