The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation Report by the Fact Finding Mission to the Holy Land May 16 – June 1, 2001
The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation
Fact Finding Mission to the Holy Land
May 16 – June 1, 2001
Fact Finding Mission Team
Rateb Rabie, K.H.S., President
Donald Kruse, Executive Vice President
Robert Younes, M.D., Secretary
Duane Burchick, K.H.S.
Child Sponsorship Committee Chairman
Lori Burchick, L.H.S.
Child sponsorship Program Coordinator
Sally Haddad, Educator
Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation
Fact Finding Mission
May 16 -June 1 2001
The Holy Land, if one looks carefully at the hillsides and roadside, appears like a many storied layer cake. Layers and layers of sediment at the bottom of ancient seas were deposited during eons of time and under tons of pressure to produce earth when it was pushed up by titanic forces to become dry land. Baking sun, thousands of rainstorms and windstorms haves shaped the hills and produced mountains, valleys, plains, and ravines into the forms that we now know as the Holy Land. When humans arrived, they took these stones and built dwellings, fences and roads. The stone was quarried and blocks of stone were used to make more elaborate houses and palaces. Civilizations rose and fell and the stones cut by a previous civilization were used to build the monuments of new civilizations. The Holy Land, like the land itself, creates sense that many layers of civilization have been deposited on this land and each of the civilizations has left its distinct mark but also traces of all civilizations are present in what we see today. The conditions that we observed on our mission are ancient and yet contemporary. It is the complexity of this land that makes it both fascinating and also unimaginably difficult to fully comprehend.
The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) undertook a fact-finding mission to ascertain the conditions existing in the Holy Land of Jordan and Palestine for Jordanian and Palestinian Christians. Members of the delegation included: Rateb Rabie, KHS, President; Don Kruse, Executive Vice President; Robert Younes, M.D., Secretary; Duane Burchick, KHS, Lori Burchick, LHS, Child Sponsorship Program; and Sally Haddad, educator. An HCEF Committee in the Holy Land was instrumental in making arrangements and helping to facilitate all aspects of our mission. The basic premise of HCEF’s mission was to follow statement such as Pope John Paul II when he spoke in Bethlehem during his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “Do not be afraid to preserve Christian faith and heritage in the land of the birth our Savior.”
There were multiple purposes for undertaking the fact-finding mission. First, we wanted to demonstrate solidarity with the Christians in the Holy Land and attempt to show that they were not the forgotten faithful. Second, we wanted to ascertain the potential for Christian pilgrimage as a means of creating economic opportunity for the Christian community and, simultaneously, showing Americans the social and economic conditions created by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Third, we wanted to evaluate the Christian handicrafts industry and the potential economic benefits for Christians resulting from importation of handicrafts to the United States. Fourth, we wanted to meet with a variety of politicians, policy makers, religious leaders, tourist industry leaders and education staff and personnel to obtain first hand information about the political, economic and social conditions present in the Holy Land. Fifth, HCEF provide direct financial support to Churches providing service for our Christian brothers and sisters in Jordan and Palestine. To pursue these purposes, we visited as many Christian communities in Jordanian and Palestinian towns and villages as time would allow.
Our goals for the visit to the Holy Land were to establish relationships with key officials and inform them about our mission as an organization. We specifically explored the development of a Christian pilgrimage program that would facilitate long lasting relationships between American Christians and Holy Land Christians. Pilgrimage travel would begin in Amman, Jordan with visits to Jordanian sites in order to establish contacts with Christian communities in Madaba, Smakieh, Karak, and other. In addition, the pilgrimage would include visits to Bethany Beyond the Jordan and other sites significant to Christian people. The ancient Nabataean city of Petra would also be included on the pilgrimage itinerary. The pilgrimage would then enter the West Bank and Israel with visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, surrounding Christian villages and other sites of religious importance. At each stop on the pilgrimage in Palestine, efforts will be made to meet local Christians and listen to first hand accounts of the conditions that these Christians endure under Israeli military occupation.
As friendships are made with Holy Land Christians, American Christians would become more willing to support the establishment of person-to-person, church-to-church and school-to-school relationships that not only would provide material but also spiritual support to Christians living in the Holy Land and will encourage them to remain in the land of Christianity’s birth. It is also expected that the local Christians would highlight the adverse economic, civil and political conditions that they endure on a daily basis. American Christians, in turn, would return to their congregations and spread the word about the difficult living conditions present in the Holy Land.
Each of us presented information to the people we meet on our visit to Jordan and Palestine. Rateb Rabie gave a general description of our organization. He described the help that American Christian Churches gave HCEF and the Christians in the Holy Land. National Presbyterian Church, for instance, gave a place for HCEF to hold meetings and conferences. National Presbyterian also has a partnership with the Latin Church in Bir Zeit and has contributed $10,000 for a generator for the church and school and has contributed $50,000 for the housing project in Bir Zeit. The First Presbyterian Church in Houston has a partnership with the village of Smakieh, Jordan. Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta Georgia, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the United States with 10,000 members, provides a home for the local Atlanta HCEF committee, has committed to 300 child sponsorships, financial support and a partnership with the Christian community in Beit Sahour. The church is sending a fact finding mission to the Holy Land to provide the congregation first hand information on the crisis in the Holy Land. The Catholic diocese of Detroit has committed to 1000 child sponsorships. St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Piscataway is fully engaged in the child sponsorship program. Two churches in Cincinnati, Ohio plan to adopt two Christian towns in Palestine. All the Catholic churches in Baltimore will hold a collection on July 17 for the Christians in the Holy Land. Sir Rateb Rabie then introduced each of us to our hosts.
Donald Kruse gave a short talk about his experience as the American Consul to Jerusalem between 1976 and 1980 and how his perspective on the Middle East changed after he observed the effects of Israeli Occupation on the Palestinian population. As a result, he led a number of pilgrimages to the Holy Land for members of his church, the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. The members of the National Presbyterian Church now have a different perspective on the Arab Israeli conflict and seek ways in which to assist spiritually and materially the Christians of the Holy Land.
