The church bell tolled rhythmically, sadly. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, its boarding home for boys and its campus in Beit Jala, Palestine.
The church bell tolled rhythmically, sadly. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, its boarding home for boys and its campus in Beit Jala, Palestine, were filled and surrounded with Christian and Muslim people dressed in dark clothes, quietly comforting one another. They were waiting for the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan, Palestine and Israel (ELCJ) and the pastor of the Reformation church, Rev. Jadallah Shehadeh, to lead the procession of clergy into the sanctuary. Soon they came, accompanied by Rev. Mitri Raheb of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, and by many other Christian clergy, as well as Muslim clerics. Boys from the church’s boarding home held flags, Palestinian and German. The man who had been killed the previous night was a German national, married to a Palestinian woman. They were the parents of three children, the oldest seventeen years of age. They were members of the Evangelical Lutheran Arab church. The clergy procession passed. The bell continued to toll.
Dr. Harry Fisher was a physician. He had had a private practice in Beit Jala for nearly twenty years. On Wednesday night, November 15, 2000, the Israeli military forces once again shelled the village of Beit Jala, located on the western edge of Bethlehem and facing the Israeli settlement of Gilo on the north. Gilo was erected on lands confiscated after the 1967 War. Most of the land had belonged to Christian families from Beit Jala. For many hours helicopter gunships targeted particular buildings and also seemed to be shooting at anything that moved. Dr. Fisher saw neighbors who needed help and when he ran to their aid, the doctor was blown apart by a gunship and by machine guns. He is believed to be the first Christian, and certainly the first Lutheran, to be killed in this “second intifada”. The Arabic word intifada means, “a shaking off” of an unwanted Israeli military occupation. (The word occurs in the Bible in Matthew 10:14.) The “first intifada” occurred from 1987 to about 1993. In the current outbreak more than 250 Palestinian people have been killed and over 9000 wounded.
Beit Jala and also Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, three sister towns very close to the southern edge of Jerusalem, have been targeted by the Israeli military forces for many shellings in this second intifada which began the end of September 2000 following the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Many Christian Palestinians live in these towns. Three ELCJ congregations and three Lutheran schools are located there, in addition to many other Christian churches and institutions.
During the funeral the people prayed together, heard Scripture and the pastors’ messages, and sang hymns, including “Nearer My God to Thee”.
Bishop Younan addressed the hundreds of people inside the church. “The Lutheran church offers a martyr who has given his life for the service of Palestinians. We ask today: What is his guilt that he went to give First Aid to save humanity and keep the dignity of his medical profession? What is his guilt as he came to serve the human being, whether Palestinian or German or other, whether Christian or Muslim? For this reason, Harry, you join today the cloud of martyrs who gave their lives for the freedom of humanity.”
The bishop went on to decry the Israeli shelling of unarmed civilians and on their homes. “For this we cry: ‘Enough bloodshed. Enough injustice. Enough war. Enough bombing. Enough fear and horror. Let us work for a just peace. And instead of bloodshed and money spent for weapons, let us use this money to build a just peace, to construct homes and to establish the independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.’ “
Bishop Younan spoke of Christ’s resurrection as our comfort. “Although it seems that death and oppression and hatred are strong – it was these that led our Lord Jesus to the cross. But death was not the end. The resurrection was the voice of justice, of truth, peace and reconciliation that cried and still cries to the world that there is no other way that lasts.”
The bell continued tolling as the people left the church. Bishop Younan, Rev. Shehadeh, Rev. Raheb and many other clergy walked together in a procession down the narrow Beit Jala street, leading thousands of people. The pastors were singing hymns as they walked to the cemetery. Their voices singing “Alleluia!” filled the town that had experienced bombs and bullets and bloodshed only hours earlier. A processional cross moved in front of the procession along with Scouts, both boys and girls, from the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School in Beit Jala. They were rhythmically beating drums, carrying wreaths and also carrying signs telling about Dr. Fisher. Thousands more people filled the streets to honor their friend and physician.
At the cemetery the polished wooden box with the shattered remains of Dr. Fisher was slid into a concrete vault while prayers and hymns were offered. Concrete was immediately mixed on the ground to cement the blocks at the opening of the vault. An honor guard of Palestinian policemen shot several rounds of gunfire. Then people gave short speeches remembering Dr. Fisher.
The German probst (dean) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem spoke about the doctor and the injustice and grief of his death.
Back at the church the family was receiving condolences. Rev. Shehadeh explained the Arab custom of receiving guests for three additional days after the funeral. The visitation for Dr. Fisher’s family would be held in the reception hall at the church. The pastor estimated that thirty or forty thousand people would pass by to greet and console the family in that time. An enormous amount of dark and bitter coffee would be offered and consumed.
The church bell was now quiet. But as the afternoon wore on and darkness began to fall, the level of fear in Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour was rising once again. Everyone’s ears were tuned to hear the sound of the Israeli helicopters returning to shoot and destroy. And everyone prayed for deliverance and peace.
Writer: Rev. Mary E. Jensen
Editing: Rev. Jensen; George Awad, church secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan, Palestine and Israel (ELCJ)