Monday, December 24, 2007

Meeting with Bishop Suheil Dawani

In the evening of Sunday 9 Dec 2007, our Australian delegation met with Episcopal Bishop Suheil Dawani in a meeting room at St George's Cathedral in West Jerusalem.

Bishop Dawini told us, as many other Palestinian Christians have pointed out, that it is critically important to keep the "living stones" as well as the "historical stones" in Jerusalem. While many thousands of people visit the great holy sites of the Holy Land every year, the long exodus of wealthy and well educated Palestinians from the land continues. Today only about two per cent of the population is Palestinian - because of Palestinians leaving, Jews arriving throughout the past century, and Arabs tending to have large families (in refugee camps it is not unusual for parents to have 10-15 children).

More alarming still, Bishop Dawani said, is that "Our young people have lost hope for the future. Those who can, they leave Palestine for education, and they do not come back to this desperate situation."

Although the Cathedral has a small regular congregation, it supports 37 benevolent and educational institutions. For more information see

Picture (L-R): Mr Yusef Daher, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall and Bishop Suheil Dawani, at St George's Cathedral, West Jerusalem.

Meeting with Sabeel

On Sunday evening (9 Dec 2007) the Australian delegation met with four female representatives of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Jerusalem-based agency focused on justice and nonviolence. "Sabeel" is Arabic for "the Way," and for "water spring." I recommend you explore the main Sabeel website, and also the various Friends of Sabeel branches overseas. For Australians:

Friends of Sabeel Oceana Inc.
PO Box 4474
Forest Lake, Qld 4078
Email: sabeel at the domain

Sabeel also publishes many high quality books and booklets, some of which will be reviewed in later blogs on this site.

1. Entrance to Sabeel, Jerusalem.
2. Sabeel board member Mrs Samia Khoury (left), speaking to Australian delegates and Sabeel members.
3. Sabeel Communities Coordinator Mrs Nora Karmi (centre) speaking to Australian delegates and Sabeel members; to her left is Rev Merrill Kitchen; to her right is Canadian Sabeel member Ms Cathy Nichols with her child.

Meeting with the American Jewish Committee

After lunch on Sunday 9 Dec 2007, our delegation met with Rabbi Ed Retting at the American Jewish Committee. He represented Rabbi David Rosen, who was travelling overseas.

According to its website, "the American Jewish Committee, established in 1906 by a small group of American Jews deeply concerned about pogroms aimed at Russian Jews, determined that the best way to protect Jewish populations in danger would be to work towards a world in which all peoples were accorded respect and dignity.Over 100 years later, AJC continues its efforts to promote pluralistic and democratic societies where all minorities are protected. AJC is an international think tank and advocacy organization that attempts to identify trends and problems early - and take action."

The AJC's key areas of focus are:
Combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry;Promoting pluralism and shared democratic values;Supporting Israel's quest for peace and security;Advocating for energy independence;Strengthening Jewish life.

Rabbi Ed Retting described the American Jewish Committee as a "de facto foreign office for the American Jewish community," and a "defense agency" (a US administrative category); it is politically and religiously unaffiliated, with a membership of about 180,000.

Of particular note in Rabbi Retting's briefing was his categorisation of Israeli settlers in the West Bank into three classes:

(a) 80 per cent "non-ideological non-exclusivists";
(b) 15 per cent "idealistic moderates" aware of the problem;
(c) 5 per cent "the biggest bunch of hooligans and nut-cases I have ever had the misfortune to know."

Some quotes:

"Jewish society is split roughly 80-20 between 'hawks' and 'doves'."

"The biggest problem is that the Palestinians don't know us on our own terms."

"The Palestinians treat us like a Mack truck that jumped the guardrail and caused havoc."

"Saving a life outweighs the whole Torah."

"Building hospitals and schools [in the West Bank] is not about justice."

On the Separation Barrier and the segregated road system in the West Bank: "Separation for a period, as often recommended in marriage counselling, is a good thing because it allows both parties to calm down and see things more rationally."

"Jewish leaders need to ... help the Palestinians reach into their hearts and turn things around."

On Rabbi David Rosen see also

Picture: Rabbi Ed Retting addresses the Australian delegates at the American Jewish Committee building in West Jerusalem.

Meeting with the Israeli Government Press Office

The only time available for the Israeli Government representatives to meet with our Australian delegation was Sunday morning, which I found extraordinary. However, we agreed to meet Mr Daniel Seaman, the Director of the Government Press Office (GPO), at Beit Agron, in West Jerusalem, at 11.30 am.