Robert Younes, M.D. gave a short presentation on the failure of the mainstream media in the United States to accurately portray the truth about the conflict in Palestine. He mentioned that efforts at the moment are concentrated on bypassing the mainstream media by providing platforms for telling the truth though the Christian media to reach American Christians. As a result, Christians are being reached though the local Christian newspapers, Christian television programs, speaking at churches, holding conferences in Washington, D.C., Detroit and Atlanta. We have a web site (www.hcef.org), newsletter and an email list that reaches over 2000 people and organizations directly, and indirectly many thousands more.
Sir Duane and Lady Lori Burchick spoke about their efforts to reach the American and Palestinian children though the Child Sponsorship Program and how American and Palestinian children communicating with one another not only supports Christian education in Palestine and Jordan but it also educates American children about the realities of living as a minority denomination and experiencing the conditions of military occupation. Eventually, all 12,000 children in Christian schools will be sponsored and the program will provide $3 million for the schools in Jordan and Palestine. Duane emphasizes that the Mother Church began in the Holy Land and that all Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Christians in the Holy Land for maintaining the Mother Church for the rest of the world. It was our hope that the HCEF communicated to the Christians we met in the Holy Land that they are not the “forgotten faithful”.
The information we gathered as we traveled and met Palestinians and Jordanians was recorded verbatim from the speakers. I did not add any editorial comments to this report. I tried to bring the realities of the situation in the Holy Land through the perspectives of those who lived there and were in a position that would give them access to sources of information to which we were not privy about the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. Thus, this report represents the Palestinians speaking directly to the reader. Since most of the comments were extemporaneous and unprepared by the speaker, I did revise some of the information to make ideas and thoughts read more clearly and coherently. The main body of the report provides facts and descriptions of people, events and places we visited for the enlightenment and information of the reader. We have chosen to report what we saw and heard- in some cases stories reported by different spokes persons may differ or even be in conflict. It was not possible to harmonize these reports. We believe that the great bulk of what we have written is consistent with honesty and accuracy. Certainly, the picture of the harsh actions by the Israeli military occupation forces is totally confirmed. (Robert Younes, M.D.)
Probably the best humor we heard, aside from Rateb’s gaffes and Sally’s comments, was the statement by Don Kruse: “You can speak to God from anywhere in the world but in Jerusalem it is a local call!”
Desire for Peace
At every meeting and in every encounter we had with all levels of Jordanian and West Bank Palestinian society, we were told that Palestinians had a sincere desire for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We did not hear anyone say that the Palestinians would not be able to work with the Israelis on projects and do business together. Everybody understood that the existence of Israel was a fact that they accepted without reservation. As a result of the Madrid and Oslo conferences, the Palestinians were led to believe that peace would be translated into an independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital situated within the 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian sovereignty would extend over its borders and all internal activities within the state. The establishment of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza were irritants during the Oslo negotiations but the Palestinians believed that the status of settlements could be negotiated with the Israelis. Final status of refugees was solvable. There was unanimous agreement among those Palestinians we spoke to that the offer by the Israelis during the final status negotiations fell far short of the expectations created by the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords. However, Palestinians are still recovering from the shock of the double-cross by the Israeli government after the failure of the final status negotiations. Palestinians were stung by a universal sense of betrayal by Israel and the United States. This disappointment and frustration with the long nine year Peace Process lead to the second Intifada beginning in late September 2000. The heavy handed military tactics in response to the Intifada by the Barak and Sharon Governments further confirmed the Palestinian belief that Israel, despite the promise created by the negotiations, negotiated in bad faith. It became clear that Israel coveted all of the West Bank and Gaza for itself and that the concept of a Palestinian state had degenerated to become a series of 64 Palestinian ghettoes surrounded and controlled by the Israelis. “We want peace and we want to be left alone,” was the statement of a senior Palestinian official. Present conditions created a sense of despair and a realization that the Palestinian economy would never prosper as long as the Intifada continued and as long as Israel pursued a policy that relegated the Palestinians to a second-class citizenship in their own land. Thus, the conditions were created that further encouraged migration of Christians out of the Holy Land, exacerbating the trend that began when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Hope Into a Nightmare
Everywhere we traveled, we saw ample evidence of reconstruction and creation of a new state. When the Peace Process began in the Early 1990’s new hope was created in Palestinian Diaspora around the world. Many Palestinians returned to their homeland from exile. We met a number of young Palestinians who moved to Palestine from prosperous and comfortable lives in the United States and elsewhere to assist in building a new state. They brought with them expertise in finance, construction, business, human services and political action. They brought their families, money for investment and a desire to finally create a land for the Palestinians that would be independent and free of colonization and domination by outside powers. In a sense, they were dedicating themselves to the dreams of generations of Palestinians who suffered under the yoke of one petty tyrant after another. We met other young Palestinians who stayed in Palestine and were enthusiastic about going to school and leaning to be a person who could help build a new state. Other Palestinians were actively engaged in the work of nation building. We talked to many young people who were serious about their work and their family responsibilities. We met a few young people who were fully employed but were searching for ways to help others less fortunate than themselves. We did not meet anybody who we thought was someone we would not want to know better. We also saw many young people sitting in town squares who had no meaningful work. Every where we went we met people who wanted to get on with their lives and work with their Israeli friends and business associates to conduct business and create a social life for their families and nation. All of these Palestinian hopes and dreams came crashing down when the Peace Process failed and the Intifada began. In retrospect, the Palestinians we met told us that the Israelis never had any intention of allowing the existence of a independent Palestinian state next door. Their initial promises were negotiated into oblivion during the long and arduous Peace Process negotiations. Palestinian investments, business, tourism, trade, personal security and hopes for the future became dreams that suddenly vanished in a wink of an eye. All who experienced the debacle were left with the sense that nation building was not to be a reality. Now all effort was being focused on salvaging what was left of the dreams they had.
