“Now as (Saul) was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:3-5)
Bethlehem haunts me
This past March, I was blessed to be part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I had heard about the pilgrimage from a friend last fall. At the time I was just getting ready to leave for Medjugorje and was not thinking about another pilgrimage so soon. Still, I felt drawn to it, even though I only knew one person on the pilgrimage and the point of departure was on the other side of the country. I decided to wait until after Christmas to see if there were still spots available. There were. I prayed for a confirmation that I was to go, and I received three. In faith I booked my ticket.
It turned out to have been just the pilgrimage God wanted for me, focused on prayer and Scripture, but also with an emphasis on the “living stones” of the Holy Land, particularly on the current situation of the Christians who live there, both in Israel and Palestine.
As our group of 37 pilgrims, including two priests, followed with awe the hallowed footsteps of Jesus through Nazareth, Galilee, Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and points in between, we prayerfully pondered the Scripture passages that were set in the places we visited, Nazareth, the River Jordan, Cana, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum where Jesus called the fishermen, Mount Tabor, the mount of the Transfiguration, Tabgha where the loaves and fishes were multiplied and where Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me,” and many other places. Halfway through the pilgrimage we “set our faces toward Jerusalem”. We celebrated daily Mass in stunning surroundings and were often brought to tears. The rosary came alive in our hands, and since returning, there is a new dimension to the Mass readings. I hope to expand on this in future, but first I feel compelled to tell you why, since coming home, Bethlehem haunts me.
As we traveled, our tour guide informed us of some of the extreme challenges faced by Christians and other Palestinians in the Holy Land. The States of Israel and Palestine have a population of some 10 million people of which the Christian population has dropped to less than 2%, some 180,000 souls. It is a delicate, extremely complex and utterly confusing arrangement, this tenuous co-habitation of the three main Abrahamic religions, along with various other people from around the world, including migrant workers. I am not qualified to explain or make sense of any of it, but I can tell you what I saw with my own eyes and why Bethlehem still haunts me.
The Shock of arriving in Bethlehem
The last five nights of our pilgrimage we stayed in Bethlehem, the holy city where Jesus was born. It is just a few miles from Jerusalem and would be our home base. Along with the other pilgrims on our trip, I was shocked and devastated to learn that Bethlehem is a walled city. It is completely enclosed by a security wall 25 feet high, equipped with security cameras and with watchtowers manned by Israeli armed guards. Everyone, including pilgrims, enters and leaves Bethlehem through manned checkpoints.
With the initial shock still fresh in our minds, we spent our first day in Bethlehem, visiting holy sites, and celebrating a stunning “Christmas” Mass in a shepherd’s cave. Even though the liturgical calendar told us it was Lent, every day in Bethlehem is Christmas we were told. But as a pilgrim to modern-day Bethlehem I could not help but be deeply disturbed at the current situation of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who live there.
Most of us pilgrims had not been aware that Bethlehem has had a security perimeter since 2002. On Easter Monday of 2002, the Israelis invaded and occupied all the cities of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. Not long afterwards, a security fence went up around Bethlehem, which later became a wall encircling the entire city of over 14,000 Palestinian residents, mostly Muslim and Christian. (Other walled cities include Jericho and Ramallah and of course Gaza, but my story is about Bethlehem where we spent five nights.)
The checkpoints through which one passes to get in and out of Bethlehem are heavily manned. Israelis are forbidden to enter by law, and Palestinians need special permission to leave, permission which is rarely granted to anyone whose birthplace is listed as Bethlehem. The walled enclosure has been called an open-air prison, and that is not an exaggeration. I suppose that Jesus himself would not be allowed to leave had he been born in June 2002 or later.
The official unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 29%, the highest rate in Palestine. But that figure likely does not include those no longer looking for work because it’s pointless, or those who are underemployed which is pretty much everyone. The jobs in that city are few, mostly tourism-based, and never full-time. The unofficial estimate is 80% unemployment within the walls of Bethlehem. Those “fortunate” few who are given permission to work outside of Bethlehem are strip-searched at the checkpoint leaving and returning. It can take an hour for them to get through the checkpoint at each end of the day.
I have since read that Bethlehem was originally built on an aquifer that is still one of the main sources of water in Israel. It is deeply ironic that since the Israeli occupation, citizens of Bethlehem are forbidden to dig deeper than 4 feet down, and are forced to truck in water at high prices. Not only are they not provided with water, but neither with electricity. Our tour guide told us that you can tell Palestinian housing all over the Holy Land by the solar panels and water tanks on the roofs. By contrast, Israelis have all the water and electricity they need.
