Day 1 in the Holy Land

The Franciscan Peacemaking delegation arrived without incident in Tel Aviv where we met our guide Rami.  Rami is one of only 43 Palestinian that are licensed by the Israeli government to do tours.  His guidance allows us better access to the West Bank and Israel proper.  From Tel Aviv we immediately (via a 45 min bus ride around Jerusalem) went to Bethlehem which will be our base of delegation for the first three days.

The choice to stay at the Bethlehem Hotel is itself a peacemaking action.  Since the last uprising in 2001 the Israeli government put up a number of checkpoints and barriers to access  the Palestinian territory, including Bethlehem, on the West Bank.  This was done in part to stop allowing the suicide bombers easy access to Israel, which is completely justifiable.  However, it has also cut off easier tourist and pilgrimage access to the Palestinian West Bank.  In fact, the official tourist site of Israel tells people it is “not safe” to stay in Bethlehem.  This is quite false; it is safe and welcoming.  By keeping the tourist money away it further adds a challenge to Palestinians Christians.  We can discuss this importance later.

The drive to Bethlehem brought home for me the youthfulness and multicultural nature of this land.  It is also amazingly small (area wide) but rough in terrain (rocky and such).  More on the land later.

After getting settled at the Bethlehem hotel, we had a wonderful lunch at the Abu Eli Restaurant.  I won’t go into detail on this as I am not writing for the Food Network, but it could fill volumes.

With satisfied stomachs we next went to the Church of the Nativity.  I found myself unprepared for this experience.  The reality of being in a place that Jesus was, seemed “cool” to me, but it was more powerful than that.  It brought me to tears when touching the spot “upon which Jesus was born.” I put this in quotes as who knows if this is the actual spot, but to be in a place that is within probably 200 meters is rather amazing.

In addition, knowing of our purpose to learn the situation so as to be better peacemakers, I was struck by how small the area around the Church of the Nativity actually is.  In 2001 the Church served as a sanctuary for members in the Palestinian uprising.  The friars who served then, as well as their Greek Orthodox and Armenian Catholic brethren with whom they share custody of the site, stood as peacemakers in the spot of Jesus’ birth.  How the incarnation must live on in these times.

This was heightened by our final stop for the day, the Shepherd’s Field, where as Fr. Hugh MacSherry, ofm pointed out in his homily at mass that the announcement of Jesus was first shared outside of the Holy Family with persons who were on the fringe of society.  Today, across the valley from the Shepherd’s Field is the newest Israeli government sponsored settlement and wall that separates people and grows the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis.  Again, we need the peace that comes through the Incarnation to “appear” in this land.

Signing off for now.
Russ Testa

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