We met hundreds of people on our mission. We were uniformly impressed with all of them. We noted their good humor, easy ways, patience and hospitality. Everywhere we went we were invariably treated to coffee, tea, cookies, and other refreshments. We never sensed danger at any time. Our only tense moments were when we came in contact with the Israeli military checkpoints. Henry, our driver, even when he was harassed at checkpoints, displayed a calm beyond his young age. He knew to place a red kaffieh on the dashboard to indicate that he was a Palestinian and to avoid confrontation with Palestinians when he was traveling in Palestinian territory since his van had yellow Israeli license plates; he also knew to remove it when going through military checkpoints or traveling on Israeli by-pass roads. Survival strategies were rampant in the West Bank but life was taken with good humor and patience.
The Military Occupation
Our contact with the Israeli military occupation was when we traveled. At checkpoints, our passports were examined. We saw major traffic jams at Israeli military checkpoints since cars with white plates were not allowed to pass through the checkpoint. We saw huge blocks of concrete used to block passage of streets in towns. Army patrols armed with US made M 16 rifles regularly walked though the Old City of Jerusalem and along the walls. Military bases were everywhere, especially in proximity to Israeli settlements, as evidenced by the barbed wire fences and soldiers on patrol on foot and in armored jeeps. We saw rock littered and burned out and blackened streets where pitched battles were fought with the Israeli military. Bullet holes in walls, devastated and collapsed buildings and destroyed homes from bombardment by Israeli tanks and American made Apache helicopters were easily found in every Palestinian town we visited. We saw tanks in forts located on distant hills surrounding the Christian towns in the Bethlehem District. The military occupation was obvious to anyone who looked. We were disturbed to imagine the invisible impact that the military occupation had that we did not see-the hatred, poisoned and scarred minds of young people, the despair, the torture, and the everyday oppression of the mind and spirit.
Much has been said about the Israeli settlements and we were prepared to view them as another feature of the landscape. We were not prepared for the impact that they had on our conception of the Holy Land landscape. The settlements occupied only the hilltops. Normally one would expect a sprawl for a town as it flowed over the landscape as Palestinian villages and town s did. This was not the case for the settlements. These constructions were meant to be hilltop castles and forts. Each settlement had a distinctly sharp margin that separated it from the rest of the landscape. Houses represented walls of a hilltop fortification and the walls continued around the entire hilltop with only one entrance and exit point. That road was guarded by military either in jeeps, guardhouses, or tanks. Depending on how close the settlement was to the nearest Palestinian town or village, the Israeli military made sure that sufficient protection was available. In some areas, particularly around Jerusalem, every hilltop in sight was covered with an Israeli settlement. Some were outposts, which meant that a permanent settlement had not been built yet and the hilltop was covered with mobile homes. Most of the settlements were constructed on confiscated Palestinian land. It would seem clear that the Israelis never intended to give up the land on which the settlements were constructed. The long-term Israeli aggressive settlement policy during the last four decades did not waiver regardless of government in power, peace talks nor feeble interventions by the United States and other countries.
Religious Freedom and the Intifada
We were told by Palestinians of the exceptionally harsh living conditions that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have endured since 1967 and the worsening of these conditions since the al Aqsa Intifada began in late September 2000. Israeli’s reaction to this uprising, in contrast to the first Intifada, has included the use of American made heavy armaments such as tanks, helicopter gunships, attack aircraft and high explosives that have been judged to be excessive and disproportionate by all the major powers in the UN. In addition to these combat-type operations by Israeli occupation forces, Israel has deliberately taken measures to suffocate the Palestinian economy. Road destruction, roadblocks, Israeli military checkpoints, deep and wide trenches dug around entire cities have virtually imprisoned the Palestinian population inside individual cities and towns. Out of control settlers harass the Palestinians by cutting down olive tees and destroying citrus crops. These actions have serious economic consequences as goods and services are prevented from being delivered and many people cannot get to their places of employment. All of these measures amount to collective punishment of the Palestinian people in violation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since as early as 1995, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, with few exceptions, have not been permitted to enter Israel. The closure of Jerusalem especially has prevented Palestinians Christians and Muslims from worshipping at some of the holiest sites in the Old City-The Via Dolorosa, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque. A whole generation of Palestinians is emerging that has no familiarity with the Holy City of Jerusalem.
In addition to the closure of Jerusalem, we observed and were told of the frequent disruption of travel between West Bank towns and villages. For example, Father Iyad, a parish priest in Birzeit has felt free only once in the past nine months to travel to Aboud, a small Christian village only 10 miles from Birzeit. This is a trip that he would normally take once a month. Other inhibitions on travel occur daily to clergy attempting to perform their spiritual duties. The most senior Catholic clergy in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, was prevented by Israeli soldiers from attending a scheduled mass at a West Bank village. On another occasion, an Israeli soldier shot at a clearly identified car carrying the Catholic bishop of Nazareth.
In sum, these inhibitions of religious freedom, deteriorating economic conditions and the threats to personal security are the leading causes of the alarming emigration from Christian communities in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We did not observe or hear of deteriorating relations between Muslims and Christians. President Arafat himself has strongly supported the Christians and their churches. The principal reason for the dramatic rise in Christian emigration has been the continuing Israeli military occupation and the denial of the sovereignty of a Palestinian state wherein Christian Arabs could feel at home linguistically, culturally, and spiritually.
The first written record of Amman refers to the city as Rabbath-Ammon, the capital of the Ammonites, around 1200 BC. However, few traces of that history remain. During the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (238-246 BC) the city was rebuilt and renamed Philadelphia after him. When the city was conquered by King Herod in 30 BC, it became part of the Roman Empire. Philadelphia was then a member of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of ten Graeco-Roman cities, including Damascus, Pella, Gerasa (now Jerash) and Gandara (now Um Qeis), bound by powerful commercial, political, and cultural interests. Amman, situated on seven hills, was re-inhabited in 1879 after being abandoned for over 400 years. The city is kept very clean and organized and gives the impression that it is thoroughly cosmopolitan and westernized. Almost everybody had a cellular phone, even in the smaller towns and villages. Cellular phone service was available everywhere in the country. Amman was our base of operation in Jordan.
