There’s a wall running around the Comboni sisters’ convent in East Jerusalem.
Known variously as the “West Bank Barrier”, “Separation Wall”, “Apartheid Wall” and “security fence”, it divides the part of the city which is under Israeli control from that under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority.
The Comboni Missionary Sisters have been based here since 1965.
Although they’re on the Israeli side of the barrier, theirs is an Arab area, and some of the sisters run a nursery for the local Palestinian population. Others work with Bedouin women in the desert, or at various Church institutions in Jerusalem.
One of these sisters is Anna Maria Sgaramella, a professor of theology. She spoke to Vatican News about the Comboni missionaries’ peace-building work, and their delicate location on the separation wall.
Before the outbreak of the conflict, the sisters ran a number of different ministries for the local Palestinian population: nurseries, work with women, and healthcare provision.
The nurseries, Sr Sgaramella explains, came about as a result of a request from the local population. The nearby Bedouins wanted their children to ”learn self-discipline and to be able to stay in the classroom”, since, as nomadic tribespeople, “they were used to being in the open, and when they went to school they had difficulty staying in the classroom and sitting down.”
Some of the teaching took place directly in the convent, but some sisters also travelled to the desert, where the Bedouins live. Since no permanent structures can be built there, they taught in makeshift buildings resting on car tyres.
These nurseries, Sr Sgaramella says, went on to become “cultural centres for adults, too”, places for Bedouins to come together to discuss the issues affecting their communities.
Impact of the war
Asked about the impact of the current violence on these activities, Sr Sgaramella notes that many of them have had to be temporarily halted.
The sisters living “over the wall” have had to return to the convent, and work with the Bedouins has, for now, been stopped entirely.
On the day that the Israel-Hamas war broke out, moreover, petrol bombs launched by Palestinian protestors towards a nearby Israeli checkpoint landed in the convent, burning parts of the nursery.
Despite this, however, Sr Sgaramella says, it is now back open, welcoming Palestinian children from both sides of the wall.
The goal of these educational activities, she says, is to “tear down” the barrier that surrounds the property,
“What I mean by that,” she explains, “is that our goal is to show that the other – whether they be Jewish, black, Indian, so the other in their ethnic, religious or national diversity – is still my brother.”
Paths toward peace
What, realistically, can those of us who live outside the region contribute toward achieving peace there?
Sr Sgaramella has two thoughts.
The first thing we can do, she says, is to value and support of the work of those, on both sides, who “attempt to live out communion and unity in times of division and violence”. These are figures, she stresses, that “can be found in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps.”
Secondly, Sr Sgaramella says, we can work toward “a greater understanding of the situation of both sides”, and attempt to “embrace both parties.”
This, she explains, means in the first instance “denouncing violence” against both groups.
It also involves, she says, “recognising the rights of every people”, which, in this case, means recognising that “both peoples have a need of, and right to, the land.”
By Joseph Tulloch | vaticannews