By Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.
Without getting into a debate as to whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or in Nazareth, just want to say that I was privileged to live in Bethlehem for a little over 2 weeks as part of a Canadian Church Delegation to Palestine. I was asked to represent the Canadian Religious Conference and so on November 16th I flew off to Palestine. We were 8 in number and most of our group flew directly from Toronto to Tel Aviv via Air Canada. I and two others flew from Toronto to Amsterdam and then on to Amman Jordan and then into Palestine. If you are interested in why, we can talk privately.
During the two weeks we were all over Palestine visiting villages and people who are suffering an occupation. We visited our Embassy in Tel Aviv and our presence in Ramallah to the Palestinian Authority. We met all the church leaders presently living in the region. We did visit the so called Holy Sites but most of our time was taken up in trying to understand what is happening to the people of Palestine. We visited Gaza. Gaza is often referred to as the largest open air prison on the planet. It is truly hard to imagine how over 2 million people are living here in conditions that are simply inhuman.
Just before leaving Canada, we learned that Secretary of State for the United States, Mr. Pompeo declared that the Settlements on occupied Palestinian lands were legal although the international community declared such not to be so. We experienced the Wall, roughly 220 km long around areas of the West Bank and the greater Bethlehem. We had to walk or drive through check points. We heard of houses being bulldozed, of raids in the middle of the night by Israeli military to arrest children who were accused of throwing stones. They were often wakened from their sleep in the night as their parents were locked in another room so that there would be no witnesses. We saw videos of what happens to these children as they are processed through the military courts. I had seen and heard stories that truly made me wonder what is happening in a land that is the centre of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of this is truly not of God.
After my first week in Palestine and reflecting on my experiences, I came to name the experience as a “Terrible Beauty.” A mother whose five sons knew Israeli military jails said her hope and faith was in God. She has a stronger faith than I. This is the beauty in the midst of the terrible situation.
Dean Hosam at St. George the Martyr Anglican church preached on the Feast of Christ the King. He loves that feast more than Christmas and Easter. I found this very interesting and wanted to hear his reasons why. For him, although the notion of King may not be a title we like, it nevertheless draws together the life and meaning of Jesus the Christ. The entire meaning of the life of Jesus is gathered here into one. All truth, reality, life for Christians is drawn together in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Jesus is the beginning and the end for Christians. Jesus is the Lord of Lords, King of Kings. The Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end.
We visited B’Tselem, a research and information centre deeply concerned about the plight of Palestinians especially in the Israeli military courts. It was nice to see the price that often these Israeli folks pay by speaking the truth of the situation. Again a very small but important sign of beauty in that Israeli citizens are willing to tell the truth of the situation even when ostracized often from their families and friends.
I had been to Israel about 4 times on pilgrimages more than 25 years ago and even studied scripture at Ecce Homo for a semester in Israel in 1998-99. The situation now is radically different than then. Christian Zionism is pouring money into Israel and Christians are leaving in droves. Palestine is being occupied. If one reads Leviticus 25:23 “the land belongs to me and you are only guests…” God does not give land to anyone. Land belongs to God.
It was a privilege to be part of this Canadian Church Delegation. It was a kind of a hands on retreat. The people we met, with whom we conversed and shared meals were the true presence of the land. However it was truly so sad to see what is happening to Palestine and her people. And to see that so much of what is happening is supported and encouraged by folks in the West. One has to truly question if this situation is the Holy Land and of God.