Mr Seaman met us in the library of the Journalists' Association. He talked about the context of the recent Annapolis peace talks, the failings of the Israeli educational system, the wisdom of a two-state solution, the need to oppose extremists in both Israel and Palestine, and many more political and social issues relating to the ongoing conflict.

Some quotes:

"Hoping for a peace agreement by the end of 2008 is upping the anti too much."

"The one-state solution is 'Orwellian-speak' and any resolution to the situation will require tangible concessions to Israel."

"The Arab-Israeli conflict is a golem created by those who wish for it."

"If the Arab world confirms that Iran has nuclear weapons, there will be a whole new dance [in the region]"

"In many places, thugs have taken over the Palestinian National Authority."

"The Separation Wall is a non-violent means of reducing Palestinian terrorism. It alows Israel to restrain itself against aggressors. It is a matter of our lives compared to their convenience."

"The one right that is elementary is the right to self-determination. All other rights are negotiable."

"There are indications that Israel and Syria are in secret negotiations. Syria is an essential party in any peace agreement because it can appear to make Israel weak if sabre-rattling becomes a reality."

"Israel is the Jewish state, just as Arab countries are Muslim states, and Italy, the USA and the UK are Christian states."

"Palestinian Israeli citizens are treated far better than minorities in other 'troubled' nationa are treated ... Our Supreme Court tries to correct problems, but it is hard to do so in the situation we face."
"On the fact of hundreds of roadblocks inside the West Bank: "Every week there are children stopped, carrying explosives."

"The Security Barrier is permanent, but the Supreme Court can determine its final location."

"Cynicism is not in my job description, but one has to have it in order to be optimistic."

"What we have all been through in the last seven years - none of us wants to go through that in the future."

On one-state versus two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see also an excellent paper by Marian Kromkowski at

1. Mr Daniel Seaman addresses the Australian delegation at Beit Agron.
2. The delegation enjoys lunch at the Spaghettim Restaurant adjacent to Beit Agron (an experience I recommend, though not 'local' cuisine).

Worship at St Georges Cathedral

This morning the various Australian delegates were free to attend services of their respective Christian traditions in Jerusalem. I joined three of our members for worship at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, 20 Nablus Rd, West Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate. The worship was broadly evangelical, in Arabic and English, and included communion. About 25 local Christians shared the service with us, and enjoyed morning tea of Arabic coffee and Arabic sweets.

At morning tea, I spoke to two men about the conflict and how it has impacted and continues to impact their lives. One, a senior public servant who preferred to remain anonymous, spoke about the 1967 war, claiming it was not a war but "an efficient means of transferring land from Jordan to Israel." Another, a senior administrator in a hospital in the West Bank, described his experience as a child whose family was displaced in the 1948 war; more recently, because of the Separation Barrier, his family was forced to abandon their home and prevented from attending the church with which they had been associated for many years. He drove us past the beautiful stone church and back to our hotel. Such stories could be repeated a thousand-fold, and these people are not terrorists, despite what they have suffered and lost.

Incidentally, few people realise that St George was not British but Palestinian (yes, that's right, the guy who fought the Dragon). He is reputed to have been born in Bithynia to a Palestinian mother, and died as a martyr in Palestine, executed by Roman Emperor Diocletian.

1. (L-R): Rev Merrill Kitchen, Dr Kevin Bray, Bishop Suheil Dawani, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, at the entrance to the cloister of St George's Cathedral.
2. Interior of the Cathedral.

Trivia: Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper has logged a visit to St George's Cathedral (and, like me, liked the experience).

Meeting with the Quakers at Ramallah

While in Ramallah, our Australian delegation met with Dr Jean Zaru, Sam Bahour and the Mayor of Ramallah at the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) building. Dr Zaru talked to us about nonviolent action for peace in Israel and Palestine, the negative influence of Christian fundamentalist extremists, and the usefulness of "alternative Christian pilgrimages" to the Holy Land. A powerpoint presentation of her talk is available. More information about Jean Zaru is available here and here.

Sam Bahour, a businessman from America who has worked in Palestine for 14 years, talked to us about economic development under Israeli occupation, the crucial importance of education, and appropriate forms of activism in the face of military occupation. He recommended the Right to Enter campaign. Some quotes: "If you can't implement international law, what use is it?" And "Israel works on many fronts to compel Palestinians to leave voluntarily for other countries." More information on Sam Bahour is available here and here and here.

