Monday, May 31, 2010

Video of Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb

The school has youtube and facebook blocked because it views them as distractions to the students, so I can't see this video, but if Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb speaks as half as compellingly as he did with us today, I expect it will be of interest:

The caption indicates an expectation that people (Americans?) don't realize that some Palestinian Arabs are Christian. Sad and strange.

I have a lot of notes from our conversation. I'll make sure I'm not overlapping with other bloggers before sharing.

Monday May 31, 2010 - Bethlehem

Today we had a tour of the International Center of Bethlehem where we have been staying. It is quite amazing the things they do and the spirit of hope in a place that many might not seem to have hope. We visted with the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb who is the Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and head of the International Center.

Next we had lunch just off Manger Square - then to the Church of the Nativity. There were no lines, so we could move quickly through the church. The place that is honored as the location of Jesus's birth was awe-inspiring. We also went to St. Catherine's Church and the location of where St. Jerome was buried (until he was made a saint.) St Jerome is the Patron Saint of Librarians, so that had special significance. We also went to the Milk Grotto where Mary and Joseph stopped to feed their baby as they fled to Egypt.

We had time for shopping and meandering around Manger Square before we were to visit our next desination; however, the situation with the boat at Gaza has postponed this visit.

Tomorrow - the Dead Sea.

Photos from Israel

To see photos from our trip

Today in Bethlehem

A busy busy day, full of hopeful tours, historic sites as well as disturbing news. Our day began with a tour around the Lutheran center here in Bethlehem, where we have been staying. Many helpful, hopeful resources are offered here for the people of Palestine. Dr. Mitri Raheb spoke to us at length about their programs and their hope for the future. They understand the need to fight the depression that is so prevalent here among these refugees and offer hope, which they are doing through various kinds of education.

Our group then strolled down winding narrow streets to Manger Square, where we ate a wonderful lunch at Afteem's. Hummus, felafel, masabacha and fatteh (soupy hummus with submerged pieces of pita and toasted pine nuts) yum! We then visited the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto Shrine.

We heard the very disturbing news about the Gaza attack as it developed during the day. Tonight, the latest we have heard is that 19 are dead on the peacemaking flotilla and that some nations are already recalling their Israeli ambassadors. There may be a general strike here in the near future - but as of now we look forward to our trip tomorrow to Masada, Qumran and
a swim in the Dead Sea. Temperature forecast is at least 100.

Worship and Bethlehem Tourism

Impressions:Bright sunlight of a more luminescent quality than found in Denton
The Muslim call to prayer waking me up at 4 a.m. in the morning
Fresh cherries sold on the streets

Yesterday we worshipped at the Christmas Lutheran church with a German women's group, an American student group from Wisconsin, a Japanese group from Hiroshima, and of course the local Palestinian Lutherans. It certainly made for an international service, with four different languages spoken at some point during the service.

I was sitting in my pew, when I looked across at the pew on the other side, and lo and behold, who did I see there but Andreas. Andreas was a German coworker and roommate when I lived in Palestine, and he had just moved back to Bethlehem a few months ago to start working at the International Center of Bethlehem again after an absence of many years. I invited him to join the rest of our group as we went to one of my old familiar lunch haunts, where most of us had felafel, hummus, and/or schwarma (like gyros), more cheaply than we will likely find any other place on the trip.

Andreas trains the Palestinian tour guides and knows more about the situation than most people I know, even Palestinians. Andreas said the unemployment here in Bethlehem is over 50 percent. He also said the situation with tourism had become worse. Even when I lived here, most tourists to Bethlehem visited Bethlehem only to visit the Church of the Nativity, spending a little money in Palestinian tourist shops before returning to Israel. Now, according to Andreas, Israeli tourist groups made deals with Palestinian tour groups by which the tour guides would lead their groups only to certain tourist shops. While this benefits those few souvenir shops, the majority are left out of the financial equation. Furthermore, as a price of the deal, the Palestinian tour guides in Bethlehem are forbidden from saying anything about the occupation or the political situation. This prevents even those foreign tourists who come here from learning the story of what is really going on here.

According to Israeli law, it is illegal for Israelis to come to Palestinian areas in the West Bank such as Bethlehem. This means that our group has had more firsthand exposure to the reality of life here in Bethlehem than most Israelis will have in their lives. The Israeli government claims the reason for this law is security, and while I do not deny that there may be some security issues, the law also functions to isolate the Israelis from Palestinian reality. This only contributes to Israeli fears of the Palestinian "other." In practice, the law is used not so much to protect Israelis but to punish those Israelis interested in human rights.

I feel like I'm already behind on updating this blog. Today we had a tour of the International Center of Bethlehem, and heard from its director, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. We then visited one of the oldest churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity, parts of which date to the 4th century. I was surprised that our group even had the grotto to ourselves for several minutes.

Our late afternoon meeting with a Palestinian NGO was cancelled/postponed because of the incident off Gaza involving the Turkish ship. We are curious to see how this will further affect our trip.

