From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Palestinian Christians see bleak Easter

Date 26 Mar 2002 16:06:08 -0500

Note #7106 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Palestinian Christians see bleak Easter

Palestinian Christians see bleak Easter

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Religion News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - When the sun rises on Easter morning and church bells proclaim Jesus to be risen, the closest the Rev. Hanna Monsour will get to his congregation will be a daydream.

	That's because the Israeli government has restricted travel to West Bank population centers in these violent times. So despite Palestinian ethnic ties and his status as an Anglican priest in Nablus, this Arab Israeli cannot go home even for the highest of Christian holy days. He'll remember his people instead from Amman, Jordan, where he reluctantly took a job in February as school chaplain.

	Monsour's quiet story of displacement and sorrow is one of thousands in the Holy Land as an 18?month war takes its toll far beyond the battlegrounds.

	For the 130,000 Christians living in Israel, West Bank and Gaza, it means this year's Easter celebrations of victory over the grave will stand in contrast to all?too?real struggles to maintain dignity, preserve hope and merely survive.

	"Here the teachings of the church and of the Bible are challenged by a rigid reality of injustice, war and a lot of blood," Monsour said in March at an Amman hotel. "In the midst of all this, the church practices its faith and ministers to its people."

	Holy Land Christians have witnessed the bloody escalation of strikes and counterstrikes among Muslim suicide bombers and Jewish soldiers. Though they tend not to be the warriors of this episode, they nonetheless tell their own tales of ongoing suffering in ways that make resurrection hope a necessity.

	Dr. Majed Nassar, for instance, is a Palestinian Christian practicing internal medicine at a Bethlehem walk?in clinic. His colleagues had planned to examine 19 children on March 8, but they never arrived. Later he learned Israeli soldiers had ended their six?hour journey by turning them back at the Bethlehem checkpoint. He can empathize: he's been barred from leaving Bethlehem since February 2001, reportedly because his writings encourage Palestinian resistance.

	"It's more than humiliating to live under occupation," Nassar said. "It's better not to live."

	Easter marks the day on the Christian calendar when Jesus rose from the dead. For nearly two millenniums, Easter has been a wellspring of hope amid worldly suffering that would otherwise signal despair. This year in the Holy Land, harsh conditions will test Easter's capacity to inspire against the odds.

	Christians at YMCAs in East Jerusalem, Amman and elsewhere dig deep in their Easter faith for strength to help long?term Palestinian refugees get basic education and job training. With an economy devastated by a war that has killed hundreds, unemployment exceeds 40 percent in some West Bank cities. Nowhere does faith get tested more these days than in refugee compounds housing 1.8 million Palestinians across the region.

	A self?described optimist with "a strong Christian faith," Saliba Mushahwar takes visitors to Amman refugee settlements where as many as 15 share one room and the YMCA of Jordan teaches girls to be beauticians and seamstresses. His philosophy as general secretary is "to teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime," while trusting that "God does provide." Yet for those in occupied territories who can't get past blockaded city limits to work, he admits prospects are bleak, even for the faithful at Easter.

	"When the alternative (to war) is death, what have you got to lose?" he asked rhetorically. "Nothing."

	Some have taken to issuing urgent pleas for help. In the 80 percent Christian city of Beit Sahour, which borders Bethlehem and calls itself "town of the shepherds' field," Mayor Fuad Kokaly has cut back on street lighting and stopped paying municipal utility bills in order to create public jobs for at least one person per family.

	"People are going hungry," said Suzan Sahori, spokesperson for Kokaly. "Those who had some money saved up are now desperate. We have families who have received no income for the past year. The suffering is growing and we are desperate for (international) help."

	Holy Land Christians haven't escaped the violence altogether. William Docherty, an Australian?born Roman Catholic lawyer at the Society of St. Yves, was having coffee on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem on Dec. 2 when "three large explosions" killed eight young adults and injured about 60 others.

	"There was a terrible smell of burning," Docherty said. "There were pieces of human bodies, half bodies and things like that. I just froze. I walked away without speaking. ... (At home), every time I closed my eyes I saw the image, so I stayed up all night writing, just to get it away from me."

	Far from the bombs of Jerusalem and Beit Sahour, on a crisp Sunday morning leading up to Easter, church bells rang out in the hilltop town of Shefr Amr.

	The Rev. Elios Chacour, contender for the Nobel Peace Prize and author of Blood Brothers, preached to a full house when his Melkite congregation gathered for worship. Such a showing during Lent might make a pastor's day in an ordinary year, but not this year. After changing out of his vestments, he shook his head. He didn't have time to talk.
Pastors would soon be meeting to discuss the conflict.
"It's all crazy bloodshed and violence, a crazy cycle of retaliation and retaliation," Chacour told a group of Americans. "Please, if you still have faith in God, pray for us."
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