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United Methodists learn Palestinians’ side on Mideast trip

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A UMNS photo by Linda Rhodes

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung preaches at the East Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jerusalem.
Feb. 22, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda S. Rhodes*

A group of 51 United Methodists from across the United States spent 10 days in Israel and the Palestinian territories searching for ways to bring peace and justice to that conflicted area.

The study trip, “Seeking Peace and Pursuing Justice: Mission Education and Advocacy for Israel and Palestine,” was sponsored Jan. 17-27 by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “a deeply spiritual crisis that involves all of us ? American, Israeli and Palestinian,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, who leads the denomination’s Chicago Area. In a sermon delivered on the trip, he called on Americans to repent of their part in the conflict and work toward a just peace in the area.

“Somebody said you can’t be a Christian if you’re not a peacemaker,” he said. “I truly believe that.”

Jung led 16 church members from his area on the trip. The delegation also included a person from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, three from the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference, nine from Virginia, 11 from the California-Pacific Conference and 11 from North Central New York.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Rhodes

United Methodists walk through an Israeli checkpoint in the concrete wall that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The trip was organized by the Rev. Sandra Olewine, a United Methodist missionary serving as liaison to Jerusalem, and David Wildman, the Board of Global Ministries’ executive secretary for human rights and racial justice. It was designed to strengthen the United Methodist Church’s human rights and peace-building advocacy work both in the Middle East and in the United States. The board is working to create advocacy teams in the church’s annual (regional) conferences.

Emphasis was on hearing the Palestinian side of the story, Wildman said, because most Americans are already familiar with the Israeli side of the issue.

“It was an advocacy-oriented trip to the Holy Land to walk where Jesus walked and to walk as Jesus walked in terms of justice and peace,” Wildman said. “It included meeting with Palestinians, Israeli peace groups, human rights groups and our mission partners. One day was devoted to visiting mission projects and partners supported by the United Methodist Church to learn how they are impacted and how they are working under the current situation.”

The group heard representatives from the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition, Israeli Information Center on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Council for Unrecognized Villages, Coalition of Women for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights and “Breaking the Silence” organization of former Israeli soldiers.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Rhodes

United Methodists join a protest calling for the end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Presentations also were made by Badil Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights Organization; Palestinian Civil Society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel; Open Bethlehem; Center for Bedouin Studies at Ben-Gurion University; Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem; and Emil Touma Center for Palestinian Studies.

Members of the Parent’s Circle Family Forum, which consists of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to acts of violence, spoke about their work for peace and reconciliation between the two peoples.

The United Methodists listened to panel discussions with Jews, Christians and Muslims; toured the West Bank; saw the remains of destroyed villages; and had an overnight stay with Palestinian families. They also observed the first Palestinian election in more than a decade, in which the militant group Hamas took power.

The mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, greeted the United Methodists and expressed gratitude for their willingness to spend 10 days in Bethlehem during a time when most tourists are afraid to cross through the checkpoints to visit holy sites. “Your presence grants us extra courage and the will to stand in our struggle to pursue peace,” he said.

Lack of access

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Linda Rhodes

The Rev. Sandra Olewine lifts a ball of woolen yarn during a weaving demonstration in the Palestinian village of Lakiya.
Batarseh described difficulties Palestinians in Bethlehem face, including being surrounded by “22 illegal Israeli settlements,” a 30-foot high concrete “separation” wall and settlers’ roads and checkpoints that “cut Bethlehem into slices.”

“The wall erected by the Israelis is a great violation of human rights and international law,” Batarseh said. He explained that most Palestinians are not allowed access to their farmlands, jobs or relatives located on the other side of the wall. “Today we live in a big prison.”

The Israeli government has said the wall is a security measure intended to curb attacks by militant groups.

Batarseh said the only way to peace is by establishing a “fully sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” withdrawing Israeli settlements from Palestinian land, removal of the segregation wall, and allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

“We don’t need walls of separation,” Batarseh said. “We just need bridges to peace.”

Numerous speakers and conference participants said most Americans are unaware of the Palestinians’ situation, and they attributed that to lack of coverage by the U.S. media.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Linda Rhodes

United Methodist visitors walk along the 30-foot-high concrete “separation” wall built by the Israeli government around Palestinian villages.
“Some of the information we received pointed out to me, personally, just how na´ve I have been with relation to understanding the plight of Palestine,” said J.P. McGuire, Volunteers in Mission director for the California-Nevada Conference. “I feel I have lived my years with blinders on — somewhat aware of the atrocities of Israel toward Palestine, but at the same time, seeming to file that knowledge in a back drawer for a later date. I am afraid that drawer has now come open in an explosive way.”

Many on the trip expressed dismay when they first visited the wall the Israeli government is building around Palestinian villages. Lonnie Chafin of Chicago said he was “shocked.” “It’s hard to see how this is different from apartheid.”

Fewer Christians

Chafin said he was also concerned about the number of Christian sites being destroyed in Israel’s expansion of settlements. “And I am saddened by how many Palestinian Christians are being driven from their historic villages,” he said.

He spent the night with a family in the Palestinian village of Taybeh. “Of the 10,000 people who lived in that Christian village, only 1,000 remain because there is no future for them in Palestine,” Chafin said. “The Palestinians are being economically forced off their land. By making life impossible, the Israelis are driving the Palestinians off the land their families have owned for centuries.”

Wildman noted that the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top policy-making body, passed a resolution on the situation in the Middle East, calling on church members to engage in advocacy and study, to support programs providing financial support to the Palestinian people, and to engage in interfaith dialogue promoting justice and peace in the Holy Land. The January event was part of the board’s effort to help annual conferences “move the General Conference from words to action,” he said.

The trip had a profound impact on the Rev. Alka Lyall, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Freeport, Ill. “I had never seen or experienced anything like this before and was certainly not aware of the extent of humiliation and torture — plain, simple torture — that the Palestinians endure on a daily basis.

“This trip was life-changing for me,” Lyall added, “and, now that I am home, I have already started to talk about it to as many people as I have encountered so far.”

*Rhodes is director of communications for the Northern Illinois Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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