I read a very good article today about the Gaza situation. Here it is:


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Arrival in Bethelhem

After driving across the plains from the Ben Gurion Airport and through the outskirts of  Jerusalem we arrived in Bethlehem.  It seemed like we were there before we had left Jerusalem.    The bus stopped at the top of a hill and we carried our luggage down the hill and a few blocks to our guesthouse accomodations next to the International Center.  After a chance to rest and freshen up, we had dinner (salad, chicken & rice, melon for dessert) and then a walk to an ATM.  The breeze in the evening was quite nice.  After a our long travel from Dallas it was nice to finally arrive here in Bethlehem.

Safe in Bethlehem

We are here in Bethlehem in the West Bank -- we arrived yesterday afternoon. It's now almost 8:00 am, and I have had my first encounter with Palestinian hospitality. A young man named Alan greeted me in English outside his shop and invited me to drink sweet tea next door. It was delicious tea and interesting conversation about his experience as a helper for a National Geographic photography team, his family here and in the United States, and the lack of opportunities here.

He picked up English by chatting with tourists on the street, and he had a good command of it -- his favorite phrase seemed very appropriate: "You're welcome." He talked about how safe it is in Bethlehem, "Safer than New York. Safer than United States."

On the flight I sat next to an American woman who had served in the Israeli Defense Force. We didn't talk politics. She told me to be careful, that she had heard it was dangerous for Americans even in Bethlehem now.

She also recommended a movie called Invictus about Nelson Mandela right after the fall of apartheid and the South African rugby team being used as an opportunity for reconciliation between racial groups in South Africa. The irony of this particular movie recommendation was bouncing around in my mind throughout the flight. Hopefully Israel and Palestine can arrive at some sort of reconciliation as well...

Bethlehem reminds me of small colonial cities in Mexico and Ecuador. Narrow stone roads, old buildings (although I'm guessing that everything here is quite a bit older... we're going on a guided tour tomorrow so I'll check). The hills here are incredibly steep! Craig commented that you can better understand biblical passages about "a light on a hill" when you are here. (Did I get that quote right? Biblical scholars, help me out!)

OK, I'm going to join the others for breakfast. We are going to worship at the Evangelical Christmas Lutheran Church that is attached to the International Center of Bethlehem (where we are staying), and then we have a pretty free day. I'm looking forward to exploring.

(Home)coming to Bethlehem

We're here! Most of our group arrived yesterday afternoon without incident. Unfortunately, David and Anne Eaton, two members of our group who were flying separately, were delayed and are due to come today rather than yesterday.

We proceeded directly from the airport to Bethlehem late yesterday afternoon, driving through the plains, the Judean hills, and the outskirts of Jerusalem. The landscape really invites reflection on Christ's saying from the Sermon on the Mount of the Christian calling to be a light on a hill.

Coming to Bethlehem feels to me a bit like coming home. I walk the streets remembering where I used to buy bread, buy groceries, buy shwarma or felafel, etc. After arriving at the guest house of the International Center of Bethlehem and having dinner, I led those who were had not yet passed out from fatigue on a brief walk through the neighborhood. We enjoyed the very pleasant cool breeze in the process.

Only one of us slept through the night, as we are all dealing with a fair amount of jetlag. The call to prayer wafted into our rooms at 4:00 a.m., waking myself and a few others, reminded us that we aren't in Kansas anymore -- or, in this case, Texas. I watched China play Japan at ping-pong on television at 4:30 in the morning. Fortunately, we have time this afternoon to take a nap after we worship at the Lutheran church this morning. Today is a part of the World Council of Churches' World Week for Prayer in Israel/Palestine. We will be joined in worship by a Japanese group from Hiroshima, with whom I was able to practice my Japanese.

Salaam, Shalom, Peace,

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Welcome to the blog of Grace Presbytery's Peacemaking Trip to Israel/Palestine! Members of our group intend to post pictures and share experiences and reflections on this blog. We invite you to check this blog every few days for updates on what we have done and how that affected us.

During the two weeks of our trip, we will be visiting the most important holy and historical sites in Israel/Palestine, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Mount of Olives, the Sea of Galilee, etc. As we visit these sites, we invite you to read the passages in your Bible that correspond to them.

The other significant portion of our trip, and the portion that separates this trip from most other trips to the region, consists of the visits we will have with a large number of peace and justice organizations. We will be visiting with members of Israeli and Palestinian organizations, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Although we have been studying for this trip for months in preparation, seeing the situation firsthand and meeting people who are affected by it will likely have a major impact on us. I trust that God uses such encounters to speak to us. That has certainly been true for me, which is why this is my sixth trip to the area, including the times I lived there.

I invite you to keep the members of our group in your prayers. These include Kay Branum, Suzanne Sweeney, Barbara Ivy, Ron Ivy, Dianne Randolph, Marian Murray, Will Slade, Rev. Dave Eaton, Anne Eaton, Harriet Espinoza, Rick Espinoza, Larry Eshelman, Rev. Phyllis Danhof-Speck, Barb Tuinstra, and I, Rev. Craig Hunter. Please pray that we will have a safe, fun, spirit-filled trip. Please also pray for the people in the region, Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. Pray that we might have peace with justice, and that it might quickly come.

Finally, I would remind you that May 29th through June 4th has been declared by the World Council of Churches to be World Week for Peace in Israel/Palestine. This providentially coincides with our trip. You can find more information about the World Week for Peace, including prayers and liturgical resources, at

In Christ,
Craig Hunter