The Orthodox Club, Amman
H.E. Dr. Rajai Muasher, member of the Jordanian Upper House and Rajai Sukkar, President of the Orthodox Club in Amman graciously welcomed us to Jordan and expressed great interest in our mission to the Holy land. We were welcomed several times for meetings and dinner. We brought a strong message of hope that the local Christian communities will not have to stand-alone in the future. We established liaisons that will now enable HCEF help these indigenous communities develop programs to improve their own living conditions.
Petra is the legacy of the Nabetaeans, an industrious Arab people who settled in south Jordan over 2000 years ago. They dominated the trade routes of ancient Arabia, levying tolls and sheltering caravans laden with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African Ivory, and animal hides. Petra became widely admired for its refined culture, massive architecture, and ingenious complex of dams and water channels. Emperor Trajan annexed the city in 106 AD into the Province of Arabia and changed its trade routes leading to the city’s rapid decline in power and prosperity. By the 16th Century, Petra became lost to the west. After 300 years, a Swiss adventurer rediscovered it and archeological excavations began in 1924.
Hashemi, a poor suburb of Amman, Jordan
This Latin Patriarchate School and parish serves 500 Christian families. There are 7-10 children per family and the average income is $250 per month. The father is the only worker in the family. The school has 620 students from K-6th grade. The kindergarten has 20 students. The children start at 4 years of age. The population has diminished considerably since the school previously had over 1000 students. Tuition is 140 JD ($200) per year. Hardly anyone attending the school pays full tuition since the parents cannot afford to pay the full amount. Over $1million is subsidized by the Latin Patriarchate every year for the entire system.
Iraqi Chaldeans Christians from Kerak in the Hashemi Latin Patriarchate School
Many Chaldean Christians fled to Kerak, Jordan during the Gulf war in 1990. Like most refugees, they were impoverished and were supported by Christian community and agencies. The overall goal for the agencies helping the refugees is to relieve the Iraqi Chaldean poverty in Karak in order to stop the migration abroad. More than 200 families have left already. The migration pattern began in Karak, Jordan, then to Smakieh, Hachemi, Amman, Canada and finally the United States. The Iraqi Christians were not allowed to work or send their children to Jordanian public schools and as a result, they sold all their possessions and left the country. Presently there are 30 Iraqi Chaldean Christian children in the Latin Patriarchate School. Father Asraf and Miss Suha are responsible for the school.
Minister of Information, Dr. Taleb Rifai
Dr. Rifai told us that the Middle East region is passing through a critical stage and at present the conditions are extremely dangerous. Israeli society has revealed that it is willing to choose someone like Sharon to lead them and this is considered to be a desperate measure by the surrounding Arab nations. The Israeli agenda has no vision for a peaceful solution and so it merely continues the drastic repressive measures it has always used during crisis. The political vacuum alarms the Arab nations. The Bush administration is not seen as being ready to exert its influence to stabilize the situation. The European nations are enlightened and are waiting for leadership to achieve a peaceful solution. The Arab world is frustrated and impatient but is still anticipating an agenda for peace. There are others who say that the only way to resolve the issues is through violence. Dr. Rifai thinks that the region could go either way -to a violent confrontation or towards a peaceful solution. He noted that if America does not act soon violence becomes the most desired option and the situation could fly out of control since the level of frustration and despair is at a high point at the moment. Jordan’s influence and credibility will change over night since its population is 50% Palestinian and is very angry. America must put its weight and power behind a peaceful resolution of the issues.
Jordan had an ambitious agenda that was created when King Abdullah took power after his father, King Hussein, died. The King has to contend with a population of 5 million inhabitants, 2.2 million students, 50% of the population is less than 18 years of age and 50% of the population is Palestinian. The programs to combat poverty, open the minds of the people, encourage education, teach information technology and make English the second language and pursue a 21st century modernization program has now been put aside to devote the government’s entire energy to resolving the Palestinian issue. The administration spends a great deal of time keeping the nation’s people calm.
Although the Christian population represents only 4% of the total population, 11% of the Chamber of Deputies (elected) is Christian, 10% of the Senate (appointed by the King) is Christian and 2 of 26 cabinet ministers are Christian. The nation’s government administration has an ample representation of Christians.
The Minister of Information wants to establish a liaison between HCEF and his ministry to maintain contact and to exchange information.
Tourism Bureau – Marwan Khoury, Director, Priscilla Phillipi., Media Information Manager, Tourism Board of North America
Two years ago, the Tourism Bureau began to focus on the religious pilgrimage niche for the American and European Christians. The staff has concentrated on the general media, the meeting and incentive market. They had a good response from the national religious broadcasters and have been exhibitors at travel conventions. Larry Ross Asssociates in Houston Texas has been contracted to market Jordanian pilgrimages in the United States. He has 8 religious specialists 4 media specialists and 4 church leaders. Larry Ross will produce an eight-minute religious pilgrimage video on the religious sites in Jordan.
