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Israel and Palestinian Christians

June 1, 2010

I would like to draw your attention to a fascinating and topical essay in the One magazine by Sami El-Yousef, a Christian from Jerusalem. (For those unfamiliar with this little gem of a magazine, One is published by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association). El-Yousef is a Christian (Greek Orthodox) of very ancient stock. He writes lovingly about the Holy Saturday liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As the highlight of the liturgical year, thousands of Christians gather from around the region and pack themselves into this ancient Church for the Holy Fire Celebration. Leading the procession are the 13 oldest Christian families in Jerusalem, and El-Yousef belongs to one of them. These families are given the distinct honor of processing three times around the tomb with their family banners. After the procession, the patriarch enters the tomb and re-emerges with the holy fire.

In the good old says, when Jordan was in control, pilgrims came from as far away as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq to experience this night. The city never closed its gates or blocked access. Of course, Israel’s occupation of the city changed things. But even then, Palestinian Christians were generally left in peace to worship on this holiest of nights. But no longer. The gradual erosion of human rights for Palestinians in the occupied territories took a dramatic turn for the worse under the brutal Netanyahu-Liberman regime, for Christians too. Here is El-Yousef:

“This year, despite outcry from church leaders, members of civil society and the Christian community at large, Israeli authorities made it next to impossible to enter the Old City on Holy Saturday. In the early morning hours, police set up roadblocks at all the Old City’s gates and dozens of manned checkpoints along the streets and alleyways leading to the church.”

Even residents of the old city were harassed.  The Israelis locked a group of about 70 Christians in their Church and would not let them out (including a number of very frightened elderly people). Residents were only allowed into the Church alongside armed Israeli soldiers. El-Yousef again:

“When we arrived in the church’s courtyard, to our surprise, no one was there to welcome us but a long line of Israeli police officers. Normally, thousands of locals and pilgrims greet us in the courtyard….Once inside the church, we were surprised a second time to be welcomed by only a few worshipers. For as long as I can remember, the church was always filled to capacity, packed with hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims and tourists on Holy Saturday. This year, Israeli authorities prohibited entry to pilgrims so police could access it freely and easily. Has the formula changed? Is the church for worshipers or for the 1,500 police officers (according to Israeli police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby) on the premises that day?

What a strange world we live in. Instead of faithful pilgrims, armed police officers, with guns in plain sight on their waists, welcomed us inside the church on Holy Saturday. Where else on earth do hundreds of armed police officers patrol the inside of a church other than here in the Old City — the holiest of places for Christianity? What an ugly sight indeed.”

This desecration of the holiest Christian shrine somehow escaped the notice of the world media. And the ugliness was not over. For the centuries, the holy fire has been carried to a Greek Orthodox monastery on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre. This year:

“We encountered our third harsh surprise when we reached the church’s roof. For centuries, thousands of Christians from Jerusalem, the Galilee, the West Bank and Gaza gathered on the roof to witness and receive the Holy Fire. They then would march through the streets and alleyways in the Christian Quarter with the fire in hand. This year, there was no enthusiastic crowd of faithful to greet us. In fact, the vast roof was all but empty apart from police barricades and police officers, who directed us immediately off the roof and out of the Greek Orthodox Convent.”

El-Yousef’s final thoughts:

“I look forward to the day when my youngest son, Michael, grows strong enough to carry the banner, and I can pass onto him the honor of carrying it on Holy Saturday. My father passed the honor onto me, and I have already passed it onto my eldest son, Rami. When the days come that I no longer carry the banner, but my sons do so in my place, I will know I have done what I could to keep the tradition and faith alive. Maybe peace will have prevailed in the Holy Land and the celebration will return to how it should be — free.”

Amen. When will the Christians of the United States come to the aid of their suffering brothers and sisters in the occupied territories instead of making common cause with their oppressors?

