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Mosaic of Peace Conference leaves lasting impact on participants

Group returns energized, enlightened and eager to share

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

When you sign up to take part in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Mosaic of Peace Conference, don’t expect a simple tour of historic Biblical sights and generic narrative about the history of the region. Many of those who recently traveled to the Middle East will tell you the conference can be a wake up call.

“My innocent imagination of the little town of Bethlehem is now forever shattered by what Bethlehem is today,” said the Rev. Dr. Mark Englund-Kreiger, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Carlisle in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Most tours quickly visit the Church of the Nativity or Manger Square and we did those things. But we also went deep into the bleeding heart of Bethlehem, Palestine. The real Bethlehem has shaken me, tossed all my preconceptions around a bit and immersed me deeply in the history and pain of the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Participants in the 2016 Mosaic of Peace Conference in the Middle East. Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

Participants in the 2016 Mosaic of Peace Conference in the Middle East. Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

The group of more than 30 spent 10 days traveling in the region, visiting historic sights, learning about the conflict and meeting with Palestinian Christians who continue to hold out hope for a peaceful resolution. The travelers also met with other Christian groups as well as Jewish and Muslim representatives to gain a better understanding of all faiths connected in the Middle East.

For the Rev. Janice West, the impact of the trip didn’t sink in until she returned. West, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Carbondale, Illinois made her first visit to the Middle East with the Mosaic of Peace.

“For me, the whole situation and how Palestinians are being forced to live really stuck with me,” she said. “And yet, as we sat talking with workers at the Tent of Nations, they kept saying they refused to be enemies and believed there was hope adding ‘we are going to rely on the grace of Christ and be the neighbor.’”

The group met with a number of church leaders in the region including His Grace Dr. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, and the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church where they heard about the decline of Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

“I was surprised by the Christian minority and the impact they have in the region. While meeting with the Lutheran bishop he talked about how many programs moderate Christians were involved with and that is something I’ve been chewing on since returning,” said Andy King, campus minister for UKirk at Radford University. “Christians are small in number but they are movers and shakers in Israel and the West Bank.”

Emily Oshinskie, a young adult peace worker with the College of Wooster and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ohio, was the youngest member of the group. She says she’s still trying to process all that she saw and heard during her visit.

“I didn’t realize how much Palestinians were persecuted and were without so many basic rights. You see violence on the news, but you don’t hear about the fact that many don’t have enough water or electricity,” she said. “Violence is only part of the problem; these other issues are just as important. The everyday things that impact your life such as the struggle to get to work on time because you have to stop at a checkpoint or you can’t turn on the water faucet because there’s no water.”

The group also toured two Palestinian refugee camps and many say they were taken aback by the conditions.

“It was worse than I expected, far worse,” said West. “To hear residents say it had been two and a half weeks since they had water is unbelievable. These are residential towns, not out in the sticks. These are towns.”

Oshinskie said the camps were not what she was expecting to see.

“When you hear the term refugee camp, you expect to see all of these United Nations tents and families living in those tents,” she said. “But you go to places like Aida in Palestine and you realize they’re not living in tents but apartments they’ve been in for many many years. They’re not going anywhere and the permanence of these camps was startling to me.”

“Since my study tour of Israel and Palestine, I have been intellectually distraught by a stunning and simple question: why did I not learn what happened to the Palestinian people after World War Two?” writes Englund-Kreiger in the Presbytery of Carlisle blog. “I am disturbed by the answer which I am beginning to discern. In our culture, what I learn and read, my worldview and the contours of my deepest convictions and moral commitments may be controlled and imposed on me. How is what I learn and believe decided?”

Since returning from the conference last month, many are beginning to make presentations at churches, colleges and other interfaith gatherings. Many are still processing what they saw and heard in both Israel and Palestine.

“I wandered up and down the streets of Bethlehem checking out the shops and vendors,” said Englund-Kreiger. “But I wonder how many tourists would never consider to make this walk because of our perceptions and stereotypes about the Palestinians who live there?”

West says she’s shared the stories of her trip to several congregations and believes it is important to continue sharing.

“If we refuse to tell stories, nothing will happen,” said West. “And if we’re scared to tell stories because we are afraid of offending someone, nothing will happen.”

Oshinskie believes education is key to making a difference in the Middle East saying she’s found few people back home that truly know what’s going on in that part of the world.

“I’m not a crusader out to push an agenda, but I feel like people are willing to hear about it,” she said. “I’ve taught a few Sunday School classes and made some presentations to students on campus, telling them what a 50-year occupation looks like. We shouldn’t be afraid to say this is happening.”

The Mosaic of Peace is a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program every two years. For more information about the Peacemaking Program, click here.

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