After five years of awareness of what was happening to the Christians in the Holy Land, my husband, Greg, and I finally had a chance to experience the Holy Land first hand.

After five years of awareness of what was happening to the Christians in the Holy Land, my husband, Greg, and I finally had a chance to experience the Holy Land first hand.

We went on a “Fact Finding” Pilgrimage with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) January 7 – 20.

The highlights of the trip were meeting Holy Land Christians and experiencing the Holy sites where Christ performed his miracles.

The first thing we noticed about the Holy Land Christians was that they seemed just like us Americans: they’re very modern; they’re up on the latest technology and trends: cell phones, computers, digital cameras and fashions.

However they’re unlike Americans in a few ways: they eat very healthfully; tomatoes and cucumbers at every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and weigh accordingly, and always dress their best. The young women look like they’re fashion plate models with their hip huggers, heeled boots, terrific figures and fashionable hair and make-up.

They may be an oppressed people in that they are unable to go places and do things without permission from the Israeli military, but their ambitions are just like ours.

An amazing thing that was hard to go unnoticed was the friendliness of Palestinian drivers. Once you cross a checkpoint to enter the occupied territories, you leave the modern streets of Israel with several lanes upon which to travel and streetlights to give direction. I didn’t see one traffic light in Bethlehem or Ramallah. These are very busy cities with winding, narrow streets with only stop signs and yield signs to guide a driver. One had to constantly yield to other cars and people walking in the street; however, you’d only hear a light beep to pedestrians so they’d know a car was in the road with them. No hands went flying up in impatience the many times I saw one car having to back down a hill to let an oncoming car continue down the road before they could try once again to reach the summit. Why are they so patient in such chaotic traffic? Is it because they live such chaotic lives under Israeli military rule that they’ve become used to being turned aside and having to find another way to get where and what they want?

I also learned that Palestinian Christians are highly educated. Many have several college degrees, bachelors and masters, and know a minimum of three languages. Our guide, Samir, told us that Palestinians are the most highly educated people per capita in the world. Based on my work with the Holy Land Christians, I am aware that education is the only ticket for young people to escape to live free lives in the West.

As a tourist one might not understand or realize that the Palestinian people are living under a difficult occupation. It was obvious that the Israeli Separation Wall and the many military checkpoints were impediments for the local people, but it was harder to see how they financially and psychologically affected the people.

What was obvious was the way the Separation Wall has cut off many Palestinians from their livelihoods. The wall divides cities, cutting through main city streets, dividing people from their places of work, from their neighbors, or from their farms. And once a farm or business is unable to be tended to – because one is not allowed to go to it – it is confiscated as Israeli designated land.

I also saw many military checkpoints and dozens of illegal, Israeli hilltop settlements encircling the Palestinian towns, built on farmland recently confiscated from the Palestinian people.

Besides the obtrusive Separation Wall cutting between property, families and neighbors and the multiple checkpoints, the poverty and injustice they cause is mostly hidden from tourists. Often when tourists go to the Holy Land, they don’t go beyond the holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth in the Galilee area, and Bethlehem, the only tourist city in the West Bank. And rarely do they spend time getting to know the Palestinian Christians. Unless you speak to the people, you’d never know what they are suffering at the hands of the Israeli military. Fortunately our “fact finding” mission included meeting with many Palestinian Christians, even staying one night with a family.

What I learned from many of the Christian Palestinians was that if you don’t own a car with an Israeli resident license plate, or have a traveling permit, you are very limited in your ability to travel. You are not able to drive just a couple of miles into Jerusalem, one of the few remaining prosperous cities where most good jobs can be found; therefore, your income is limited. Neither are you allowed to travel to the top hospitals in Jerusalem for cancer or heart treatments.

Because the Palestinians held fair, democratic elections, but voted in the wrong politicians according to the U.S. and Israel, the U.S. and European Union held back financial aid packages that used to provide funding for the salaries of public service workers: teachers, municipality/utility workers, police, etc. Without these incomes, families have had to rely on their churches, mosques and non-governmental organizations for charity to survive. Others who’ve had minor setbacks have had to cut back in other areas: healthcare; private, Christian education; heat; nutrition and luxuries.

Pastors of churches have been weighed down with the responsibility of taking care of not only the spiritual needs of his parishioners, but also their physical needs. They are truly shepherds of their flock, applying to the Israeli government for travel passes for their parishioners during the holy seasons, requesting permission from the Israeli’s for travel permits to hospitals for medical needs – and often being denied until it is too late, requesting money from the Latin Patriarchate (diocese) to pay for exorbitant hospital fees or for scholarships for students who are applying to trade schools or universities.

But again, the typical tourist is shielded from these things. Since our tour guide was a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem, our bus had the right license plate. We just went along our unencumbered way past the checkpoints and barrier wall as tourists. If we had not met with the Palestinian Christians or traveled with HCEF, we might not have learned the truth about the difficulties the Christians endure. I recommend that if you want to meet the Christians in the Holy Land and hear their stories, contact Gail Freeman Pilgrimage Coordinator, at 1-866-871-4234 or via email