It is the people, the living stones of the Holy Land that haunt me, that cry out for justice. We visited an orphanage, a secondary school, and talked to many local people who asked for prayers and implored us also to “tell people” about their dire situation. We found everyone in Bethlehem to be very friendly and open, even though their situation is tragic. The Israeli narrative is that they are dangerous, and it is dangerous to stay in Bethlehem. We found the opposite to be true.
Palestinian Muslims and Christians do live outside the walled cities, but even they are not supplied with water or electricity and must have cisterns and solar panels installed on their houses if they are lucky enough to be able to afford it. High-paying jobs are routinely denied to Palestinians, and they are never allowed a supervisory role over Israeli workers.
In addition, Israeli settlements encroach daily farther into Palestinian territory. Israeli settlements are communities of apartment units inhabited by Israeli citizens (often from other countries), built predominantly on Palestinian land. There are roughly 100,000 settlers living in the units that surround Bethlehem alone. The Shepherd’s Field itself, having existed on the outskirts of Bethlehem for the past 2000 years, is now being swallowed up by Israeli settlements. It is as if a big hungry giant is devouring Palestinian land and there is nothing they can do about it. Often Palestinians are evicted from their homes and even schools to make way for the settlements. Everything in the giant’s path is destroyed.
Israelis believe they have an ancestral right to the lands they are occupying in the Palestinian territory. As we all know, the situation is enormously complex, but even if you believe this to be true, does that allow for denying entire populations access to water, electricity and freedom of movement? Does that allow for evicting Palestinian people from their homes so that settlements can be built?
For my part, I am haunted by the persecution being endured by the living stones of the Holy Land. The hallowed memory of my pilgrimage is overshadowed by it and every time I open my mouth to tell people about my pilgrimage, what comes out is the story of how Jesus is still being persecuted today in the people of Bethlehem and other areas of the Holy Land. Our pilgrimage guide deliberately included contact with the living stones of the Holy Land, particularly in Bethlehem, and provided opportunities speak to them and offer what little moral and material support we could. This included staying in Bethlehem for five nights at the splendid Jacir Palace Hotel, which has had to shut down several times over the years for lack of pilgrim traffic. We became aware of what it meant to them to have us there. They were so gracious and kind. It was very humbling.
Our first contact with the living stones was as we traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Our tour guide had arranged for us to meet with a group of Muslim Bedouins whose nomadic lifestyle is no longer possible as their territory has been overtaken by Israeli settlements. They now live with their animals in small communities of tin shacks eking out whatever existence they can with their small herds, selling trinkets where possible. They live in extreme poverty. We brought them lightly used shoes and clothing and were humbled by their ardent gratitude. Shoes are very important to nomads, and they wear out quickly in the rocky hills. I thought of the shoes in my closet that are never worn because of a pinch here or there. Those people would be happy for them.
Our next contact with living stones was a visit to a Catholic secondary school in Bethlehem. The school welcomes all Palestinian students, no matter their faith background. The Catholic school provides a quality education for the children who live within the walls. They work towards peace, harmony and respect for all. Unfortunately, the Palestinian children are unlikely to be able to fulfill their career dreams as they may never be allowed to exit the walls of Bethlehem.
Bethlehem does have an excellent university, however (https://www.bethlehem.edu). One person we encountered attended the university and got permission to finish her college education in Jerusalem. However, once she obtained her degree, she was not given permission to find work outside of Bethlehem, and has been unemployed ever since. Her husband is fortunate to have a job, but many educated people live there in poverty or are seriously underemployed.
We arrived at the school on a Friday, a traditional day off for the students and staff as it is a holy day of worship for Muslims. Sunday is also a day off as it is a Christian holy day, but Saturday is not a day off, so the weekend is split. No matter, since they are not allowed to go away for the weekend but must remain inside the walls even then. The students and staff were joyful and came in on their day off to talk to us. The young student I spoke to had aspirations of becoming an electrical engineer like his father and starting his own business. I did not ask if his father was currently working. He spoke with pride and I prayed for his dreams to be fulfilled. He also talked about the possibility of going to Europe on exchange, which he may indeed get permission to do. The danger is that students who get a taste of the outside world often make plans to leave permanently. I couldn’t help but think that might be the reason they get permission to go, so they won’t come back.
The school staff then offered us refreshments, and the students (including some girls) played a game of basketball in the outdoor courtyard for our enjoyment. I was impressed by the students’ resilience and joy, but I am haunted by them. I am free. They are not.
Later that day, we had a visit from the priest who is with the Secretariat for Christian Educational Institutions for all of Israel and Palestine. He spoke about how they are working for love and peace in the Holy Land by welcoming and serving others in their schools and in their lives, that they do not just coexist as Christians and Muslims, but that they live together as community, as neighbours, and as friends. He asked us to go home and be witnesses, to encourage people to come here to see for themselves. He thanked us for coming to see the living stones of Bethlehem.
