The Islamic call to prayer wakes me daily at 4 am or sometimes at 4:20 am. I don’t complain when it is an extra 20 minutes later but than again after seven years of listening to the loud speakers’ blasting in Arabic “God is great” from the two Muslim villages that sandwich our little Christian village there is no point in complaining about traditions and customs in a land that is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The Islamic call to prayer wakes me daily at 4 am or sometimes at 4:20 am. I don’t complain when it is an extra 20 minutes later but than again after seven years of listening to the loud speakers’ blasting in Arabic “God is great” from the two Muslim villages that sandwich our little Christian village there is no point in complaining about traditions and customs in a land that is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews. We don’t have a government, we don’t have a police department, and we don’t have law and order, just total military occupation to protect the hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements that surround our small village of Taybeh known as Biblical Ephraim in one of the highest mountain regions in Palestine between Jerusalem and Jericho. However, what we do have here in the land of Christ’s birth is the responsibility and the moral obligation to keep our Christian presence. Unfortunately, the mere existence of only 2% Christians among three million Palestinians is a number constantly dwindling due to the awful military occupation that deprives people of their basic human rights and human dignity.
It is too dark and I can’t get up so early in the morning. The minute I will look out my kitchen window I will see the new expansion of the Israeli settlement of Ofra, the largest settlement in the West Bank that has just practically reached my front door. Finally when the sunlight hits my room, I will get up and stare out my bay window at the beautiful hills and valley of biblical Judea and recall this is the village that Christ visited before his crucifixion “Jesus… went thence unto a country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim…” (John 11:54) Each and every day I feel I truly live in a sacred and holy place. But I believe there is a high price to pay as a Christian living in the Holy Land under Israeli guns and struggling to teach my children their Palestinian Christian roots.
After a little screaming and yelling at the boys to try and leave the house on time by 7 am, we finally pass up the Latin Church in the village center and the Orthodox Church down on the right while the Melkite Church is on the left as we pray to arrive to school safe for another day. However, the magnificent site of all is the extraordinary ruins of St. George Church from the fourth century built by St. Constantine and Helen. And daily as I see this historic site, I am reminded of the great faith and deep commitment these two great saints had to help preserve the Christian faith and value the spots that Christ walked by building shrines and churches all over the Holy Land. As a matter of fact, it was Constantine the Great that called Palestine the “Holy Land.” At every Christian event and holiday we are reminded that this land was indeed made holy by Christ Himself because He walked among the people teaching salvation and He is the truth, the way and the Light in this world of darkness. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:4). It has never been darker in the Holy Land than today following two years of state sponsored terrorism against the Palestinian people who are desperately seeking a homeland, freedom and independence from Israeli occupation and brutality that has almost totally destroyed the land of Christ’s birth along with several precious Christian sites.
We need to travel out of the village to go to school in the city but the only two main roads have been technically blocked for over two years by large concrete cement blocks and piles of dirt so that no one passes. Constantly the young men from the village move these blocks a little to the side so at least one car can squeeze by at a time and sneak on to the Israeli settlement roads to get out of the village at least for those that have foreign passports and Israeli registered vehicles. You can just count these people on one hand. The rest of the 1300 residents are practically prisoners in the village. Sometimes they walk the mountains and the valley when absolutely necessary but they often get caught in the middle of shooting or get detained for many hours. Many times I return home to the village to find the same road I used in the morning completely blocked and can’t get back home after a very tiring and hot day. Thus the children get out of the car and walk over the dirt piles with those heavy back packs that feel like rocks and I call my husband to meet me at the checkpoint and drive the car through the valley because he will hit fewer rocks than me. At least if he damages the car there is less screaming and yelling at home.
After climbing over a dirt bump on this bright autumn morning we drive for at least 45 minutes on the settlement roads listening to church tapes that Fr. Bill Chiganos records in the Holy Apostles Church in Chicago. Taped and emailed sermons have kept my sanity the last few years. I must mention that prayers from others have also saved me and given me inner peace. If suicide was not forbidden by my religion I would have taken my own life years ago. Now I have placed my life in God’s hands and pray daily for a peaceful passing without suffering and without pain. By the time I finish this prayer, I have passed up two empty checkpoints that have been uplifted from the main road and the soldiers stand on the mountain tops with their full gear and American paid weapons ever since June when seven soldiers were killed at a nearby checkpoint on a Sunday morning.
As the sun shines in my face and I can barely see the road I do notice the soldiers holding their guns on top of the mountain and right next to them is an Israeli settler draped with a white towel or robe on his head holding his book and praying next to the Israeli flag by swinging himself back and forth. If you need guns and soldiers to protect you while praying than there is a great injustice somewhere. This is not a normal thing. People should pray in peace and freedom. But not of course if you have confiscated land that belongs to another nation and you deprive the local people from their human rights and cage them in their villages like animals. Obviously some type of misery will follow this great injustice that was initiated with the creation of Israel in l948 and the massacre of thousands of Palestinians and millions of refugees with the total destruction and disappearance of whole villages in one day.