The Mayor of Ramallah, Janet Mikhail, arrived as we were leaving, and greeted us warmly.

1. The Australian delegation entering the Ramallah Friends' Meeting House.
2. The delegation sharing a light snack before being addressed by Jean Zaru (standing, centre).
3. Ramallah Mayor (left) and Jean Zaru.

More information on Quakers:

Meeting with the Palestinian National Authority

Leaving the Mount of Olives, we travelled north through occupied Palestinian territory to Ramallah, the administrative capital of Palestine. Ramallah is a bustling, if dirty, city, with plenty of evidence of construction and other economic activity. We visited the impressive memorial to Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat, and met with His Excellency Rafiq Husseini, chief of staff to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Husseini is a gifted leader and thinker, and it impressed me that he has chosen to remain in Palestine when many alternative avenues must have been open to him. He is also a Christian. His was perhaps the most comprehensive and cogent briefing that we received during our visit to Israel and Palestine.

Essentially, Mr Husseini impressed on us the following points:

1. Israel must withdraw to the original Green Line, leaving Palestine with 22 per cent of the whole territory of Israel/Palestine (although Israel regards this as untenable).

2. Israel must stop building new settlements, and enlarging existing settlements, in the West Bank.

3. Israel must not become a Jewish state, and Palestine must not become a Muslim state.

Something of his recent thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is published at the following locations:

1. Main street in Ramallah.
2. The delegation approaches the new Memorial to Yasser Arafat, adjacent to the Palestinian National Authority building.
3. Interior of the Memorial.
4. The delegation in discussion with His Excellency Rafiq Husseini, at the Palestinian National Authority.

Visit to the Mount of Olives

This afternoon (Saturday 8 Dec 2007), Rev Kjell Jonasson took our Australian delegation to visit the Mount of Olives, in East Jerusalem, just across from the Kidron valley, the deep ravine that Jesus knew so well.

Here we took in the awesome view of the Old City of Jerusalem, and spent some time in reflection, aware that in this place Jesus shed tears and prayed for the city and its people. Together we prayed the following prayer aloud:

Lord Jesus Christ,
Today we share your tears for the cities of the world;
Still we have not loved the things that make for peace.

We weep for the divided cities:
Where brother fights with brother,
Where anger feeds on hatred,
Where prejudice blinds the eyes of compassion,
And even religion divides,
Where children are taught to hate,
And old men relish ancient wrongs.

We weep for the cities of oppression:
Where iron law imprisons freedom,
Where thought is curbed and conscience is stifled,
Where the questioning spirit is called a traitor,
Where art and civilising truth grow barren,
And each must think in manner as his neighbour.

We weep for the cities of poverty:
Where children live, but die too soon,
Where eager hands can find no work,
Where hunger rules and aid is short,
Where mothers clutch uncomprehending young,
And where the little we could do, we fail to do.

We weep for our cities and for ourselves;
We have not learned the things that make for peace.

Lord, turn
Tears to love
And love to work.
Turn work to justice
And all that makes for peace.


1. The Australian delegation (L-R: Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Rev Merrill Kitchen, Lyndsay Farrell, Rev Gregor Henderson, Rev Terence Corkin, Rev Rod Benson, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Dr Kevin Bray, Rev John Henderson).
2. Jerusalem looking west from the Mount of Olives.
3. A camel that happened to be resting at the lookout (actually a famous camel whose image adorns postcards and tourist guides).

Visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque

After our visit with the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Chief Judge of the Islamic Court, our Australian delegation visited the al-Aqsa Mosque. Below are some of the images I recorded during our visit. The atmosphere was the same as that experienced inside the Dome of the Rock. Again, it was a privilege and an honour to visit this sacred site.

Meeting the Mufti of Jerusalem

From the Dome of the Rock our Australian delegation was ushered to the offices of His Eminence the Mufti of Jerusalem, who welcomed us (in Arabic) and introduced us to an unexpected guest, His Excellency Sheikh Tayseer Bayoud Tamimi, the Chief Judge of the Islamic Court. They apologised for the delay in gaining entry to the Temple Mount, and observed that we had experienced a small part of "the intentional harassment of the entire Palestinian community." They described the Security Barrier as the "Discrimination Wall," and stated their belief that "the Holy City is under Israeli siege." Much more was said, including answers to questions from our group.