The Jordanian tourism staff provides links between the pilgrims and the Christian communities. The tour is promoted as a pilgrimage rather than a tourist venture. Meetings have occurred with religious leaders in the United States to promote religious pilgrimage to Jordan and Palestine. The Jordanian tourist Bureau will help the fact-finding mission from Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta Georgia. It was agreed that HCEF and the Tourist Bureau should collaborate in the future. It was also suggested that a cross-cultural conference be held in Jordan that would bring American and Jordanian Christians together to promote recognition of the Mother Church and provide opportunities for worship with local Christians. This program will encourage Jordanian HCEF community groups to develop ties with HCEF programs in the US. There is a need to develop a vision and program for the twinning process of American and Jordanian churches
Fuheis, Jordan, Father Dr. Hanna Kildani
Fuheis is a small Christian village located in a picturesque valley 30 minutes outside of Amman. This quaint village features a wonderful restaurant, gallery, and a small complex of craft shops presenting ceramics, weaving, jewelry, antiques and other items. In the summer, theatre and musical performances can be enjoyed outdoors. The local church congregation is Latin Catholic. We attended mass on Sunday at the Immaculate Heart of St. Mary’s (est. 1874) and we noted that the men wore Kaffieh without the ring while in church. The Mass was said in Arabic and Latin. Men sat on one side of the church and woman on the other side. The church was constructed of stone and had a vaulted ceiling. After mass we went to the reception hall for coffee and conversation. The reception hall appeared to be a former church that was preserved as a place for the congregation to meet after mass. It had five vaults for the ceiling and six pairs of pillars that served to support the ceiling. Each vault had cross structures in the ceiling we were told represented Mary’s praying hands. Like most reception halls we saw on our visit, chairs lined the walls and small tables were set in front of the chairs on which Turkish coffee and other refreshments were placed. Old photos of the church and surrounding area hung on the wall that displayed the church and surrounding area as a stony plain with stone walls surrounding a court yard with the church situated in the in the center of the courtyard. The surrounding area was a barren place with very little vegetation, in contrast to the present lush landscaping. This church, as with many of the churches we saw in Jordan and Palestine, had a large gated courtyard in front of the church that provided a place to park cars and for children o play safely off the street.
We met with the Christian leaders at the Fuheis Orthodox Club to hear their point of view related to our mission. Club is open to everyone in the village and all Christian denominations. The elders told us that the legitimacy of Palestinians rights had to be recognized and that the community was looking to the United States for enforcement of UN resolutions that guaranteed these rights. They wanted the implementation of international law so that they could reclaim their lands in Palestine. This was the aspiration of the entire Fuheis community. They did not feel that the Christian leadership represented the true aspirations of the Christian community and the people on the “street”. The West was the gateway for dialogue about regaining their rights in Palestine. There is a need to pass the desire for the west to take a strong and balanced stand on the Palestinian issue. The Arab world looks to the United States for this leadership. We mentioned that if the Fuheis community wanted to work with HCEF, then there is a need to unify the Christian community and speak with one voice, one vision, and one strategy, and one action plan for a few important projects with HCEF.
The Orthodox Society, Amman, Jordan
The Chairman of the of the society, Mr. Raouf Abjaber, said The Orthodox Society was founded in 1992 and has over 2000 members and 250 delegates, all volunteers, from all the Orthodox communities and churches in Jordan and Palestine. The group works to improve the living conditions of the Orthodox parishioners in Amman. The society promotes Islamic/Christian dialogue in order to maintain good relationships with the Muslim community. The main goal of the society, however, is to maintain the legacy of the Greek Orthodox Church and retain possession of all properties belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Holy Land. The society members are also strong advocates for an Arab patriarch in Jerusalem. There have been only two Arab Patriarchs in the last 450 years.
Madaba, Jordan, Father George Far
Madaba is located 30 miles south of Amman. Madeba has been inhabited for at least 4500 years, and is mentioned in the Bible as the Moabite town of Medeba (Numbers 21:30). After several centuries of Moabite and Nabataean rule, Madeba and the surrounding lands became part of the Roman Province of Arabia with the emperor Trajan’s conquest of the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 AD. During the 1st Century AD, Christianity spread rapidly through Arabia, but believers were persecuted by the Romans Several martyrs died for their beliefs in Madaba, under the orders of Diocletian. In the 4th Century, the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, which became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. From the 5th Century onwards, Madaba had its own bishop, and numerous churches were constructed in the Byzantine era from the 6th to the 7th Century. Mosaic floors were the hallmark of this era and continued to be made in Madeba until the 8th Century. In 749 AD, a devastating earthquake leveled the city and it was abandoned. In 1897, three Christian families, consisting of a group of 2000 people, migrated to Madaba from the ancient crusader town of Karak. After that event, the city became predominantly Christian. Numerous mosaics were discovered when new housing and churches were built to provide churches and housing for the new immigrants. When the State of Israel was formed, many Palestinians moved to the city and the demographics changed to include a large Muslim population. At present, Christians represent 15% of the population or about 10,000 people. The remaining 50,000 people are Muslim. In time, Christians migrated and nearly 50% of people from Madeba live abroad. There are fewer baptisms now (50/year) than ten ears ago (100/year). Three Christian denominations predominate: Catholic, Orthodox and Melkite.
The Latin Patriarchate schools in Madaba are over 100 years old. The church provides education for Christians and Muslims at several schools. Teacher salaries are low but teachers remain because they see their work as a mission for the Church. Teacher salary ranges from 179 JD to 250 JD per month. One would have to earn between 400-600 JD per month to be above the poverty line. Approximately, 33% of the population is below the poverty line. A teacher with a high school education can receive a teacher diploma after teaching for 15 years. The teachers are poorly trained and often the most experienced teachers will move on to higher paying jobs in the public or private schools. The Latin Schools do not have libraries or sports equipment. There are 9 people per square meter of classroom space. In Madaba, a boy’s school offers grades 6-12 and has 310 students and 22 staff. Twelve percent of the students are Muslim. A girl’s school, and a kindergarten complete the Latin Patriarchate education system in Madaba. A total of 1500 students attend Latin Patriarchate Schools in Madaba, most of them are Christian. Academic achievement is high. It is hoped that in the future a Christian College or University will be built in Madaba so that Christian education will be able to contribute to Jordanian society.
The tuition is 300 JD ($429) per year. Tuition will be increased this year due to a $200,000 deficit. The actual cost per student is 500 JD per student. Increasing cost for education is due to salary increases (salaries are the lowest of all the school systems in the country) and higher standards set by the Ministry of Education for computer science that require computer labs and classes in C++ computer language. School counselor program had to be dropped due lack of funds. This program was doing important work since children with social and learning pathologies were being treated on a regular basis. Muslim schools in Madaba receive funding from Christians in the United States but the same charities are not helping the Christian schools in Madaba. A vocational school funded by the Government of Belgium provides training for electricians, car mechanics and surveyors.
