March 13, 2015

A land of calm and chaos: ‘There’s a militarized wall around Bethlehem?’ and other Holy Land pilgrimage observations

The Sea of Galilee shimmers in the background on Feb. 7 in this view from the Mount of Beatitudes on the northern shore of the sea, also known as Lake Tiberius. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

The Sea of Galilee shimmers in the background on Feb. 7 in this view from the Mount of Beatitudes on the northern shore of the sea, also known as Lake Tiberius. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

(Editor’s note: On Feb. 4-15, 51 pilgrims from in and around the archdiocese, including Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, traveled through the Holy Land. The following is a reflection written by staff reporter Natalie Hoefer, who covered the pilgrimage for The Criterion. See a related here. Quotes from pilgrims during the Galilee portion of the pilgrimage are also included here. Next week’s issue will highlight the Jerusalem portion of the pilgrimage.)

By Natalie Hoefer

The sky was clear as we sat in the wooden boat that plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee. I inhaled deeply then exhaled slowly, taking in the view.

To the east and the north, green hills continued their watch as they did in the time of Christ. To the west, the mountains of Jordan seemed to slumber in a shroud of mist.

Such a peaceful feeling it was, riding upon the lake in the early morning quiet.

Yet thanks to the small size of the “sea” (33 miles long by 13 miles wide), its shallow depth and its location between two mountain ranges which trap weather systems, a storm on that same placid lake can create waves as high as 12 feet, large enough to swamp the Apostles’ boat and cause them to cry out, “Lord, save us!” (Mt 8:25)

That contrast of calm and chaos on the Sea of Galilee is an apt analogy to describe the Holy Land in general.

It is a land where views like the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea and the lush vista from Mount Tabor can produce such serenity, yet where religious, ethnic and political differences create a palpable tension that seems ready to combust at any moment.

One simply can’t walk away from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land without spiritual growth. As life moves forward, I find myself reading Scripture in a more engaging manner, visualizing the places we visited that are named in the Bible. I read the New Testament now with cultural and historical insights shared by our tour guide Tony Azraq, a Melkite Catholic whose full-time profession as an archaeologist made him a wealth of knowledge. I marvel at memories of the sometimes lush, sometimes stark, yet always awe-invoking landscape.

But mostly, I walked away from the Holy Land with enlightenment of the situation for Christians in Israel—and a heart disturbed by what I witnessed.

In Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, Muslims now comprise nearly 70 percent of the population, according to a 2009 Israel Central Bureau of Statistics report. The town used to be predominantly Christian.

It was jarring and, for me, disturbing to hear the intoned Muslim prayers blare from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque into St. Joseph Church in Nazareth as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin celebrated Mass.

And there was no hiding the shock on my face when Azraq mentioned the wall constructed by Israel around Bethlehem, located about six miles south of Jerusalem. Within that militarized wall, Bethlehem—which lies in the political mess known as the West Bank—is governed by the Palestinian Authority.

I never saw the Berlin Wall, but I imagine in its day it resembled the wall now encompassing Bethlehem: thick concrete slabs about 20-25 feet tall, with barbed wire and electrical fencing on top. Driving through the military checkpoint into Bethlehem felt like entering a prison compound.

The Israeli government says the barrier, erected more than 10 years ago during a surge in Palestinian suicide bombings, is necessary for the country’s security. Palestinians see it as an illegal effort by Israel simply to grab land.

There is likely truth in both arguments. But regardless, the wall results in checkpoints that limit the coming and going of Bethlehem’s population.

According to Azraq—and confirmed by a search I did of several reputable websites—Bethlehem residents are only allowed into Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank with special permits; must wait in long lines and endure invasive searches before being allowed through a checkpoint; are restricted as to what roads they are allowed to drive on; and occasionally are subject to strict curfews.

The economic impact of these restrictions was obvious. Whereas Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places we visited moved with the obvious ebb and flow of daily life, Bethlehem seemed dormant, almost devoid of commercial life and the activity of a normal town on a normal business day.

Like Nazareth, Bethlehem used to be predominantly Christian. And like Nazareth, the town now boasts a Muslim majority, with the Christian population down to an estimated 20-25 percent, according to Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State, published in 2012.

But that’s just a statistic. No amount of reading or research can relay the psychological, emotional and cultural impact of living in such a tense, challenging environment day in and day out.

Take, for instance, the story Azraq told us of his Jerusalem-born brother—making him technically an Israeli citizen—and his Bethlehem-residing sister-in-law, who as a resident of that town is considered a Palestinian. To live with her husband, she had to be smuggled out of Bethlehem because a 2006 law bans marriage between Israeli and Palestinian citizens.

After she gave birth to their first child, it was discovered at the hospital that she was a Palestinian from Bethlehem. Azraq’s sister-in-law was deported back to Bethlehem, where she now lives separate from her husband and child.

It matters not that both Azraq’s brother and sister-in-law are Christian, or that they love each other deeply, or that she is needed to care for their infant. She simply came from the wrong side of a wall, and that is that.

Azraq’s brother is appealing to an Israeli court for permission for his wife to move to Jerusalem. They are praying for a compassionate judge.

Such restrictive laws, economic hardship and a rise in Islamic extremism have caused an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.

Granted, Christians are not the only ones to suffer or flee. But it is the Christian presence—or lack thereof—in the land where God chose to become incarnate and Christ established his Church that leaves me disheartened.

The desire for the holy high ground in the region—and I mean that in a figurative rather than moral sense—has made the area a hotbed of hatred and unresolved conflict.

What a dichotomy this is, in the land where the God who is love came to dwell among us, that we “might not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). †

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