Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dinner with Heads of Jerusalem Churches

On Thursday night our Australian delegation hosted a fantastic dinner for the Heads of the various churches of Jerusalem, at the Notre Dame Monastery in West Jerusalem. It was an unforgettable occasion (especially for an Australian Baptist like me!), and one I'm unlikely to experience again. Twelve senior clergy and religious turned up, as well as Dr Bernard Sabella, a Christian academic and representative for the Palestinian Authority.

There were speeches from Brisbane Anglican Archbishop Phillip Aspinall and several guests, and a fruitful and robust discussion of religious and political issues which could have rolled on for hours if the Australians had not called a halt at about 10.30 pm. I won't divulge the content of those discussions, but here are some representative images from a wonderful evening.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme

One of the most impressive church-based initiatives in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is EAPPI, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, associated with the World Council of Churches. Valentina Maggiulli, the EAPPI coordinator here in Jerusalem, joined us on some of our visits this week, and briefed us on EAPPI's work when we returned to the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center from our trip to Hebron and al-Arroub. You'll find the EAPPI website here.

EAPPI currently operates in six locations - three in the northern part of the West Bank, and one each in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Accompaniers are financially supported by their sending churches/agencies. They usually spend three months in Israel (the duration of a standard tourist visa). Training must be completed before arrival, and this takes between one and two weeks. Cost per person for three months is approximately $US9,000 (including accommodation, transport and equipment, but not including airfares). There are plans to extend the EAPPI volunteer program to include Australia in the near future. For more information contact EAPPI or the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Here is some information on the work of EAPPI from their website:

The EAPPI is an initiative of the World Council of Churches under the Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East. Its mission is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation. Participants of the programme are monitoring and reporting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, supporting acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offering protection through non-violent presence, engaging in public policy advocacy and, in general, standing in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation.


While the programme's mission is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation, its detailed objectives are to:
  • Expose the violence of the occupation

  • End the brutality, humiliation and violence against civilians

  • Construct a stronger global advocacy network

  • Ensure the respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law

  • Influence public opinion in home country and affect foreign policy on Middle East in order to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian State

  • Express solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists and empower local Palestinian communities/churches

  • Be an active witness that an alternative, non-violent struggle for justice and peace is possible to end the illegal occupation of Palestine.

Further to the call by the local churches of Jerusalem, as expressed to the Ecumenical Delegation to Israel and the OPT in June 2001, and at the International Ecumenical Consultation in Geneva in August 2001, the WCC Executive Committee meeting of September 2001 recommended to "develop an accompaniment programme that would include an international ecumenical presence based on the experience of the Christian Peacemakers Team".

After extensive consultation with the churches and ecumenical partners and following the initial phase of assessment and feasibility (October 2001 - January 2002), the WCC International Relations team convened a meeting of the Accompaniment Working Group on February 1-2, 2002, in Geneva in order to develop the framework of the accompaniment programme for the approval of the WCC Executive Committee in February 2002.


Based on its agreed framework, the EAPPI is based on principles of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, including resolutions of the UN Security Council, General Assembly and Commission on Human Rights. It is a programme developed as a response to Israel’s violation of internationally accepted norms and principles of human rights and the rule of law, in particular the IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights whose Article 1 requires that parties to the Covenant protect the rights of all individuals subject to its jurisdiction, that is individuals under its effective control.


Including the 16 new accompaniers who recently arrived in Jerusalem, the total number of people to have participated in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme since its inception is now 304. The latest group includes one from Germany, one from Kenya, five from Norway, three from South Africa, four from Switzerland and two from the UK, including two EAs who are returning for a second term. The group consists of twelve women and four men, who are serving in five placements: Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Tulkarem and Yanoun.

Ecumenical accompaniers, who serve a minimum of three months, work in various capacities with local churches, Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, as well as Palestinian communities, to try to reduce the brutality of the Israeli occupation and improve the daily lives of both peoples. Since the programme was launched in August 2002, accompaniers have participated from more than 30 churches and ecumenical partners in 14 countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

Picture: Rev Rod Benson (that's me) outside the inconspicuous entrance to the shared offices of EAPPI, the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center and Norwegian Church Aid, in the Old City, Jerusalem (but you should see what's on the other side of that door....)

Visit to the al-Arroub refugee camp

From Hebron we made our way back toward Jerusalem, stopping for lunch at a pleasant restaurant, and at the al-Arroub refugee camp, established in 1950 to house Palestinians who had been forced to leave their land when the new Israeli state occupied it.

We often think of refugee camps as temporary structures, but many refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza have been functioning for decades, and in some cases three generations have grown up knowing only such a life. Of course, these camps are not prisons, and the refugees may leave and settle elsewhere, but first they need employment and money to rent or buy a house. Severe economic hardship usually means that family members stay in the camp - or spend time in prison.

At Arroub, I expected to see tents and other temporary structures, squalor and sad faces. Instead, what I found was a large sprawling mass of concrete homes and amenities, the usual level of waste in the streets (almost everywhere you go in Israel/Palestine there is some solid waste lying around in streets and on vacant land), and many apparently happy and healthy children.

