Sunday, September 25, 2011

Interfaith Journey to Israel #4

In the Path of Abraham: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Experience of the Holy Land
September 5-11, 2011
Day 3

This was the most challenging day of our trip together.  So far, we had been bussed from site to site, visited religious historical sites and heard some presentations about current interfaith relationships within Israel.  The presenters spoke with relatively hopeful attitudes that we received this information with guarded optimism.  Today we were focused on the borders between one and another.  During my previous visits to Israel before the 2 Intifadas, the Jews and the Arabs lived side by side relatively quietly.  Israelis visited Palestinian villages and cities and many Palestinian people worked in Jewish towns and returned home in the evenings. Now it is very different.  To prevent easy access to suicide bombers many of whom came from Jenin, the borders are fixed and well guarded.  This is an aspect of the “security issue” that is a thorn in the side of those who disagree with Israel’s position.  Today we visited Jenin, a Palestinian town and refugee camp.  Our buses, less our Israeli Jewish guide, were boarded by Israeli soldiers so that we could show our passports.  Israelis are not allowed to travel to Jenin.  We first visited a tiny Orthodox church from the 4th century in Burkin where we were greeted by the church caretaker.  There is no Christian community using this church regularly at this time.  Again, the icons were beautiful and the light in the church was soft. 

Our next stop was to a new hotel which was located next to a midway with rides like a roller coaster and Ferris wheel that was not open at the time.  The juxtaposition of the marble hotel and the silent midway in the noonday sun was compelling.  The hotel was quiet too.  We were welcomed by the Governor of Jenin and district, Abu Musa.  He was a serious person who blamed Israel for all the misfortunes of his people.  Cookies and juice and water were offered to us before we left for the buses to take us back to the border.  I was happy to have had this snack because we spent about 2 hours at the border crossing.  Israeli soldiers were serious and business-like in putting us through a security routine similar to what we experience before boarding a plane.  Some of us were angry and upset.  Others took this experience in stride as a necessary precaution when 2 peoples are at war with each other.  There is not only a high physical wall here between the communities but also a strong psychological barrier of deeply felt mistrust.  We were hot and uncomfortable with this experience but everyone held his or her temper. 

We boarded the buses again and went to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity and see Manger Square.  The Church housed 2 Orthodox communities and was adjoined by a Roman Catholic Church that was build later.  Our guide explained the significance of the church layout and described the services and crowds at Christmas time.  Opposite the Church facing Manger Square was a newly built mosque to serve the growing Muslim community in Bethlehem. 

We were exhausted as individuals when we checked into our hotel in Jerusalem but there was yet another presentation scheduled for that evening at dinner.  We heard from two brave and dignified representatives from The Parent’s Circle, a group of about 500 people, both Israeli and Palestinian who lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict.  We came to this dinner with many unresolved feelings about our experiences together and the stories that each person, Mr. Rami Ehanan and Ms. Seham (Moira) Ikhalyel, told us, moved each of us as individuals. Everything we experienced so far became the context for how we heard their stories of loss. 
We went to our beds exhausted, both physically and emotionally.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Interfaith Journey to Israel #3

In the Path of Abraham: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Experience of the Holy Land
September 5-11, 2011

Day 2

On this day, we experienced the land from a Christian point of view.  Kibbutz Lavi is near the Sea of Galilee.  After a very generous breakfast at the Kibbutz, our buses drove to Tiberius where we boarded a wooden boat for ride modelled on an experience of Jesus in the Bible.  We heard the biblical text with the soft wind blowing in our faces as we looked out on the pastoral hills surrounding the water.   Next, we bussed on to Capernaum, the location of St. Peter’s home where a modern Franciscan Church now stands.  One of our religious leaders, F. Damien McPherson is a Franciscan monk and we were greeted with great warmth.  We heard a reading of the Beatitudes, also known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Our next stop was a baptismal site called Yardenit where the Jordan River meets the Sea of Galilee.  Some Christians in our group chose to reaffirm their baptism there and stood in a semi-circle in the shallow water of the Jordan River.  Tiny fishes darted between their legs.  The Christian clergy both Roman Catholic and Protestant undertook the ceremony.  We sat in the dappled shade and watched.  The look of quiet happiness and joy on the faces of our Christian friends as they re-affirmed their baptism was very moving to see. 

