Wednesday, April 6th – Arrival in Jerusalem
Everyone arrived safely in Jerusalem by dinnertime on Wednesday, after a long day of travel. We gathered for dinner at our hotel, the Gloria, which is just inside the Jaffa Gate in the old city. We gathered for worship and to go over the program booklets that were prepared by the Peacemaking Program and printed for us in the Holy Land. After reviewing plans for a very busy following day, we retired to our rooms to catch up on some much needed sleep.
Thursday, April 7 – Our First Full Day in Israel/Palestine
Our guide’s name is Mr. Faraj Al Lati, a former theology and German language teacher and currently a deacon at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, where we will be worshipping on Sunday. After an early breakfast, we set out for a tour of the old city, walking through narrow, winding alleyways in the Muslim Quarter, filled with merchants and pedestrians. After passing through a security checkpoint, we entered into the large square that faces the Western Wall. We briefly observed the different sections of the wall where women and men pray separately, but hurried on to the Temple Mount, knowing that we would revisit the area the following day.
We passed through a second security checkpoint to climb a wooden walkway to the Temple Mount. The spaciousness and park-like setting were in stark contrast to the hurried crowds below. We learned a great deal about this ancient space that has such a vital role in the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We saw the Dome of the Rock, The Dome of the Chains and Al Aqsa Mosque, and we learned about the great temples that once stood on the same ground.
Today the Temple Mount is not normally visited by Jews. Recent political developments have created tension about expanding control of the Temple Mount by the Israeli government, leading to protests and further restrictions on Palestinian access, especially for young men. Jordanian security still patrols the area, as they have since 1967, but Israel still has ultimate authority here.
After leaving the Temple Mount, we walked through the old city to the Christian Quarter for the privilege of a private audience with His Grace Dr. Munib Younan, Bishop of of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), our partner denomination in the region. This was such an amazing experience and blessing. Here are a few notes from the rich and inspirational message presented to us by the Bishop:
It is very important for Christians from the West to come and see how Christians in the Holy Land are surviving in very difficult circumstances. He stressed that Christians made up 20% of the population of Israel/Palestine just 20 years ago and are now less than 2%. He impressed upon us that this is not because of tensions with Muslim neighbors, citing that the two communities have coexisted peacefully for centuries and still do. It is the occupation and denial of human rights that makes life in Jerusalem and the occupied territories virtually unbearable for those without hope, for those who see no end to the conflict. Many with the means to do so are leaving their homeland to provide a more hopeful future for their children.
He noted widespread unemployment of young people, a lack of will in the international community and world-wide church to solve the problem and the growth of extremism among Christian Zionists, Jews and Muslims as the factors that are threatening Christ’s church in Palestine/Israel. He pleaded with us to spread the message to Christians in the United States that what is needed is “accompaniment”, not sympathy or pity. Money is not the answer. “We will never get used to occupation and injustice. If you don’t help us, there will be more extremism.”