Palestine/Israel: Response from the Christian community

Episcopal church in Jerusalem and the Middle East
A letter from the Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal from the Episcopal church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.
A letter to remember the suffering of the Palestinians.
1 April 2002

Dear friends,

Salaam and grace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and blessed greetings from Jerusalem,

It is Easter Day, the day of Resurrection. However, this year's celebration of Christ's new life is remembered in the middle of total chaos, and persistent suffering of a lonely people, who has long been fighting for their freedom and dignity. The services in the Cathedral this morning took place with half the number of people we normally have due to closures and checkpoints. This year, the Easter story has been as vivid and clear as never before.

The biblical drama continues; the actors change, but the plot remains the same. We have been witnessing the many Judas Iscariots, who continue to betray the Truth, and the many Pilates, who wash their hands, to defend their own safety. We weep before those who continue to watch the cross from afar, as if the scene means nothing to them.

After the services, I left with clergy and heads of Churches towards Ramallah on a mission of peace and justice, trying to break down the siege inflicted on the city and its people, and to visit President Arafat. Apart of the Anglican clergy with me, we had the Roman Catholic Patriarch and his clergy, the Greek Catholic Archimandrite, and representative of the Armenian, Lutheran, Coptic, and Franciscan Bishops and clergy. We were 15 people altogether. We gathered at St. George's Cathedral, and left in the afternoon hours towards the city of Ramallah.

Prior to our departure from the Cathedral, I spoke several times with the deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, Rabbi Melcheor, who was part of the Alexandria Declaration, initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, as we committed ourselves to work for peace and justice as religious leaders. We asked for his help and intervention to mediate with the authorities, and allow us to enter into Ramallah; I have even challenged him to come with us, expressing readiness to meet with Sharon as well. But all our three-hour-endeavor to enter the city came to an empty hole. We felt that the authorities do not want the Church to provide a channel for peace and reconciliation, to bring an end to all the suffering and pain of the peoples of this land. As we were waiting, some settlers were passing by, some cried at us with the words: 'Go to hell', others spitted at us. We were forced to return back to Jerusalem.

Ramallah has been declared a war zone, nobody allowed in or out. The reports that are coming from the city are incredibly horrendous. Our people could not attend Church on Sunday. George Kopti, our priest in charge of the community said his prayers with the immediate neighbours, who are living in the Church close. He cannot walk out of his house, like everybody else, for fear of being shot dead. He reported that people were executed in the neighbouring Islamic Club with cold blood. There is lack of food and water supplies in the houses. President Arafat's compound has run out of water, too. Ambulances have not been allowed to reach to the injured, and one of the hospitals has been invaded. The soldiers are threatening to blow it up, 10 minutes after they leave the building; and all this comes with the ongoing reports of lack of blood in the hospitals for the injured, a matter that is causing the death of many others. 25 dead Palestinians are still kept in one of the hospitals, while the Israelis are not allowing their burial. The hospitals report that there is no more space to keep more bodies. Some of those bodies have been recognized, others have not been recognized due to the extreme degree of torture. The Church is planning tomorrow to donate blood here in the Cathedral through one of the ambulances, the least we can do in our support for the community in Ramallah.

Stephanie Koury, an American citizen, lives and works in Ramallah as the legal adviser on settlements for the Palestinian Negotiating team. She reported to me personally that on Saturday, March 30 at 1:45pm, 10 Israeli soldiers invaded her house, and threatened to kill her cat. They ate her fruits on the table, even when she told them that that was the only food left for her. One of the soldiers lied down and asked her to give him a massage, an act of total humiliation, if not a war crime. She witnessed them holding an 18-19 year old young man, the son of her neighbour, forcing him on his knees, and pointing the gun at his head. When they left her house after three hours of sheer humiliation, they ran over her car with their tanks.

Israeli troops have surrounded Bethlehem and its area, and the people there are preparing for another Israeli invasion. All this comes to us, and to our people at a time when we remember and celebrate the life of God who makes the suffering and the death of these people his own. We remember how they flogged him, how they spitted on him, and how they crucified him. It all becomes clear how though we believe in the resurrection, we also believe that the resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion. We are burdened with all this suffering, and total hopelessness. To whom do we turn to? We have no one to turn to except to him , who suffers, and dies with us, Jesus Christ our Lord. For he alone can raise us up.

Know that this comes with my prayers, and best wishes,

In Christ,

+Riah Abu El-Assal