On behalf of our delegation, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall formally apologised for the reprehensible act of one of our fellow Australian citizens in 1969 that caused a devastating fire in the al-Aqsa Mosque. The Chief Judge accepted our apology.

Background to the fire from Wikipedia:

In the morning of August 21, 1969, a fire at Masjid al-Aqsa, gutted the southeastern wing of the mosque. The fire destroyed a priceless one-thousand-year-old wood and ivory pulpit (minbar) that had been sent from Aleppo by Saladin. The "twin" of this minbar (Saladin had them both made at the same time) is still extant in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Michael Dennis Rohan, a tourist from Australia, was arrested for the arson attack on August 23, 1969. Rohan was a Protestant follower of an evangelical sect known as the Church of God. By his own admission, Rohan hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah by burning down the al-Aqsa Mosque. Rohan told the court that he acted as "the Lord's emissary" on divine instructions, in accordance with the Book of Zechariah, and that he had tried to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque in order to rebuild the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. He was hospitalized in a mental institution, found to be insane and was later deported from Israel.

We were honoured to visit these two significant Muslim leaders in this place. It was ironic that no senior Jewish religious leaders were able to meet with us, yet Islamic leaders found time to meet us.

Below are some of the images I recorded of our visit with the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Chief Judge of the Islamic Court (details at bottom of page).

1. The Australian delegation meets with Islamic leaders at the Temple Mount.
2. L-R: The Mufti of Jerusalem, the Chief Judge of the Islamic Court, our interpreter.
3. Archbishop Phillip Aspinall apologises for the 1969 desecration of the al-Aqsa Mosque.
4. The delegation with Islamic leaders, guides and interpreter outside the Dome of the Rock.

Visit to the Dome of the Rock

This morning (Saturday 8 December 2007), we visited Haram es-Sharif, or the Temple Mount, at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The weather was mild and overcast, and there were few people about. Assembling at the entrance closest to the Lion's Gate, we waited for about 15 minutes while Israeli security guards decided whether to approve access, despite the fact that the visit was pre-arranged and our Muslim hosts were waiting for us.

The first significant experience for us today was entering the magnificent Dome of the Rock, widely held to be the second most revered Islamic holy site after the Ka'aba at Mecca. Contrary to popular belief, the Dome is not a mosque but a Muslim shrine. About 200 metres to the south is the famous al-Aqsa Mosque (see the next blog page). It was a privilege to visit this special site. Inside it was very quiet and still; people, usually alone or in small groups, were praying and meditating. We were made very welcome, taking off our shoes at the door according to custom, and enjoying the sanctuary of this sacred place.

Below are some of the images I recorded (details at bottom of page) during our visit.

1. Our delegation waits to have our entry approved by the ever-present security.
2. Our Palestinian guide explains the history and significance of the Dome of the Rock.
3. Interior of the Dome of the Rock.
4. Stone on which it is thought Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac, and from which Mohammad ascended to heaven, at the heart of the Dome of the Rock.
5. Rev John Henderson ascends from the crypt beneath the stone, where pilgrims pray.
6. Interior of the Dome of the Rock.
7. Exterior (south face) of the Dome of the Rock.

More information:

Dinner with Australian diplomats in Jerusalem

It's Friday 7 December, and we have just farewelled the Australian Ambassador to Israel, and the Australian Palestinian Representative, who were our guests at a reception at our hotel in Jerusalem tonight.

Ambassador James Larson, who lives in Tel Aviv, and Palestinian Representative Ben Scott, who lives in Jerusalem but whose office is based in Ramallah, briefed us on the Australian Government's view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They reflected, properly, the perspective inherited from the Howard Coalition government, since the new Rudd Labor Government has only been in office two weeks and understandably has many other national priorities. Their observations and judgments complemented what we have seen and heard in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

There are two Australian diplomatic representatives in the region because Israel is an internationally recognised state, whereas Palestine is not politically independent. The Ramallah office is much smaller than the Israeli office. It is my understanding that the Australian government strongly supports the two-state solution. More information is available at the Australian Embassy's website.

Pictures: Ambassador James Larson dining with our Australian delegation (top); Palestinian Representative Ben Scott explaining a point to delegates (middle); the group after dinner (bottom, L-R: Rev John Henderson, Rev Terence Corkin, Dr Kevin Bray, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Ambassador James Larson, Representative Ben Scott, Rev Gregor Henderson, Rev Merrill Kitchen, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Rev Rod Benson, Lyndsay Farrell).