Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Leisurely morning in the Old City

This morning there were no formal responsibilities. For me the day started with BBC World News and a scan of the Australian newspapers online. At 8.00 am we had our usual fullsome buffet breakfast (I had a modest continental breakfast followed by an immodest hot breakfast, with coffee and pastries to finish). Then Gregor Henderson, Frank Carroll and I braved the commercial hard-sell in the streets near our hotel, where there are many small shops selling tourist junk, religious relics, carpets, Eastern clothing and oddments such as opium pipes, tins of wall paint, and (my favourite) T-shirts printed with the words "Guns'n'Moses".

We explored the beautiful (some would say austere) Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (where I picked up an excellent booklet titled "The Holy Places Today" by M. Basilea Schlink), and then the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcre (which I visited on Sunday, although this time I discovered a garish Golgotha on the upper floor (pictured - left-click to enlarge if you dare), which I had somehow overlooked previously, possibly because of the crush of tour groups). And yes, I can confirm that the famous ladder, placed on a ledge above the main entrance some time before 1852, was still there this morning (4 December 2007).

Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Brisbane Phillip Aspinall arrived from Amman, and he joined us for Turkish coffee at a street cafe (where, as we stood to leave, the proprietor implored us to take just two minutes out of our schedule while he introduced us to his father's shop up the alley). Fortunately we managed to escape to the Tower of David Museum, where we were exposed to a different kind of pressure - the Israeli state's interpretation of Jewish history from ancient times to the present. The displays were informative and dynamic, with a great deal of attention paid to ancient and modern history, but little coverage of the period from AD132 to the 19th century. Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth received positive treatment in one display, but there was no mention of Muhammad despite the centuries of Muslim and Ottoman rule of Jerusalem, the existence of a large Muslim Quarter in the Old City still today, and - of course - the controversial presence of world-famous Islamic worship sites on the Temple Mount. Some would say the Museum's overall message was triumphalist; others would call it necessary education. The view from the top of the tower is magnificent.

Then we slipped by the spruikers and into the Nafoura restaurant (again) for a traditional Palestinian lunch in an enclosed outdoor courtyard, right beside the Old City wall, and in the shade of an old olive tree. Apparently the courtyard was once a parking area for caravans and chariots. We had a fine vegetable soup, followed by plates of assorted Eastern dips with flatbread, followed by a huge dish piled with rice, shredded chicken and lamb mince, scattered with parsley and roasted pine nuts. And fresh home-made lemonade on the side. That cost 300 New Israeli Shekels (NIS), or close to $100, for four.

A morning well spent, followed by an intensive afternoon (see the previous two blog entries), and then back to the hotel for another buffet dinner. The authors of the Lonely Planet guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories observe that visitors to Israel often leave somewhat heavier than when they arrive, and I believe them.

Of course, submersion in the local culture is an important part of serious travel, and I'm sure you understand if identifying with our hosts means a little culinary excess.

Meeting with Bishop Fouad Twal

On Tuesday 4 December, following our meeting with His Excellency Msgr Antonio Franco, we literally walked up the street from our hotel to an audience with Bishop Fouad Twal, the soon-to-be Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. In 2008 he will take on the primary responsibility for his church in the territories of Israel, Palestine and Cyprus.

We met for an hour with Bishop Twal in the formal meeting rooms of the Concathedral Church in the Old City. We were served grapefruit juice and chocolates while the saints and apostles stared down at us from whitewashed walls. Bishop Twal appeared deeply grateful that we had come from Australia to encourage the Christians and listen to their experiences and plight. It was clear from the start that he is no fence-sitter. He is also a charismatic and compelling story-teller.

He bluntly declared that "what we have here is apartheid." It was suggested that Israel was founded and still maintains its identity as a victim, though it is strong; Bishop Twal agreed, saying Israel was united by security concerns and could not survive without enemies. "Israel wins wars but has never won peace," he said

On Annapolis, he suggested there were many obstacles to peace including a lack of trust between Israel and Palestine, and political complexity in the US where Democrats are unwilling to gift George W. Bush with a peace breakthrough. He identified Israel with security, Palestine with resistance, and Christians with reconciliation

One story he told was of an Israeli politician who insisted he was committed to the peace process, to which Bishop Twal replied, "Forget the process; can you go straight to the peace?"

Another story he told was of a recent visit to inaugurate a new hospital lectureship in the Palestinian Territories, along with an 82-year-old priest. Their diplomatic car, with special plates and flags, was stopped at a checkpoint and the soldier told him he could proceed with his car, "but not the priest." This was despite the fact that the priest was carrying his Israeli identity card; the soldier demanded a special certificate. Bishop Twal complained by phone to someone in authority, and ten minutes later they were both waved through the checkpoint. Stories like these, and much worse (including death from illness and childbirth at checkpoints), happen frequently in Palestine

In summary, Bishop Twal said, "We want to give the Holy Land its holiness, its vocation, where every believer can come to pray ... Your coming as a delegation before Christmas means a lot to us." He encouraged us to consider prayer, pilgrimage and projects in support of Palestinian Christians.