Finally I reach another major checkpoint blocking the main road called Beit El before entering Ramallah. On the mountain tops and the valleys there are many students and teachers walking through the weeds, dirt and rocks to avoid the checkpoint so that they might pass and go to school or work in the city of Ramallah. On the bottom of the mountain, off the road is an Israeli jeep with a least six soldiers all out of the jeep, fully armed and holding a group of ten or fifteen Palestinians at gun point, mostly young men. This is a daily scene. It is customary that Israeli soldiers stop people at random for no reason whatsoever and harass and hassle them. Just the other day, Lui, a twenty year old neighbor in my village was detained from 9 am until 3 pm when the soldier finally returned his identification card to him to pass after a boiling hot day in the sun. He is one of the few that has work in the gold factory (60% of the people are unemployed from the siege) but can not get a salary when soldiers deprive him from moving around. It is so unbelievable. It is so unreal that this would happen to innocent human beings. What is more frustrating is that these are people going between Palestinian villages and cities. They are not trying to enter Israel proper before the l967 boarders. These are people hassled and harassed on the West Bank where the Israelis invaded in l967 and refuse to leave by building illegal settlements and continuing their heavy army presence that initiates violence because of the daily tortures and ordeals that are totally inhuman.
The minute I reached the checkpoint in order to pass, the soldier signals me with his hand to turn around and not even approach him. I drive up anyway and make him angrier by just saying “good morning.” He responds harshly: “curfew, go back.” I beg him to pass and that to my knowledge there is no curfew because all the people are walking by the mountain side to reach the city and I need to send my children to school. It was terrible to have had only nine school days in September because the Israeli army imposes curfew as they wish. If there is school today, we want to get there and learn. The soldier responded again with a fierce voice and look: “I told you Ramallah is closed, now go back.”
Well, frustrated and angry I backed up my car a few meters away and called Fr. Jack our religion teacher from Taybeh to see if he had passed up the checkpoint and if truly the school was open. I just absolutely hate it when priests have more privileges than me. Because I am willing to serve Christ in this manner but my religion will not allow women to be priests. Now I am angrier than ever because the soldiers let Fr. Jack pass and not me. I called up my husband for help but his advice is always the same, come back home and don’t go to school today. Feeling helpless and totally disappointed at this crazy system I approached the soldier again and showed him my Greek passport with a valid visitor’s visa and demanded my internationally right to pass at my own risk and die inside Ramallah. He responded: “Do I have to damage or shoot your car so you can go back?” Having had my car damaged by soldiers before I didn’t want this expense so I finally turned around went to the closest valley side and let the children walk across the weeds and dirt to catch a taxi on the other side to take them to school. This is not the safest thing in the world with tanks and armored jeeps flocking the area. As the children got out of the car my heart began to beat a little faster.
I continued to be very worried and fearful something would happen to them so I kept calling every five minutes until I knew they had reached the school safe. Almost two thousand Palestinians have been killed since Sept 2000 and a great number have been children going to school. My two boys are becoming young men now of sixteen years of age and fourteen years of age and when the Israelis start rounding up Palestinians they pick up boys as young as fifteen. Speaking to many mothers in Ramallah in April, it was the scariest thing for families to wait for their sons to come back home safe after being interrogated by the Israeli army with the house to house invasions carried out by the democratic country of Israel as they were telling the world “they were getting the terrorists,” they were actually terrorizing us to death with their tanks, armored jeeps, apache helicopters, F-16 war planes, destructive assassination campaigns and endless bombings and shooting of every neighborhood in Palestine. Although international regulations forbid such weapons to be used against unarmed civilians, the Israelis are above all laws.
My struggle for the day is not over because I still have to pick up the children from their school at 3 p.m. in a city that is totally under siege, so I must try another checkpoint. I opted for the one that is a half hour away called Qalandia, famous for three to four hours wait to pass. As I reached Qalandia during this beautiful hot day I decided to just cheat and pass up the countless trucks and cars waiting because I find it bizarre to wait many hours when I can just drive by at the risk of being shot. It is so chaotic and confusing at these checkpoints that if I don’t cheat someone else will come and cheat the checkpoint line and I will be seating there for many hours wishing it was me. There is so much disorder, mess, and delay that when my mother was visiting me during the Uprising she said: “there is no way they would keep me in this country even if they tied me up with chains.” During the nightly bombings of many Christian homes in Beit Jala, a very prominent bishop from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese instructed me to pick up my children and leave because he felt it’s not necessary to have a Christian presence in the Holy Land. Sharon is doing such a great job at making all of us want to leave which I would assume in some places this forced emigration is called ethnic cleansing.
The true meaning of serving Christ is to sacrifice our life so that we may gain eternal life in God’s kingdom. If truly we accept God as our savior, we must accept the cross he hands us to carry. No one can understand how Christians and Muslims possibly live under such horrible and awful daily conditions while most of them have known the freedom and life in the western world. However, as a Christian living in the Holy Land, the challenge is to see God in each and every human being under these tragic and brutal conditions and at any risk to give witness to Christ our Savior in the land of His birth by believing and practicing peaceful resolutions. Truly Christ is in our midst and we are one body because the prayers of people everywhere are powerful and justice will one day prevail in the Holy Land. If we can not have peace in our world right now, let us at least have peace in our souls: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27).
Editor’s note: Maria C. Khoury is the author of Christina’s Favorite Saints and four other Orthodox Christian children’s books published in Jerusalem.