Our delegation was privileged to be invited to meet with representatives of the Women's Center, who told several detailed stories of family members arrested by the Israeli Defense Force and imprisoned for what seemed to be minor misdemeanors. For example, throwing stones at a military vehicle, or a concrete surveillance tower, is viewed as a terrorist act, and the perpetrator can be jailed for several years in an adult prison with no access to family for up to two years. In addition, the family of a convicted "terrorist" is also black-listed and therefore suffers severe restriction of movement and other penalties. It appeared that much evidence was circumstantial (or open to a charge of fabrication), and that defence and appeal were often problematic due to costs.

Each of the stories was personal, traumatic and typical of the range of accounts of Israeli military activity and its effects in occupied Palestine. The women asked us to ask the Australian government and the international community to pressure Israel to:

  • end physical and psychological harrassment of Palestinian refugees

  • address the psychological damage done to children in refugee camps
  • enable greater employment opportunities for Palestinian refugees
  • free all political prisoners (an estimated 11,000, not all of whom can be "terrorists")
  • free all women prisoners with dependent children
  • free all prisoners incarcerated without trial

The women served us spiced tea, and displayed a range of handicrafts; I bought an embroidered and lined table cloth for NIS50 (or about US$13).

Top picture: some of the women and children who related stories of family members taken away by IDF; Bottom picture: a young boy whose older brother was shot dead by an Israeli soldier in al-Arroub about seven years ago, with Mr Yusef Daher from the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center.

Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron

From the Al Ibrahimi Mosque our delegation walked through narrow lanes filled with small shops selling snacks, produce, clothing and crafts to the office of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. This was in an "H2" area of Hebron, a district that has seen a high level of alleged human rights abuse and harrassment of locals (for independent documentation of this, click here). On the distiction between H1 and H2 military zones, click here.

At the CPT office we met Lorne Friesen (a Canadian Mennonite) for a briefing on the work of CPT, an agency committed to non-violence by "getting in the way" (an allusion to the term used to describe the first Christians in Acts 9:1-2, and the practice of nonviolent protest against injustice).

Loren referred to "the sacrament of civil disobedience." I deeply appreciate the work Loren does, and admire his passion and conviction, but could not help thinking that, in another context, his evident penchant for idealism and risk might have attracted the attention of certain overtly political organisations. Or perhaps I'm simply demonstrating my unfamiliarity with rural Canadian Mennonites.

Loren certainly had a soap box and was not afraid to use it:
  • On failure by Jewish authorities and settlers to acknowledge the full story surrounding the Jewish massacre by Muslims in 1929: "that is violence."

  • "When a Palestinian does wrong, the whole Palestinian community is blamed; when an Israeli does wrong, the whole Palestinian community is blamed."

  • "This Christmas, when you set up your nativity scenes, don't forget to install a tall concrete wall between the shepherds and the manger."

  • "Notice, in the Gospel accounts of the nativity, the census requirement to travel to Bethlehem, and the subsequent killing of the innocents. These are examples of what can happen under military occupation."

  • "Just because I have $100 to spend on souvenirs does not mean that business will get better for Palestinians."
According to Loren, CPT is active in several locations in Palestine, Iraq and Colombia. CPT was invited by Palestinians to assume a presence in Palestine in 1995. There are 44 CPT staff and about 200 "reservists" worldwide. A good team comprises between six and eight people; there are four in Hebron at present, and these will all shortly be replaced. Reservists enter on the normal three-month visa, and may experience visa problems on entry or when attempting to re-enter. For a detailed account of CPT's activities in Hebron from 1995 to 2003, click here.

Here is some of the information from the CPT website:

The Mission of CPT: "Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) offers an organized, nonviolent alternative to war and other forms of lethal inter-group conflict. CPT provides organizational support to persons committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives in situations where lethal conflict is an immediate reality or is supported by public policy. CPT seeks to enlist the response of the whole church in conscientious objection to war, and in the development of nonviolent institutions, skills and training for intervention in conflict situations. CPT projects connect intimately with the spiritual lives of constituent congregations. Gifts of prayer, money and time from these churches undergird CPT’s peacemaking ministries."

"We believe that the mandate to proclaim the Gospel of repentance, salvation and reconciliation includes a strengthened Biblical peace witness.

"We believe that faithfulness to what Jesus taught and modeled calls us to more active peacemaking.

"We believe that a renewed commitment to the Gospel of Peace calls us to new forms of public witness which may include nonviolent direct action."

(from CPT founding conference: Techny, Illinois)

Christian Peacemaker Teams arose from a call in 1984 for Christians to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. Enlisting the whole church in an organized, nonviolent alternative to war, today CPT places violence-reduction teams in crisis situations and militarized areas around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers. CPT embraces the vision of unarmed intervention waged by committed peacemakers ready to risk injury and death in bold attempts to transform lethal conflict through the nonviolent power of God’s truth and love.

Initiated by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers with broad ecumenical participation, CPT’s ministry of Biblically-based and spiritually-centered peacemaking emphasizes creative public witness, nonviolent direct action and protection of human rights.

A strategy developed thoughtfully over the years has taught us that:
  • trained, skilled, international teams can work effectively to support local efforts toward nonviolent peacemaking;

  • “getting in the way” of injustice through direct nonviolent intervention, public witness and reporting to the larger world community can make a difference;

  • peace team work engages congregations, meetings and support groups at home to play a key advocacy role with policy makers.
Picture(from left): Archbishop Frank Carroll, Mr Keith Bray, Mr Yusef Daher, Mr Loren Friesen, Ms Valentina Magguilli (EAPPI coordinator in Jerusalem).