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Come Closer to Us

A Letter from Doug Dicks, serving in Israel and Palestine

February 2020

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Dear Family and Friends,

There was a chill in the air as I made my way through the streets of Bethlehem in mid-December to the Church of the Nativity. As the year was winding down, the Christmas lights were going up. Soon the Christmas season would begin in earnest in this “little town” that is far from silent.

In late November, the Vatican announced that it was returning to Bethlehem the original manger that was believed to be present at the birth of Christ and I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.

“It’s not the real manger anyway,” says Shadi, a tour guide from Bethlehem. “The real manger was made of stone. This one dates only to the Crusaders.”

Nonetheless, the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ celebrated its arrival. Indeed, a sliver of wood encased in a reliquary was given to the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, which is attached to, and part of, the Church of the Nativity. There it was proudly displayed in a side chapel above a figurine of the baby Jesus.

As Bethlehem was gearing up for Christmas, right on cue, entered the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” The Israeli administration began to implement – only one week before Christmas – rolling blackouts, or power outages to the Bethlehem region, citing overdue payment or debts for what is said was money owed them by the Palestinian electricity company.

Only days before Christmas, a new Banksy art piece appeared in the lobby of the nearby Walled Off Hotel. Entitled “The Scar of Bethlehem,” it featured a nativity scene, complete with the Holy Family and Baby Jesus, beneath the Separation Barrier constructed by Israel in 2002. The “star” was a hole in the wall, which appeared to be made by a missile strike. It was a powerful statement and a testament to the world around us.

In his Christmas Message, Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, implored Christians from around the world to “come closer to us.” His message went on to say:

“Come closer to us, to the ‘living stones’ of the Holy Land, who, despite the struggle of a precarious life, still carry the message of love, liberation, justice, and peace. Come and be in solidarity with your Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and to spread the news that Palestinian Christians exist, that we carry the message of the Baby of the Manger, and that we strive to achieve a just peace for all the people of this land. We may be small in number, but God is with us, and because God is with us, the Holy Spirit is doing powerful things through this church today.”

Highlights of the Christmas season included the Annual Simulcast Service, held on December 21st, between the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

And, as Christmas approached, two special gifts awaited the faithful. One that could be seen, and the other that is still hoped for.

The first gift was long overdue and late in coming this season: rain! Only the day after Christmas, the region experienced heavy rainfall for several days, and the earth, parched from many months with no rain at all, which is normal for this part of the world, welcomed this much-needed gift.

The second gift is one that the Palestinians have long been asking for. The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor said she wants to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, in a statement issued on December 20, 2019, concluded that, “there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into the situation in Palestine.” She went on to say that she was “satisfied that … war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.” Stay tuned!

From mid-April to mid-August of this year, I will be on interpretation assignment back in the U.S. I hope to visit with many of you while there, recognizing that it simply won’t be possible to visit everyone, as much as I would love to! I will also be serving as a Missionary Advisory Delegate to our upcoming 224th General Assembly, which will be held in Baltimore, Maryland during the second half of June. I hope to see some of you there!

Things that I solicit your ongoing prayers for include:

The renovation of our beloved St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem, where I serve as an Ecumenical Associate. The church and guest house have been closed since December, and are undergoing much-needed renovations, including the addition of a few guest rooms, the renovation of existing guest rooms, and the restoration and repair of the roof over the church. Completed in 1930, St. Andrew’s was built as a memorial to the British and Scottish soldiers who fell in Palestine during World War I.

The upcoming Mosaic of Peace trip in March, sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. This will be the fourth such trip since 2014, and 45 participants are registered to come!
Thanks to each and every one of you and to your churches, who continue to commit to my financial support. Without your help, my work and presence on behalf of our church would not be possible in this vital part of the world.

Wishing you all peace and blessings in the new year,

Doug


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