I am a nun of the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (Gethsemane) and am responsible for the administration of the Orthodox School of Bethany, a school for Palestinian girls just outside Jerusalem.

This is written by Mother Agapia (formerly Sr. Maria Stephanopoulos) , daughter of Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos and Pres. Nikki. Father Stephanopoulos is the Dean of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral in New York and her brother is George Stephanopoulos. She was just tonsured to the small schema and received a new name. She e-mailed this to Fr. John Reeves (State College, PA) who sent it to us.

April 15, 2002 AN APPEAL To The Orthodox Christian Women Of America

Dear Sisters,

I am a nun of the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (Gethsemane) and am responsible for the administration of the Orthodox School of Bethany, a school for Palestinian girls just outside Jerusalem.

We have a small boarding section and care for Orthodox children from Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, towns located next to Bethlehem. Many of the sisters of our Convent are from Beit Jala. I am not spreading propaganda but am simply reporting what has been happening to friends and acquaintances of mine — Christian women, women with children, with elderly parents to care for, women such as yourself who are now suffering greatly here under siege from Israeli forces.

The situation has degenerated here so much, so quickly that I can’t possibly recount all the horrors going on. I’ll start with the latest event. Dr. Hala K. is an Orthodox Christian woman from Beit Jala. Her husband, Dr. Nasser K. works at the Husseini Hospital in Beit Jala and is a former president of the Orthodox Club of Beit Jala. A few hours ago I got off the phone with Hala. She had just returned from a clinic her and her husband have in Bethlehem, not far from Manger Square, near the Lutheran Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary. Hala and Nasser had received news that the clinic they operate had been damaged by Israeli soldiers, so taking advantage of the fact that the Israelis had lifted the curfew for a couple of hours and people were free to leave their homes, they raced to the clinic. They did so even though they had to leave their children home alone (Israeli soldiers have entered their new home in the middle of the night three times in the last month, once stealing all the money from the house, and another time strafing the house with gunfire, miraculously only slightly wounding one of their daughters). When they arrived at the clinic – what they saw crushed them. Hala, in a voice more full of shock and absolute amazement at man’s inhumanity to his fellow man than any feelings of revenge or anger, described to me over the phone what she found:

The clinic is in a building that houses other professional offices, doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. As they raced to their offices they could see that the doors of all the various offices had been blown open. They entered their clinic, the door had been blown open with some sort of explosive device, the waiting room had bullet holes all over the walls, the rooms were in a shambles, the soldiers had defecated on the floors and most of the equipment had been damaged. Most painful of all to Hala (she is trained as a gynecologist and in fact when she was first married she had an opportunity to study at Columbia University in New York City, but the newlyweds chose to stay in Palestine) was that the soldiers had destroyed her ultrasound machine, a machine that cost $20,000 and was used in her care for pregnant women. During the last two weeks while the Bethlehem area has been under siege three of Hala’s patients have delivered their babies – AT HOME, it was impossible for them to reach a hospital or for a doctor to reach them because of the Israeli tanks and jeeps in their streets. Fortunately in her cases the babies and mothers have survived though there have been complications. There are reports that some newborns have died during these past two weeks in Bethlehem because they were unable to receive medical attention. Nasser and Hala have four children ages 5 to 16.

They now live in a beautiful new home on the eastern side of Beit Jala, near Talitha Kumi Lutheran School. The last time I was able to visit them, about one and a half months ago, they were proudly and busily planting flowers and shrubs around their new home. (Over the past year and half their original home in the center of Beit Jala near the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas has been peppered with bullet holes, shattered windows and water tanks, and an outside staircase blown threw by an Israeli shell. Many of the homes on that street have suffered a similar fate. Nasser’s elderly mother and a single sister are still living in a home in that part of Beit Jala, as is the family of three of our boarder girls and the elderly mother and a sister of one of our nuns. For over two weeks now -starting Saturday March 30, the day before Western Easter, these people in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem have been confined to their homes, as Israeli tanks and jeeps parade the streets. From a number of sources there I heard that two days ago the soldiers announced that people could leave their homes for two hours to try and buy provisions. Barely half an hour after the time of the supposed lifting of the curfew the soldiers began shooting tear gas into the people in the market area.)

I first came to know Hala after her original home which is near to the home of one of our nuns was damaged by Israeli gunfire back in October, 2000.  During the past year and a half I did what I could to help the people of Beit Jala. One project was to help Hala and a number of other Orthodox Christian women in the town who had voluntarily devoted their time to establishing an after school program for the children in Beit Jala. They found a building they could rent and established a library and an area for games, music and arts and crafts activities for the kids. They are trying to keep the program going twice a week after school and every day during the summer. During the time of the conflict here it has been hard to raise funds to hire a young person to co-ordinate the programs as well as pay the rent and fund the activities. They only ask for five shekels (about $1) a month from each child, and often waive the fee for those that can’t pay. About 80 children participate in the program. Needless to say there have been no activities for the last month because of the Israeli army incursion into Bethlehem. I have attached photographs of some of the women involved in the program (all have been confined to their homes for the last two weeks, lucky if once every two days the Israelis let them step outside for a couple of hours to run to a store for food and medicine), as well as some photos of damage done over the past year and a half by Israeli troops to homes of people in Beit Jala.

Two more bits of information I received today.