In his work, he travels all over the region to the schools, including in Gaza, which is the poorest area of Palestine. There is a great deal of damage from Israeli artillery there, but the Israelis do not allow building materials in and no outside food. It is a desperate situation and they are little able to help themselves. In other walled off areas of Palestine, they have access to outside food and building materials, but they are very expensive. When the priest was asked about their needs, he asked for prayer, donations if possible, and that we would make known the situation among those we can reach.
Since coming home, whenever I have spoken to people about my pilgrimage and the situation in Bethlehem, I am met with shock. How is it that this has been their situation since 2002 and we have not heard about it? I am haunted by that as well.
The tiniest living stones we met were the children at an orphanage in Bethlehem run by an order of Sisters. We brought gently-used clothing, supplies, candy—and bubbles! We spent an hour visiting with the children and blowing bubbles. The Sisters were grateful, the children were happy, and we were deeply moved by the experience. Some of the children had been left there by parents who could not afford to keep them. Again, the injustice of it haunted me.
While hope for the future is hardly possible for any of them, the spirit of the people is not crushed. They hope for and rely on pilgrim traffic to sustain them. We purchased what we could from vendors in Bethlehem, knowing it was likely their only source of income. In one shop, one of the young brothers who ran it asked one of our group members to keep an eye on the place while he went to get his older brother for a price check! Within the walls there is a high degree of trust. Not the narrative you get from the other side of the wall.
One ray of hope, dare I say a moment of pride as a lay Franciscan, was when I learned of the importance of the Franciscans in the Holy Land.
Franciscans have been there since 1217, the time of St. Francis, when they created in the order the “Province of the Holy Land”. They have been in the Holy Land in one form or another since then. Since 1342 they have been known under the title “Custody of the Holy Land”. They currently occupy Saint Savior Monastery in Jerusalem. Their primary responsibility is safeguarding Christian holy places and making sure the spiritual value of these places is preserved. They welcome pilgrims and maintain the shrines, basilicas, and churches in the Holy Land.
We had a presentation from one of the Franciscans in Jerusalem and he told us what a delicate diplomatic balancing act it is to have so many religions and even various Christian sects as actors in the preservation of the holy places. Very often at meetings, nothing gets decided, so nothing gets done. Changes come slowly if at all. He mentioned that in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a ladder is brought out each Lent and placed where it was once used to light candles—right in the path of pilgrims entering and leaving the building. It is no longer needed because electricity was installed a long time ago. However, the ladder comes out every Ash Wednesday anyway and must be gone around by the thousands entering and leaving. Apparently, there are more important things to talk about at meetings than useless ladders!
Given the Franciscans’ long service, and their knowledge of the inner workings of the Holy Land machinery, we owe them a great debt of gratitude, and an abundance of prayers for their continued presence. God is working miracles through them that we will never know about.
What can be done?
I grieve for Bethlehem. I have had difficulty writing and talking about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land because when I open my mouth to speak, my words are haunted by the living stones. They are crying out for justice and I feel called to give them a voice.
I have also been haunted by the words addressed to Saul of Tarsus in the Acts excerpt at the beginning of this article: “Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” May God intercede with the same blinding miracle of conversion for those who are persecuting the living stones of the Holy Land.
If you too are haunted by the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, there are ways to help. First of all, pray and offer sacrifices and especially the Mass for them. The Holy Land is bleeding Christians, now down to 2% of the population. If the situation does not change, what will keep the few remaining Christians there? Would you stay if you were in their situation? Please pray for those who are sacrificing so much to keep the Christian presence alive in the Holy Land.
Second, educate yourself and others, and write to your federal representative urging them to ensure that the basic human rights of Palestinian citizens are respected and protected.
Third, donate to the Good Friday collection in support of the Holy Land, either through the parish or at https://www.custodia.org/en. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association www.cnewa.org also has projects that include support for foreign workers in Israel and the poor in Palestine. You can also support students directly through the University of Bethlehem https://www.bethlehem.edu/.
Above all, if you can, pay a visit to the living stones of the Holy Land to support and encourage them, to let them know they are not forgotten in the world. Join or arrange a church pilgrimage, but try to use Christian agencies. And don’t be afraid to stay in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus is full of beautiful souls. They will do everything in their power to serve you joyfully. Their hospitality is limited only by the limitations they are under. Dare to enter into their passion as Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we pray for the Holy Land, for peace that comes from hearts filled with love, for justice that flows from the heart of God, and for strength and courage for those who are bearing the cross of injustice.
St. Paul, pray with us, that the peace of Christ, beyond all understanding will fill the hearts of all.