Last October, the Revd Canon Martin Stephenson visited Palestine as part of a pilgrimage organized by Holy Land Trust. In this blog he reflects on his introduction to the ethos and vision of the organization, recalling the group’s time spent with Sami Awad, founder of Holy Land Trust.
Descend the narrow street in the south-west corner of Bethlehem’s Manger Square and, tucked along another alley, make your way up to some stairs. ‘Welcome’ is the sense you get as you enter the headquarters of Holy Land Trust. We sat around the room on cushions: 25 of us from Birmingham. Brightly embroidered in the herringbone style characteristic of Palestine, the cushions surrounded a tent-like space adorned with rugs in the colours of welcome: rich gold, vermillion, purple, maroon, orange.
In the newly refurbished and restored offices, funded by the Swedish Government, Sami Awad told us his story, as one of the 1% of Palestinians who, today, are Christians. The number of Christians in the region has greatly reduced since a high point in the early 20th Century. Sami, raised in a Christian household – ‘our roots go back 2000 years’ – in an independent evangelical church was educated in Palestine and the United States. He returned to Bethlehem in 1990 at the age of 21 to take up permanent residence here. His uncle had been deported for being a non-violent peace activist. A harsh treatment, Sami reflected, for one who was not ‘a serious threat to the State of Israel’ as his accusers maintained. In the event, Sami began to discover his own sense of vocation in reconciliation work, particularly after a visit to Auschwitz. Here he heard the searing anger of the speaker to a group of schoolchildren. At this point, Sami began to realize that many Jewish people were suffering from trauma, a trauma that needed healing because the outcome was frequently to define Palestinian people as the enemy. ‘In every age a nation will rise up to destroy you’, being the watchword.
Reading the Gospels, Sami found the impetus for the next phase of his life’s work. ‘The only time Jesus mentions enemies, he says, “Love your enemies”. How can I put this into practice? I have many Jewish friends. It is possible to love your enemies. Perhaps I should have studied psychology for my degree? It would have been helpful.’ So it was that this remarkable travel agency/cultural exchange programme/reconciliation work was born.
As pilgrims to the land of Israel and the Palestinian Territories we were enormously enriched by their work with us; opening up stories of injustice and the patient, compassionate, struggles for justice that ensued. ‘How is it’, Sami reflected, ‘that we have a situation where water is rationed to delivery once a fortnight, or once a month in summer, where the electricity supply often fails, where roads are not built because roads quickly run out of Palestinian controlled governance?’ These areas (Area A under the Oslo II accord of 1995) are of territory fully under the governance (but with a limited series of functions) of the Palestinian Authority and consist of small patches in and around Bethlehem and other towns. Area B territories are in joint control, with the State of Israel having military control, and Area C (West Bank) are those areas which contain Israeli settlements and are under joint control, with the original intention of being transferred to the Palestinian Authority. However, 99% of the land in area C is either not accessible to Palestinian people or heavily restricted. More than 800 new settlements have been built within the West Bank in the last 25 years. Oslo agreements are regularly ignored – or at least the spirit of the accords is denied. You might ask whether there were any measures put in place to hold the Israeli Government to account. International support for the Palestinian people is considerable, and we saw signs of this, but in terms of outcome, it makes little difference to those fundamental areas of justice concerned with land use and freedom to travel. Permits are required to move from one territory to another and it is illegal for Jewish people from Jerusalem, for example, to visit Bethlehem. We were to witness for ourselves the long delays that are inevitable for a Palestinian working in Jerusalem and living in the West Bank. Yet, in the midst of so much frustration, Palestinian people were, in our experience, unfailingly welcoming, patient, good humoured, and determined to continue the struggle for justice. This attitude is exemplified by Holy Land Trust.
Vicar – The Revd Canon Martin Stephenson
Saint Peters Church, Hall Green, Birmingham UK