Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Palestinian humanitarian briefing

From the Franciscans we went by bus to that other esteemed humanitarian order, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), situated in West Jerusalem. We were expecting an intensive briefing on the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, but I was not prepared for the harrowing reality to which the multitude of statistics and observations bear witness.

UN staffer Ray Dolphin briefed us extraordinarily well on a complex and deep issue; he has also published a book on the Security Barrier, titled The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine (Pluto Press, 2006). Ray is the tall figure in the back row in the photo above.

The full analysis of the political and humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza, of which we received a summary version today, is available on the relevant section of the UNOCHA website, and is well worth an extended browse. But be prepared to be distressed, and perhaps overwhelmed, by the extent of the oppression and suffering being experienced on a large scale by the Palestinian people, as the UN sees it.

Pictured at UNOCHA headquarters in Jerusalem this afternoon (L-R): Rev Rod Benson, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Rev Merril Kitchen, Mr Ray Dolphin, Rev John Henderson, Rev Terence Corkin, Rev Gregor Henderson, Mr Lyndsay Farrell, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Mr Kevin Bray.

Meeting Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa

Our second official meeting today (5 December 2007) was with Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, at his residence in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Like His Beatitude Theophilos III, Fr Pizzaballa expressed concern for the Holy Places of Jerusalem, and singled out the problems surrounding repairs to the electrical wiring and sewage system of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as significant stumbling blocks to ecumenical fellowship in Jerusalem. But he advised us that the Christian Churches in the Holy Land were not always fighting over such issues. If you want to know more, you need to understand the principle of status quo.

Fr Pizzaballa also expressed mild concern about the longterm status of Christian witness in Jerusalem, and suggested that the international Christian community had a role to play in defending Christian presence in Israel. Further, the "emergency situation" (including violent conflict and the Security Barrier) was not desirable, and it must not be allowed to affect Christian work. He urged Australian Christians to pray for Israel and Palestine, to talk about the tensions and conflict, and to commit to coming on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

On this occasion we were served soft drinks. And on one of the walls was a very large painting depicting St Francis meeting the Sultan of Babylon, which led to the establishment of Franciscan work, and land grants, in Jerusalem.

Meeting the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem

Today was, for me, intellectually enriching but psychologically exhausting as our delegation listened to the perspectives of various key players addressing conflict in the Israel-Palestinian community. So much took place today that it will take several blog posts to do justice to what we learned.

Our first meeting was a short devotion by Rev Gregor Henderson, who read Psalm 122 and reflected on that famous Jewish psalm's references to peace and security in Jerusalem. Then we walked from our hotel up the street and around the corner to the Greek Patriarchate, where we had an audience with His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem (pictured, in discussion with us this morning).

His Beatitude described the situation in Jerusalem as "polarization," with three major faiths regarding important historical sites as holy. He suggested that the Christians ought to be optimistic, characherised by "tolerance, reconciliation and love," shaped by the gospel which is selfless and unconditional. Reflecting his Eastern tradition, he claimed that without holy places of liturgy the church is nothing; "Jerusalem has to remain as it is, accessible to all religions, so that all can experience the tangibility (not the unity) of all the religions. He viewed Jerusalem as a paradox, a city of both blessing and cursing. He spoke at length on the employment prospects of Palestinian Christians, and expressed hope for a peaceful future, but said we should not expect miracles overnight.

As we discussed these issues, we were joined by three bishops, and were served cognac, fruit juices, and Turkish coffee, accompanied by sweets and chocolates. His Beatitude graciously gave each of us a magnificent large illustrated book titled Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and several smaller gifts. In return, our delegation presented him with a book of writings from the Society of Friends (Quakers), titled This We Can Say, and a bottle of red Australian wine. His Beatitude appeared to me to be learned, diplomatic and politically astute, all good qualities for a religious leader of international status.