For the second part of our pilgrimage we moved from blissfully beautiful Galilee to Bethlehem, via two brief stops. First we stopped at the Jordan River very near to the site of Jesus’ baptism (and also several other old Testament events, an example of how history piles up vertically in several places). This was the one geographical feature that was completely NOT how I imagined it.
It was basically a narrow muddy stream but nevertheless a highly significant muddy stream and not simply for historical/spiritual reasons. The river marks the boundary between Israel and Jordan so barely more than 20 feet away from us on a very similar platform on the opposite side of the river a group of Jordanians came down to visit the site most likely with motives very similar to our own (to worship, contemplate, renew our own baptismal vows). We were separated by just 20 feet but thousands of years of complicated history and layer upon layer of spiritual significance… it was all rather strange.
My view of this site was probably ‘coloured’ by the fact that we turned left off the main road from Nazareth to Jerusalem and immediately saw warning signs that all the areas to the left and right of the road to the river were a military zone and we were not free to wander around due to danger of land mines. Suddenly we became aware that our pilgrimage had taken up a new strand: not just about geography, or history or even about faith, but about understanding the current living situation for all the people in this land.
We also visited Jericho which was the kind of urban equivalent of the ‘muddy stream’, ie visually unimpressive and noticeably poor, but then it also sits in the West Bank, another place not served by all the ‘normal’ infrastructure provided for Jewish citizens. Jericho is mostly inhabited by Palestinians and we learnt to indentify a Palestinian household by the black water storage tank on the roof.
The most important thing to understand about these two places and indeed about Bethlehem our destination after Jericho is that they are all in the area of territory known as the West Bank. It’s hard to describe or explain what this means without using language which would clearly betray my feelings. I am also very aware, even having visited, of my own ignorance. So I shall follow very gracious example of our local Christian Palestinian guide who graciously and generously helped us process our observations by being compassionate to all sides, quick to point out the good on whichever side it was to be found.
In modern day Israel there are 6.5 million people of Jewish descent and 6.5 million people of Palestinian descent. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 the Palestinian people have had a diminishing number of places to call their own and they are currently confined to areas known as the West Bank. In these areas there is very little infrastructure, much poverty and greatly reduced opportunity. A Jewish settlement is an area of housing that has been created by the Jewish government in places on the West Bank, these areas are very well supported with amenities and infrastructure such as water supply, libraries, roads and sports centres and they basically function as gated communities guarded by soldiers.
Forget the serene Christmas card images, Bethlehem today is virtually encircled by a 9 m high wall which effectively turns it into a living gaol for its Palestinian inhabitants who are not allowed to travel freely even into nearby Jerusalem. At the checkpoint there are also signs saying that it is illegal for Jewish citizens to enter territory under the control of the Palestinian authority, mostly as a disclaimer as the government does not offer to guarantee their safety. Such signs and restrictions deeply reinforce an attitude of fear, hatred and suspicion between the two sides. It is possibly the story of a fragile peace held in place by a wall, but ‘our world needs bridges, not walls’ as one person we spoke to expressed so eloquently.
As we entered Bethlehem, we entered into more than just the ‘old story’ of the coming of Christ into the world but also into the modern story of this struggle between the Palestinians and the Jews. Yes, we saw the Church of the Nativity with it’s incredibly small ‘door of humbleness’ and its bling-tastic interior. (Apologies to the my greek orthodox brethren but really, if you already have that much gold and silver do you really need to add baubles for Christmas??)
We also saw the shepherd’s field and the ‘glory of the Lord’ did indeed shine around! We also enjoyed countless manger scenes – it is always Christmas in Bethlehem but the life size one in Manger Square took the first prize.
But it was two other stories which were the real eye-openers.
First we heard the story of two men one a Palestinian and one a Jew, not enemies but friends. United in their friendship and their common experience of grief: both had lost daughters to the conflict.
You can read more about the organisation of which they are part “the parent’s circle” here – bereaved families supporting peace, reconciliation and tolerance, a grassroots organisation working to bring people together. And you can hear the same story told by their two sons here.
One of the many things this organisation does is to hold a controversial memorial day annually for those lost on BOTH sides, acknowledging that human pain is the same whatever our ethnicity or creed. I was very moved by the analogy used by one of them: that pain is their greatest power, it is like nuclear power. It can be harnessed and used for good or it can be destructive and used only for revenge and escalation of violence and retribution.
The second story we saw with our own eyes and held in our own arms as we visited an orphanagerun by incredibly compassionate and brave Christian sisters.
These two nuns and a band of helpers, care for a 40 orphaned/abandoned children between the ages of 0-6. They come to them from all over the West Bank and the stories behind their arrival were heart-breaking.
The injustice behind many of the stories also caused us to weep with anger, even though there was ample evidence of the utmost effort being made to give the children a happy and safe environment in which to live. That the children connected so well with us even on our brief visit, was evidence of good emotional nurturing. Even so, they (and their absent mothers) face a tough life ahead of them.
At the end of this visit were worshipped and prayed together in their chapel, needless to say most of us were in shreds.
After a second night in Casa Nova, a Christian guesthouse which is virtually integral with the Church of the Nativity, we left Bethlehem to visit Hebron on our way to Jerusalem.
Hebron is a divided city. Over the old Palestinian market streets, Jewish settlers have built homes. Homes from which rubbish (and worse) is thrown down into the market.
There are checkpoints to go in and out of various parts of the town but having said that this was also the place that honoured the tombs of the patriarchs and on that site we were made welcome in both the mosque and the synagogue which exist side-by-side. Yes, there was security and yes, we robed up to show, respect but it’s still pretty remarkable that we were allowed in and made welcome.
This shows the houses above the market in Hebron, and the rubbish thrown down to try to deter the shopkeepers (second photo by Jim Paddleford – I think)
Having said all that, even in Hebron which was perhaps the most politically tense place we visited, at no time did I personally feel unsafe. I say this to reassure anyone who might be thinking of going on a pilgrimage. The company we went with and especially the guides were very well informed and wise. You would not find yourself in a place deemed unsafe. The welcome from shop keepers and restaurant owners was particularly moving. They were so grateful that we came and asked us to talk about our experiences.
I hope these reflections and photos are honouring to them.
Next blog post: Jerusalem.