Pictured (L-R): Rev Rod Benson, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Mr Lyndsay Farrell, Bishop Fouad Twal, Rev Gregor Henderson, Rev Merrill Kitchen, Mr Kevin Bray, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall.

Meeting with the Apostolic Delegate

The formal business of our Australian delegation to Israel/Palestine kicked off today, although two of our people were detained in Jordan because their luggage had been misplaced and they were required to stay in Amman until it was located.

After a briefing from Yusef Daher (executive secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-church Center, which is coordinating our itinerary), and Kjell Jonasson (who works with the Middle East Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches), we met with the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr Antonio Franco, at our hotel. An Apostolic Delegate, also called a Nuncio, is a diplomatic representative of the Holy See (the Vatican) to a state, such as Israel. He has the rank of ambassador, and the status of archbishop.

His Excellency spoke with us for 90 minutes. I found him to be warm, enthusiastic for peace, and cautiously optimistic. He was obviously encouraged that we had come from Australia to express solidarity with our Middle Eastern counterparts and listen to the needs of Palestinian Christians. He has been in Jerusalem only since April 2006. He emphasised that unity begins with understanding and love; that the alternative to dialogue is confrontation; and that it was important for Christians "to see the two faces of the problem" of Israel/Palestine rather than adopt a partisan position. He agreed with Pope Benedict’s insistence on reciprocity in dialogue and peace initiatives.

He noted that emigration of Christians from the Middle East was a reality, and that it weakened the continuing Christian witness. Christians left because of lack of opportunity, and a desire to offer their families a better quality of life than was available to them in Israel and Palestine. “If they could, many more [Christians] would move,” he said. But some were also returning out of love for family, for the land, and for the sake of history.

Asked about ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, His Excellency said it was important for Christians in the region to foster interpersonal relationships and to speak with one voice. He described tensions between Christians as “not really Christian.” He acknowledged that building “a new mentality, a relationship of accepting each other,” was not easy. On this subject see my earlier blog (click here). He also observed that those interreligious dialogues that succeed were informal, and focused on shared celebration and fostering knowledge and understanding at a personal level.

Asked about the status of Hamas in Palestine, His Excellency said it was important to combat terrorism but also to combat the source of terrorism. He noted that corruption within the Palestinian Authority [chiefly, in my opinion, by Fatah] had led to popular support for Hamas. This had embarrassed the West.

Asked about the possibility that the Annapolis talks (held in November) may increase support for a Jewish state exclusively for Jews, His Excellency replied, “If only for the Jewish, draw your conclusions.” He did not want to see a new series of tensions and wars. An ethnically pure state would not only be bad for Christian Palestinians but for Muslims too.

Asked how Australian Christians could best support peace initiatives in Israel/Palestine, His Excellency suggested that we should “portray the reality of the Holy Land and encourage Australian Christian communities to grow more spiritually close to Christians in the Holy Land." He advocated the mutual benefits of prayer, pilgrimage and partnerships (such as twin cities or congregations).

Pictured above (L-R): Mr Lyndsay Farrell, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Rev Kjell Jonasson, His Excellency Msgr Antonio Franco, Rev Gregor Henderson, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Rev Rod Benson, Mr Ken Bray. Absent from photo: Rev Merrill Kitchen, Rev John Henderson, Rev Terrence Corkin.

Interreligious conflict in Israel/Palestine

Local people living in Israel and Palestine experience high-level conflict in various forms. In addition to the pervasive political conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people, there is conflict between the three major faiths in the region over contested Holy Places. When Christians should be focusing attention on securing peace, they find themselves battling Jewish and Muslim leaders, or even fighting among themselves.

On 7 November 2007, a historic meeting took place in Washington D.C. under the auspices of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. The group issued a joint Communique, pointing the way to achieving peace between religious groups in Israel and Palestine. Specifically, the document supports new efforts toward limiting violence, protecting holy sites and opening dialogue for peace in the Holy Land. The document is historic because the authors include Israel's Chief Rabbis, the Supreme Judge of the Islamic Courts of Palestine, and key Christian Patriarchs and Bishops from the Holy Land. Here is the text of the document:

All of us believe in one Creator and Guide of the Universe. We believe that the essence of religion is to worship Him and respect the life and dignity of all human beings, regardless of religion, nationality and gender.

We accordingly commit ourselves to using our positions of leadership, and the influence of our good offices, to advance these sacred values, to prevent religion from being used as a source of conflict, and instead serve the goals of just and comprehensive peace and reconciliation.

