Thursday, 19 July 2007

Holy sites & unholy conflict

When I first wanted to visit the Holy Land, as a teenager, my top priority was visiting the Holy sites. Now that I'm here, for this conference, it doesn't seem so important. But it would be stupid not to and besides, it's the holy sites that put the conflict into context.

The Upper Room, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, views of the Mt. of Olives - it's all very impressive and full of people, but what does it mean? Most of the sites are disputed. All bear the marks of religious division, whether it's the Upper Room changing from church to mosque or the division of the Holy Sepulchre between the different Christian churches. Stood in front of the site of the crucifixion I feel overcome by the number of people bowing, crossing themselves, kissing stone, wiping scarves in perfumed oil... None of this is what my faith is based on. I don't need to do these things to know that I have a personal relationship with God. Also, how sure can we be that THIS is where Jesus died? That it's where he's buried? Making this comment to someone in the group, he pointed out (very helpfully) that it doesn't matter. What does matter is that He rose again - the resurrection is what we believe in and I don't need any physical site to convince me of it.

Afternoon seminars with Albert Agharizian and UN-OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsin the OPT) brought home the reality of the conflict's history and the present reality. Learning a brief overview of the history of the conflict was at times damming - each of our nations seemed to have contributed towards it - and generally dis-spiriting. But at the end of it, Albert left us with the encouragement to "tell stories and dream dreams". That's what this conference is about I suppose, to have the ability to tell stories on our return, to dream the dream of a resolution and to seek ways of making that dream a reality.

Listening to our OCHA briefing, the present reality was brought home to us in shocking detail. A few stats:
- Poverty has increased from 23% to 67% (88% in Gaza)
- 550 physical obstacles in the West Bank
- The "security barrier" wall stretches for 703km, yet the Green Line is only 320km long.
Seeing all the barriers and restrictions on a map was mind-blowing, especially when listening to the affects they have on people's day to day life.

One story:
Jerusalem is the only place in the West Bank with good paedeatrics facilities. Allegra told us of a mother from Bethlehem whose son was seriously ill with leukemia - the only place he could be treated was in Jerusalem. As a child, he did not need permits to get through the checkpoints - his family did. He had been in hospital 3 days and was already diagnosed as brain dead by the time his mother was able to (illegally) enter the city.

And to close, just something to consider:
If Mary & Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, it would be impossible without the right permits. Mary would probably give birth at a checkpoint! (As do many mothers every year.)

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