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4 Comments
  1. digbydolben permalink
    June 1, 2010 3:48 pm

    The United States of America is a Protestant country–and, increasingly, the one Protestant country of the world that is dominated by Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist theologies. “Sacred Space” and “pilgrimage” are not Protestant concepts, and a great many of the “Dispensationalist” members of the Republican Party are far more interested in “end time” scenarios for the “Holy Land” than in actually making pilgrimages to it.

    In fact, Zionist persecution of indigenous Christian populations of Israel–be they Palestinians, Armenians or Greek or Russian monks–has been going on for a long time, and it has mostly involved confiscation of real estate or foreclosure of mortgages. There’s some information about this in William Dalrymple’s To the Holy Mountain, the only book by that eminent travel-writer to be panned in America–probably because of his objectivity; he’s equally as critical of Israeli pressure on the indigenous populations of Middle Eastern Christians as he is of the Baathist and the Sunni and the Shiite regimes.

    I had an acquaintance in India who had definitely been pro-Zionist when he went to Israel to be an administrator in some Protestant American missionary school in the vicinity of Jerusalem. However, the school catered to Arab Christians and he had too many experiences of traveling out to IDF barricades to beg the hard-nosed, racist Jewish youth who make up those forces nowadays to stop harassing and demeaning his students as they walked to school. They jeeringly bade him to “mind your own business,” and to stop trying to protect “Arab dogs” and “terrorists.” He changed his mind about the Zionists.

  2. June 1, 2010 3:57 pm

    Yes, I’ve heard the same story – from a bishop who worked in Israel-Palestine. He saw the same thing over and over – freshfaced American kids who came over to do volunteer work, full of pro-Israel feelings because that’s what the media taught them. But after a few weeks of witnessing the indignities of the local population, they became fervant opponents of the occupation.

  3. drdwheelerreed permalink
    June 1, 2010 5:57 pm

    MM and dig… it’s precisely what happened to me…

    d

  4. Rodak permalink
    June 4, 2010 7:11 am

    In a purely secular setting, I was treated very badly as an American traveling in Israel, in a “cultural exchange”-type situation (I was traveling with my wife’s modern dance company,) under the auspices of the U.S. state department. To make a long story short, my billfold, containing traveler’s checks and the equivalent in Israeli currency to about $250, disappeared from a canvas bag stashed under a deck chair by a hotel swimming pool. It had been left under the watchful eyes of two of the “guides” assigned by the Israeli government to facilitate our visit. I had then to make a police report. In the police station, the Israeli cops spoke to each other in Hebrew, although each of them showed that he was perfectly capable of questioning me in English, and laughed amongst themselves at my plight throughout the interview. The next morning, after cancelling my credit cards–an extreme inconvenience while on the road–I got a call from the hotel desk. They had found my billfold, so they said, in the bushes near the fencing around the pool. When I recovered it, I found that nothing–not even the cash–was missing. You do the math. This is how American guests are treated by the Zionist fascist state; a state that is able to survive only as an American client. This was in 1979, shortly before the Iranian hostage crisis. I was also in Jordan and Egypt on this trip, and treated with respect and friendship by officials in both of those countries.
    You do the math.
    By the way, the hotel strip along the beach in Tel Aviv was literally crawling with prostitutes. One was openly solicited in broad daylight by young woman on the sidewalks, or in cars parked next to the sidewalks. The beaches were covered in tar, so that one had to wear shoes to avoid one’s feet semi-permanently blackened.
    Although I loved being able to visit the Church of Holy Sepulcher, dealing with the money-hungry priest on duty (I’m not sure from which church), was quite unpleasant.
    I was glad to get the hell out of there when time came. Unfortunately, the British air carrier that was scheduled to fly the company to Cairo pulled out of the deal at the last minute. The company was then flown out on U.S. Air Force plane. But the Air Force would not take me or the other spouses traveling as guests of the company. We were forced to fly to Rome and Athens in order to get to Cairo, since it was not possible to make that trip directly. Nightmare upon nightmare. My prayer was: Next month in the Bronx, Lord. Next month in the Bronx.
    Bottom line: Hamas can have it, for my money.

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