I was informed by a friend that a 24 year old Christian woman with a one year child was shot dead by Israeli soldiers this morning. She was the relative of a woman we know who runs the Spafford Center, a facility for special education, some of our boarders take classes there.

This morning I was able to reach by phone Simon S., a friend from Beit Sahour, who has done many construction projects for our Convent and School as well as many other Christian institutions in the Jerusalem area. An Orthodox Christian and the father of five children, including a teen-age daughter and two teen-age boys (more fluent in Greek than I (!), they attend the Jerusalem Patriarchate school in Shepherd’s Field and have visited Greece twice), Simon is the kind of man that one would describe as “the salt of the earth.” Besides the work he is hired to do he is always ready at any time to run and help any hapless nun who calls him, “Simon, the water pipe broke.” “Simon, we can’t fix the door handle.” “Simon,.” and before you hang up the phone Simon is there to help. Not forty years old and as meek a man as you will ever meet, Simon was nearly killed during the last Intifada (late 80’s to early 90’s) when Israeli soldiers dragged him out of his car and beat him badly. His only crime was trying to get home from work, but foolish him, the Israelis had said the curfew had already begun and what was he doing driving around. After that experience Simon’s constant prayer and a hope that he often relates to us is that he will live long enough to see all of his children reach adulthood (the youngest is four).

Ever the eternal optimist when I spoke to Simon two days ago he was sure that things would be better and somehow he would be able to get to Bethany on Monday to do some work for us. Simon is scared now. I could only talk to Simon on the phone today — he didn’t make it to Bethany today and we don’t know when he will. He sits huddled in his home in Beit Sahour (Beit Sahour is Shepherd’s Field-here lived the shepherds who heard the angels announce Christ’s birth and even today 2000 years later their descendants live in this town, men as gentle and hard-working as those shepherds of Christ’s time) with his wife and children, praying that the Israeli soldiers will not enter his house or that some emergency will force him to leave the house. He knows to well what can happen. Saud El Hayet is a man like Simon, a kind man Simon called him, an Orthodox Christian man with five children from Beit Sahour .. . Saturday Saud got in his car when the Israeli soldiers said the curfew had been lifted to try and get some provisions for his family. As he was driving towards his home soldiers were on the road, Saud was scared and turned his car from the soldiers – they shot him dead. A 60 year old woman, a neighbor witnessed it all, and shocked by the horror of the act, died there on the spot. These are women and men just like you or I and NOW they are in dire need of your help — as an Orthodox Christian woman living in the Holy Land I appeal to you to use all your resources to help them.

Get on the phone and ask your Congressmen and Senators why the United States government is backing this invasion of Israeli forces into sovereign areas, why so many innocent civilians are being terrorized in their homes, their towns and livelihoods being destroyed by the Israeli government all in the name of stopping terror?

Ask your representatives why are Israeli forces being allowed to damage Christian churches all in the name of fighting terror? I know for a fact that many Palestinians have been seeking refuge in churches, not only the Church of the Nativity. For the most part they are not “terrorists” but policemen and parishioners of these churches, husbands and brothers trying to defend their homes.

From information we have, only seven of the men in the Church of the Nativity could be considered dangerous or “wanted men” by Israel. The majority, both Muslim and Christian, are men of the Bethlehem area, well-known to the clergy inside the Church.  Men taken in by the clergy because they know that they are people only trying to defend their homes from an occupying force.

Once this bloody incursion finally ends many here will be in dire financial straits, not having work, and having many expenses as they try to rebuild their damaged homes, businesses, etc. I hope at that time the Orthodox Christian women groups in the US will be generous in providing assistance to their fellow Christians in the Holy Land who are suffering tremendously now.

And above all pray. As I hear from friends from Bethlehem, Ramallah, etc and see the wanton destruction that has gone on, I and they have no rational explanation for why all this is taking place. The destruction being carried out by the Israeli forces now makes no sense and will certainly not bring them any security. My only comfort is that as I try to stay in contact with friends now under siege I marvel at how meek, humble and long-suffering they are in the midst of their trials. I think of F.S., an acquaintance from Ramallah, an elderly man now, who is considered the dean of Palestinian lawyers, sitting penned in his home, listening in his home that lies just around the corner from the main street of Ramallah where his legal offices are, listening as the Israeli tanks and helicopters carry out the destruction of the town he has lived in for the past fifty years.

And when I call this distinguished, capable man barred by twenty-year old soldiers (most likely immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia) from walking the streets of the city he has known as home for far longer than those soldiers have been alive, he speaks meekly and matter-of-factly: no, no water running, just a little left in the tanks, but he is grateful, the Israelis gave them two hours to go out for food, though he laments, no fresh bread, the bakeries (those not destroyed) had no time to heat their ovens. And in his sweet, quiet voice the man who can outwit anyone in court knows no legal argument, no rational mind will help now, and he gently finishes our conversation, “Thank you for calling habibie (dear one), and pray, all we can do his pray.”

So please you too pray for all the good people of Palestine, people that are no different than me or you. From: “Fr. John Reeves” To: “Srs. Martha & Maria” Subject: Re: Verification Date: Mon, 15 Apr 2002 10:47:49 -0400 Mother Agapia: Please pray for me. I will continue to try to get the attention of church authorities here in the states to the atrocities taking place. Thank you for whatever you might be able to do. Blessings, Fr John