Thursday, 4 February 2010

Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel

David and I arrived in a cold and wet Jerusalem last night and after a good night’s rest we embarked on an intensive day of briefings and visits around the city. We have been invited to Israel/Palestine by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel which is a programme of the World Council of Churches. Our visit was an opportunity to see and affirm what they are doing as well as to meet with Church leaders and other groups trying to work for peace and justice in this troubled part of the world.

I had been inspired to make this visit after hearing one of my predecessors as Vice-President, Jan Sutch Pickard, speak of her own experience as an ecumenical accompanier at the Methodist Conference nearly 3 years ago, and so it was wonderful to be greeted by Jan at the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre this morning. She has returned to act again as an ecumenical accompanier for the next 3 months in the village of Yanoun. Jan had been told by the Deputy Mayor of Yanoun how important the EAs were, “Your pens and cameras are more powerful than guns” he said. She has seen for herself how true that is, with the levels of violence and intimidation of local Palestinians by settlers in Yanoun having significantly fallen since the EA team arrived.

There have been over 600 Ecumenical Accompanists from 15 different countries since the programme started over 6 years ago, and now there are 24 people working in 6 teams for a 3 month period. They work in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and in the north of the West Bank in Jayyous, Yanoun and Tulkarem. Their role is to witness and record events as Palestinians try to use the many checkpoints through the separation barrier being constructed by the Israeli government, to provide protection by their presence, and to tell their stories when they return home. Their work and witness is inspiring and is undoubtedly appreciated by the countless people they have stood alongside.

The scale of the difficulties for those searching for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in this land was made clear by Ray Dolphin from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. UN-OCHA monitor in detail the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory. Whilst the UN acknowledges that Israel is within its rights to build a separation barrier, it objects to the route that the barrier is taking which it makes clear is against international law. 85% of the 709 km barrier will be in occupied Palestinian territory when it is completed. The route means that 9.5% of the West Bank is on the Israeli side of the barrier, much of which is some of the most fertile Palestinian land. It has separated communities from each other and farmers from their fields.

Israel says that the separation barrier is being built to ensure security for its people, but it is not the only initiative being employed to achieve this. In addition to the 68 checkpoints and 22 partial checkpoints in the main barrier, there are also barriers created by enclosed roads in the West Bank for Israelis only, 100 road gates, 66 road blocks and 174 earth mounds, all of which make it very difficult for ordinary Palestinians to make the most basic of journeys. To get to a hospital in time to deliver a baby or in a medical emergency can sometimes be almost impossible.

UN-OCHA reports can be found on their website ( One report focused on the Bethlehem governorate which comprises of 660 square km. After four decades of Israeli occupation only approximately 13% of the land remains available to Palestinian use and much of this is fragmented. Access to East Jerusalem has been severely restricted. This is because of the expansion of Israeli settlements and settlement outposts, construction of the separation barrier and classifying significant portions of land as a military area and a nature reserve. This situation is replicated at several other places in the West Bank.

Faced with these daily challenges, many Palestinian Christians have moved abroad. Now Christians form only 2% of the population. Yusef Daher, the Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, who had organised our visit, told us of his own experience of being a Palestinian Christian living in Jerusalem. There are 21 in his close family. His brother has had to travel to Ramallah to get work and by living there he and his family have lost their residency status for Jerusalem. His sister has lost her residency status by living and working in America. Another brother has married an American woman but she needs an annual permit to live in Jerusalem which is proving difficult to obtain. It means that within a few short years only half of his close family are now able to live in Jerusalem. Yusef’s story is not atypical and is one reason why the number of Christians living in Jerusalem is falling so quickly.

B’Tselem is one of many Israeli NGOs working to improve human rights in the country. It is committed to ensuring their own country lives up to the highest ethical standards, promoting accountability, the rule of law and universal respect for human rights. They were founded 20 years ago and have now developed an international reputation as a source of reliable and comprehensive information for journalists, researchers and diplomats. They have pioneered the use of video as a tool for human rights advocacy, and Risa Zoll and Lizi Sagi (pictured) told us how giving cameras to Palestinian families under threat from settler communities nearby has both enabled them to document human rights abuses but also helped to reduce violent incidents.

Rabbis for Human Rights is another impressive organisation. Their Executive Director, Rabbi Arik Ascherman told us about their work which focused on both human rights issues inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory. For instance they have run an olive tree campaign, re-planting trees for local farmers after they have been cut down by settlers and they support families facing house demolition, offering both legal support and a physical presence should a demolition take place. Rabbi Ascherman’s philosophy is that they offer a coalition of hope, believing that it is only if both sides of the conflict empower each other and start to trust each other that a just peace can be found.

Our day concluded with a meeting with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal. He welcomed our visit and encouraged the Methodist Church, and all Christian communities around the world, not to forget their sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine. In this he echoed the words of the Kairos Document, an important statement made by Palestinian Christian leaders a few months ago.

As the sun set we were able to make a brief visit to the heart of the Old City, and witness prayers being said at the Western Wall and above, on Temple Mount hearing the Muslim call to prayer. It was a parable of how close these two great faiths and communities are and yet the fact that barriers increasingly prevent one community from meeting with another, the reality, at least for the moment, is that the distance between one community and another is greater than ever.


A Gray said...

Thank you for your balanced report on the situation in Palestine and Israel. I believe we as Christians are sleep walking into disasterin Jerusalem as the Israeli government relentlessly strive to make Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the world is silent. Hope to see you at the EAPPI stand in Porstmouth
Audrey Gray former EA and LP in Worthing Cicuit

warren said...

I want to add my thanks to those of Audrey Gray whom I succeeded as EA in Jerusalem in 2008, for the report of your visit. Once we have witnessed the reality of occupation in the daily lives of Palestinians we cannot be silent in the face of such injustice. Thank you for underlining the importance of the "Kairos" document; as a member of the Conference Working Party on Israel/Palestine, your report is a great encouragement.
Warren Bardsley, former EA, supernumerary in tamworth and Lichfield Circuit.
21st February 2010

Neil Stubbens said...

I've looked back to read these blogs after your comments, Mr President, this past Friday. As both Audrey and Warren have said, it is very good that you and the Vice-President have both visited and shared your experiences in this way.
Thank you for your support for justice and peace in the Holy Land.