In the afternoon, we visited the Christian site of Kfar Cana a village where Jesus performed the miracle of the wine.  The roads wound up and down steep hills and the views of the valleys were spectacular from the air-conditioned bus window.  How difficult it must have been for people in biblical times to walks these hills in the heat, carrying what they needed for the journey and hoping for the best!  You could understand the importance of hospitality at that time.

Later that afternoon, we had a bus tour of Haifa, a city that lies on the Carmel Mountain range and a narrow plain on the coast of Israel.  Where the small villages in Israel are often mostly Arab Christian and Muslim or Jewish, the cities are all mixed with people from all those communities plus others who are not affiliated with those communities.  We visited Beit Hagefen, the Centre for Arab-Jewish culture, youth and sports in Haifa.  We heard some speeches and saw a film about the work of this centre and I bought some postcards as a memento.    This place and the dialogue centre in south Tel Aviv both gave me some hope that grass roots dialogues can continue while the political battles and inter-community confrontations rage on.

We returned to Kibbutz Lavi, ate dinner and fell asleep immediately on the pillow. Another early start is planned for tomorrow.  It feels to me like we have been touring for a week.

Interfaith Journey to Israel #2

In the Path of Abraham: A Jewish, Christian, Muslim Experience of the Holy Land
September 5-11, 2011
Day 1

We flew overnight for 11 hours to arrive a bit tired and time-challenged in Tel Aviv, and began our all- day tour in 2 buses, starting in Tel Aviv at a century- old building, still under renovation that housed a synagogue/interfaith centre.  We were struck by the bright early morning sun and the heat because it was still the middle of the night in Canada.  Rabbi David Rosen gave us an excellent overview of the complexity of the interfaith relationships in Israel over the past 50 years.  There is freedom of religious practice in Israel. However, within each religion, there are also disputes and strongly held views, some for peace-building and others strongly suspicious of those working toward peace and compromise, which has an impact on the conversations among faith group members.

We had a driving tour by bus of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, (the older city) and drove north to Nazareth the largest Arab city in Israel.  We visited the Church of St. Joseph, the traditional site of the home of Joseph and Mary.  It was a large building, shared by 2 orthodox faiths, with beautiful orthodox icons, both paintings and sculpture.  The priest there indicated that the Christian population in Nazareth is shrinking.  Our next visit was to Terra Santa College which was attached to the Roman Catholic Basilica.  Father Amjad, the local parish priest had attended this College as a student.  Mr. Bahig Mansour, a Druze man who is director of Israel’s Department for Religious Affairs came to welcome us.  We laughed with him as he explained that he was late because his wife, a native of Nazareth, gave him bungled directions.  He also emphasized the significance of freedom of religious practice in Israel that is protected by the government.  He shared a bit about the Druze religion which is quite secretive.  It does not accept converts. 

We climbed onto the buses in the hot afternoon sun and were driven to Kibbutz Lavi where we had dinner and fell into bed exhausted, knowing that the tour would begin again very early the next day.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Interfaith Trip to Israel #1

A group of Canadians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews, mostly from the Toronto area, came to Israel with clergy from each of our faiths for a one-week tour of the holy places of each faith with the hope of developing understanding of the other.  When I return to Canada from Israel next week, I plan to write several blogs about the experience.  I did try to write a blog last week from an internet cafe but lost it when I ran out of internet minutes.  My husband and I are now in Tiberius, visiting our son who works in this city.  We are staying for about a week in a guest house on Kubbutz Ein Gedi.  It is hot every day and we arise before the sun emerges from behind the mountains to the east but the sky is full of that soft pastel light from the dawn.  The water of the lake is still and you can see and hear the birds start their morning journeys for food.  Our trip together with people of faith was very moving at times and very confusing at other times.  I will share some of these experiences soon.