Our respective Holy Places have become a major element in our conflict. We lament that this is the case, as our respective attachments to our holy places should not be a cause of bloodshed, let alone be sites of violence or other expressions of hatred. Holy places must remain dedicated to prayer and worship only, places where believers have free access and put themselves in the presence of the Creator. Holy places are there for believers to draw inspiration to strengthen their acceptance and love of Almighty and all His creatures, from all religions and all nationalities.

Accordingly each religious community should treat the Holy Sites of the other faiths in a manner that respects their integrity and independence and avoids any act of desecration, aggression or harm.

We, believers from three religions, have been placed in this land, Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is our responsibility to find the right way to live together in peace rather than to fight and kill one other. Palestinians yearn for the end to occupation and for what they see as their inalienable rights. Israelis long for the day when they can live in personal and national security. Together we must find ways of reaching these goals.

Towards these ends we are actively working to:

1. Establish "hot line" procedures of rapid communication among ourselves in order to address and advise government officials regarding issues of protection of and access to Holy Sites before such issues become cause for conflict.

2. Establish mechanisms to monitor media for derogatory representations of any religion, and issue statements in response to such representations.

3. Together reflect on the future of Jerusalem, support the designation of the Old City of Jerusalem as a World Heritage Site, work to secure open access to the Old City for all communities, and seek a common vision for this city which all of us regard as holy.

4. Promote education for mutual respect and acceptance in schools and in the media. We will sponsor a conference for Israeli and Palestinian educators, academics and Ministers of Education on "The Role of Religion in Educating for Peace: Principles and Practices."

5. Demonstrate through our relations that differences can and should be addressed through dialogue rather than through violence, and strive to bring this message to our respective communities and political leaders that they may embrace this approach accordingly.

6. Provide ongoing consultation to our government leaders, and through the example of our work together remind them that the interests of one community can only be served by also respecting and valuing the humanity and interests of all other communities.


Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar
Sheikh Hamed Al-Tamimi (translator)
Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi
Sheikh Hatem Hilmi Bakri
Minister Jamal Bawatna
Chief Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen
Bishop Suheil Dawani
Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger
Sheik Abdel Salaam Mraish
Rabbi David Rosen
HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah
HB Patriarch Theophilos III
Rabbi Oded Wiener
Bishop Munib Younan
Mr. Salah Zuheikeh

WCC Policy on Palestine/Israel 1948-2007

Here's an excellent summary of sixty years of policy by the World Council of Churches on Palestine/Israel:

Negotiating a just peace under the rule of law is the strongest option for ensuring the well-being and security of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. This is the core of World Council of Churches policy toward the conflict. It is a conviction that has grown as 40 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian territory has claimed lives, distorted the rights of both peoples and deepened the conflict between them.

In making policy the WCC is attentive to those who are suffering, recognizes UN resolutions as the basis for peace and is watchful that the Geneva Conventions determine the occupying power’s responsibilities in the meantime. Policy is set by the WCC Assembly, Central Committee and Executive Committee. Main positions follow, in brief.
  • Palestinians have the right of self-determination; their duly elected governmental authorities must be recognised, including the current leaders; their refugees have the right of return and require a permanent solution.
  • Israel and its legitimate security needs are recognized beginning with the state’s emergence in 1948, in UN guarantees for its existence, in the right to protect its people under international law, and in guarantees for the territorial integrity of all nations in the area including Israel.
  • The life and witness of local churches guide churches worldwide in prayer, support and advocacy for peace. Churches are to agree the status of Holy Places with Muslim and Jewish counterparts. Local authorities must not interfere in internal church affairs.
  • Jerusalem must be an open, inclusive and shared city in terms of sovereignty and citizenship. The rights of its communities are guaranteed—Muslim, Jewish and Christian, Palestinian and Israeli—including access to Holy Places and freedom of worship. The WCC opposes the annexation of East Jerusalem. The final status of Jerusalem is an international responsibility and must be agreed within the framework of international law and as part of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
  • Settlements are illegal, as is their expansion; they are prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and incompatible with peace. Israeli soldiers and settlers must be withdrawn.
  • The Separation Barrier is illegal. It is a grave breach of international law and humanitarian law, and must be removed from occupied territory.
  • The WCC supports a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side within secure, recognized borders and share Jerusalem, as called for in UN resolutions.
  • The WCC supports groups on both sides working for peace and reconciliation, including inter-religious initiatives.
  • Violence in all its forms is condemned, whether perpetrated by the State of Israel inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories or by Palestinian armed groups inside the State of Israel. The conflict cannot be resolved through the use of force but only through peaceful means.
  • Certain economic measures are legitimate forms of pressure for peace. The WCC encourages member churches to avoid investments or other economic links to illegal activities on occupied territory, and to boycott settlement products.
  • Peace in Israel and Palestine is inseparable from international peace. The conflict affects stability and security in the Middle East and in other regions.

A seven-page annotated version of this summary is available on request; contact http://www2.wcc-coe.org/wccstaff.nsf