In Jordan and other Arab countries in the Middle East, Christians look to the Church to help them during difficult times and when the church is unable to respond to their needs, the parishioners leave the church, some become Muslim or emigrate. Christians look at the support that the Christian West has provided Israel and this creates a sense of despair since very little help is given to the Christians.
St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba contains a remarkable mosaic map that portrays the entire ancient Holy Land from the Phoenician cities Tyre and Sidon in the north to Egypt to the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the desert in the east. The mosaic was discovered in 1897 when a flat area on a hill was chosen on which to build a church. When the area was cleared for construction, a church foundation and a large mosaic was discovered that represented the floor of an ancient Byzantine church built around 560 AD. The mosaic was originally and astounding 15.7X5.6 meters and at present is 15×3 meters. It displays all the major cities and features in the Holy Land with remarkable accuracy. Most important city is Jerusalem, located in the center of the map, and all its features including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cardo Maximus, a colonnaded main street, built by the Romans after they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, that ran east-west through the center of the old city. There are 157 captions written in Greek that name most of the important features of the Holy Land at that time. The mosaic also includes the Jordanian towns of Kerak and Madeba.
Smakieh, Jordan, Father Rifat Badr
This Christian village of Latin and Melkite traditions is located south of Madaba was established in 1883 after Christian Bedouins migrated from Jazzin, Arabia. The local parish has had 33 priests since the parish and school was established in 1909. The agricultural village was named after its shape was noticed to resemble a fish. It is inhabited by 130 Christian families; 60% of the population is below 25 years of age. The people of the parish are poor and thus only 10 JD ($14.00) is collected during Sunday Mass. Approximately 135 young people go to the local university and are learning skills in teaching and nursing. Since there is no direct transportation to the university, students have to start at 8:30 am to attend a 12 Noon class. Some enter the military after school and are able to receive early retirement after completing military service. Young people go to church for spiritual services and youth groups and as a result build friendships with others outside the village. The local parish also works to provide electricity, water and health services for the parishioners. The First Presbyterian Church of Houston has provided young people for two summers to assist the local parish to provide a summer camp for its children. A third summer camp is planned for 2001. The program includes Christian fellowship and binds the American and Jordanian cultures and heritages together in mutual understanding; the young Americans gain an understanding that the Christian faith has been present in the Middle East for several thousand years. The Houston congregation has provided money for a new kindergarten and furniture. The kindergarten was in the process of being built when we visited. The local area only supports agriculture and the village is searching for other opportunities to create new jobs for the local population in both teaching and nursing. The partnership with the Houston Church helps the young people think of future life goals. The village is isolated and very few people visit and the government neglects it since it is so isolated. The people of the village see the need of a recreational center. Bus transportation is also identified as an important resource so that students can travel to and from the university.
Karak, Jordan, Father Khalil Jaar
Karak is the home of the Crusader fort located high on a hill overlooking the city. Approaching Karak, one passes through Wadi Mujib, a precipitous canyon 1000 meters deep. The fort itself is a maze of stone vaulted halls and endless passageways. The best-preserved are those underground guarded by a locked door. Each Crusader stronghold was built a day’s journey from its neighbor. At night a beacon was lit at each castle to signal to Jerusalem that it was safe. Karak’s most famous occupant was Reynald de Chatillon, whose reputation for treachery, betrayal and brutality was unsurpassed. Reynald eventually suffered a massive defeat by Saladin. He was taken prisoner and was beheaded, an event that marked the beginning of the decline of Crusader fortunes in the Holy Land.
The Latin Patriarchate High School in Karak was recently completed and provides education for both Christian and Muslim students. The inhabitants of Karak were Arab Christian Bedouins converted to Christianity by St. Paul who migrated from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia after Muslim forces lead by the second “rightly guided” Caliph ‘Umar expelled them in 644.
Adder is a mixed village of Christians (33%) and Muslims (66%). There are about 80 Christian families in Adder and the congregation consists of 400-500 members. Families are large and there are an average of 6-7 children per family. Melkite Christians are integrated into the Latin parish. Good relations exist between the Christian and Muslim villagers. The Latin Patriarchate primary school offers grades K-3 and has 380 students. The school is considered to be the best school between Aqaba and Madaba and consistently wins prizes for its excellence. Upon graduation from the primary school the students go to the state run schools in the region. Father Basheer Bader is the parish priest in Adder.
His Excellency El Hassan bin Talal, Royal Palace , Jordan
We were hosted by Prince Hassan, author of Christianity in the Arab World in which he wrote that, in mediaeval times, [Christian Arabs] provided Islam with its principal means of access to the Greek and Hellenistic heritage, and also enriched Arab and Muslim civilization by original contributions in a wide variety of fields. During the long period of Muslim and Arab decline, they helped preserve Muslim and Arab heritage from extinction.” His Excellency discussed the general conditions that influence the survival of Christianity in the Middle East.
Mount Nebo, Jordan
Mount Nebo is a 10-minute drive from Madaba. This is the location of Pisgah where Moses is presumed to have died and buried. This is also the place where Moses first saw the land where his people would settle after 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Early Christians built a small church on this spot at least as early as 393 AD. In subsequent years the church was gradually enlarged and by the 7th Century, it was a vast Byzantine complex, to which pilgrims came from near and far. Since 1933, the sanctuary has been under continuous excavation and restoration by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Stunning and beautiful mosaics have been uncovered and are on display in a covered museum.
During the Pope’s recent visit to the Holy Land, he viewed the same scene from Mt. Nebo as Moses did at the end of the wandering in the wilderness. One can look across the Jericho Plain and see the city Jericho, the mountains beyond the plain on which Jerusalem is situated and to the south, the Dead Sea. At night one can see the lights of the Jordan Valley and the glow in the sky from the lights in Jerusalem.
Crossing the Border into Palestine
From Amman we traveled in a microbus to Madeba and then on a road that ran north of the Dead Sea, to the border. We then unloaded the bus on the Jordanian side and after passing through customs and immigration and after paying a four JD exit fee; we loaded everything on another bus that took us through two Israeli checkpoints in no man’s land. Our bags were unloaded under the watchful eye of an Israeli “watcher.” We then went through Israeli customs and immigration. Our bags were thoroughly x-rayed and searched by young female customs agents. Our visas were issued on a blank paper so that it would not appear in our passports. We then took another bus to Jerusalem. The whole process took about 2 hours. Another bus then took us to our hotel in Jerusalem.
Christmas Hotel in Jerusalem
We stayed at the Christmas Hotel on Salah al Din Street owned by Mousa Emil Jarjoui. Our rooms were more than adequate, the service superb and the management was very attentive to everything we needed. Meals were served in a nicely appointed dining room and garden located in the back of the hotel. After a long day visiting officials and agencies, sitting in the garden with the odor of jasmine, hearing a bubbling fountain and being served warm bread and all sorts of delicious food, made getting ready for the next long day very worthwhile.
On the first night, we went to the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus and viewed Jerusalem at night. We could see the entire old city from east to west. The illuminated Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock was in the foreground and the entire old city was visible in the background. Behind us was the Seven Arches Hotel that recently went into bankruptcy. The viewing point was tastefully constructed of limestone blocks that created an amphitheatre setting for viewing the Old City. Graves of Jews were directly below the viewing area on the side of the Mount of Olives.
Bethlehem District (Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour)
We met with Brother Jerome, VP Development; Vivian Naber, Student; Dr. Mario Assasian; Father Peter Debrille, Chairman of Religious Studies Department; George Sahar, Public Relations and Development.
The University serves over 2000 West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem Christian (32%) and Muslim (68%) students and is 65% woman. The University was founded in 1973 and has 5 faculties – Arts, Science, Nursing, Education, Business Administration, and diploma programs in the Institute for Community Partnerships. The University is sponsored by the Congregation of Oriental Christian Churches, De LaSalle Brothers, the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, the Vatican ($750,000/year) foundations, tuition, Friends of Bethlehem University in England, Germany, United States and a yearly Christmas and Easter appeal. The tuition is $1000/year. There is a local Board of Trustees and an International Board. Students are often trained in a specialty and then go to the United States since there are few jobs for them in Palestine and the students do not see opportunity for themselves here. Working in Israel is out of the question since there is active discrimination against Palestinians in that job market.
We were told that the Palestinians have not developed a propaganda apparatus to tell their side of the political conflict that affects their lives. The present Israeli colonial settler movement is viewed as the last event of the European colonial era. The land for peace deal and Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan has resulted in a cold peace. The promise of the Madrid and Oslo conferences for a two state solution had not become a reality mainly because of the failure of the Israeli side to negotiate in good faith. There is a lack of commitment by the American Arabs and the American government to support the Palestinians. Both sides in the conflict are not really prepared to make peace mainly because of the view that any peace settlement will result in a less that satisfactory solution for a Palestinian state.
Emil Jarjoui, Salah Tamery, Members of the Palestinian National Authority Legislative Council
We had lunch with Emil Jarjoui, Salah Tamery and other Palestinian officials at the Presidents Offices in Bethlehem. Mr. Jarjoui in charge of the Church Affairs with Palestinian National Authority said that there are a number of issues that have to be settled before peace between the Arabs and Israelis will occur. These issues are: statehood, borders, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem, and return of Palestinian refugees. The Israelis have tried to isolate Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank by building a ring of settlements around the city. The Israelis also suffocated the Palestinian economy and made it completely dependent upon Israel. The Israelis have also confiscated Jerusalem ID cards (60,000) from Palestinians living in the Jerusalem in an attempt to depopulate the city of Palestinians. There are 160,000 Palestinians present in Jerusalem. The Israelis have refused to recognize the right for refugees to return to their homeland. East Jerusalem and the West Bank are isolated from one another by military checkpoints and closure thus preventing movement of people and goods between the West Bank cities and Jerusalem. For instance, at the Israeli Military Checkpoint south of Jerusalem leading to Bethlehem, soldiers check each of the vehicles for ID cards and only vehicles with yellow Israeli license plates are allowed through the checkpoint. Palestinians who want to travel the six miles to Bethlehem have to leave their cars at the border, walk through the checkpoint and then take a taxi to their destination. We were told that the soldiers at the border crossing are capricious and one never knows if one would be allowed to pass. As a result, travel has become burdensome, if not impossible, and commerce has been completely stifled.
The Christian towns of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Ramallah are subject to bombardments with tank fire and rockets from helicopter gunships. Ninety-five houses have been destroyed in Beit Jala by gunfire.
The Israelis are very sophisticated in their use of a “heavy mask of morality” to justify their suppression of the Palestinians. The “morality” foisted on the West engenders pity for their suffering during the Holocaust and support for their harsh and brutal actions against Palestinian resistance to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For seven years after signing the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians protested the establishment of settlements in the West Bank but the protests fell on deaf ears in America. The Israelis failed to live up to most of the seven agreements they concluded and signed with the Palestinians. For instance, at Rachel’s Tomb, the Israelis violated all parts of the agreement. What was to be a guard post at the tomb became a fortress. Free access to the tomb ended when the Israelis closed the road leading to the Tomb. The status quo of the site was to be maintained but the Israelis ignored this part of the agreement and a building was erected at the site that violated the status quo of the site and was built without the permission of the Bethlehem municipality. What happened at Rachel’s Tomb is symbolic of the entire Oslo Process. The Israelis did not respect the rights of the Palestinians. We were told that the Arabs blame the American government as much for the Israeli behavior as the Israelis. The United States has indulged and ignored the Israeli excesses and, as a result, is not trusted. What really galls the Palestinians is the fact that the Israeli settlers are American citizens and these same American citizens are killing Palestinians. The Bush Administration put the Palestinian crisis on the back burner and made Iraq the main policy issue, something that astounds and astonishes the Arabs in the Middle East. We were told that suicide bombers are easy to find since they have lost all hope for the future and life and death have become identical and therefore they have nothing to lose by dying. They are willing to die since their dreams for the future have been blocked out by the reality of life under Israeli military occupation.
The 157 Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a stumbling block to any peace settlement. Systematic and strategic placement of Israeli settlements since the beginning of the Peace Process began in the early part of the decade resulted in a patchwork of land confiscations, buildings and roads that disrupt Palestinian life and commerce in the West Bank. Each settlement has a military base attached to it and military checkpoints assure the security of those Israelis living in the West Bank while at the same time disrupting the life and commerce of Palestinians. For instance, Beit Sahour is divided into two sections by settlements. In Beit Jala, 20% of the Israeli settlements occupy the best archeology sites. The Israelis have taken most of the water out of the aquifer for themselves and have taken possession of the tourist sites. The Palestinians feel the daily sting of the Israeli anti-Arab culture and believe that the Israeli regime is worse than the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The difference between the Israelis and the Nazis, we were told, were that the “Israelis have not used gas chambers yet” but there are talk of Palestinian expulsion.
The Palestinian National Authority made significant civil improvements to the 37 towns and villages that comprise the District of Bethlehem. Water and electricity was brought to each of the villages. Hundreds of new classrooms were built, 35 computer centers were established, kindergartens and medical centers were built. Occasionally, the Israelis stopped the building of medical centers. The town of Bethlehem underwent a large number of civil improvements and infrastructure designed to enhance comfort for the tourists. During the last quarter of the year 2000 the Israelis targeted the new structures for destruction. The new convention center under construction at Solomon’s Pool was hit by a number of tank shells. The Israelis took ninety percent of the water and now people in Bethlehem have to buy water from the Israelis. There is a need for dialysis machines, medication for diabetics and any type of medication since all medicine is in short supply due to the Israeli military siege of the city.
Mayor of Bethlehem, Mr. Hanna Nasser
We met with Mr. Hanna Nasser, the mayor of Bethlehem whose office was located on Manger Square. He recently returned from a visit to Orlando, Florida where he was honored as a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian people. Bethlehem has a twin city agreement with Orlando as well as a large number of other cities around the world. The mayor said that the future for his town was bleak. The mainstream media in the United States has betrayed the American people by not telling the truth about the conditions that Palestinians suffer on a daily basis under Israeli military occupation. The 7-month siege of Bethlehem by the Israelis has caused the economy to slump resulting in a 50% unemployment rate. The average income in Bethlehem was $1800 per year last year and it has been reduced to less than $600 per year. The tourist industry has collapsed; all the restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops are closed. Israelis prevent tourist buses from entering the city. The Israelis are making life very difficult for the average person living in Bethlehem now that Israeli military checkpoints and tank bombardments are facts of life that stifle social and commercial activity in the city and surrounding towns and villages. Many Christians left Bethlehem for South America after the 1948 war. As a result the town, which was 90% Christian before the war, is now 45% Christian. The are 10,000 people from Bethlehem in the United States and over 600,000 in the Palestinian Diaspora. The Israelis have even confiscated the mayor’s personal property and lands. The northern part of Bethlehem, comprising 2000 acres was confiscated and annexed to Southern Jerusalem. The mayor believes that the same will happen all over Palestine. It is well to remember, he said, that the West Bank and Gaza comprise 22% of the original Mandatory Palestine and Israel controls most of that 22%.
When the Madrid and Oslo land for peace agreements were signed with the Israel, many Palestinians returned to Palestine to start businesses and work to build a future for themselves in Palestine. The promise of the peace accords turned into a nightmare for those who invested in Palestine’s future. Israeli policies not only reduced economic independence of Palestine, these policies created an economic environment that suffocated the promise of many investments. The second Intifada was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the moment, the economy is in shambles and the Palestinians do not think that there will be much improvement in the near term. Now the Palestinians people are engaged in massive resistance to Israeli military occupation. We were told that there would be no be peace unless the United Nations resolutions are respected. Israel refuses true peace as long as the Israelis are able to confiscate more land. The stalemate creates more instability and encourages emigration to other parts of the world. The mayor asked for American Christian support since if it does not occur, all Christians will be gone in 20 years. The people in Bethlehem do not feel that they have American Christian support. The Zionist Christians create more difficulty for the people in Bethlehem since they undermine the struggle for Palestinians to remain in their homeland. Ironically, the Muslim population holds the Christians in Bethlehem responsible for the Zionist Christians.
Bethlehem Bible College, Bishera Awad, President.
We met with President Awad at the Abu Shanat Restaurant on the main street in Bethlehem. We were served warm bread and specialties of the house and after a filling meal, Mr. Awad told us that he started Bethlehem Bible College in 1979. This is the only Bible College for Arabic speaking Christians. Students from everywhere in the Middle East attend the college for education that prepares them for religious leadership. The college also serves as center for a series of lectures about Palestine. There are 100 students enrolled at present with extension schools in Nazareth and Gaza. The college serves as a center for Christianity for Palestine. The Shepherd’s Society provides $100,000 to provide charitable donations of food coupons, school tuition, and electric bills to those in need. Under the aegis of the Shepherds Society, 54 families in the United States sponsor 54 Bethlehem families in need by giving $50 per month. The college also has a program to help children with traumatic stress disorder resulting from the effects of the siege and bombardments by Israeli troops. President Awad mentioned that the school in dire need of shock trauma counselors. He is willing to provide room and board for anyone who will help with the victims of the Israeli siege on Bethlehem. The college also sponsors a chorus of students who sing Christian music from the Holy Land for conferences, TV and church appearances.
President Awad said that the siege of Bethlehem was the main factor for the economic decline of the town. Residents are unable to go to work; it blocks food and other essential item deliveries. Electric, water, school fees and telephone bills are not paid because of the shortage of money and the result is a downward spiral for the region.
He noted that the college has 79 broken windows due to bullets and shell fragments. The stress is so great that there have been over 200 miscarriages by woman during the siege.