It proved to be a wonderful pilgrimage. How better spend a Friday in
the Holy Land? There were eight of us leaving from Jerusalem (4 members
of CPT [Christian Peacemaking team] including Sr. Anne Montgomery who recruited
me for this peace action, plus Henry Carse from St. George's Anglican school,
Michael Thomas, co-pastor of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, Clarence Musgrave,
pastor of St Andrew's Church of Scotland, and myself). We went by changing
vans along various back roads until we were able to get to the municipal
hospital in Bethlehem. Then we hiked up an empty Cinema St until stopped
by soldiers who only wanted to delay us because they had just blown up
a house and were on alert for gunmen. We hoped no one was in the house
when they took the action. The only other
people outside at the time were a number of TV journalists, most of them in flak jackets. So we waited and chatted with one another while the soldiers crouched with their rifles ready - many came in an APC (armored personnel carrier). After a short wait they got back inside the APC and drove off. Then other soldiers came back down the street and told us we still could not go any further up Cinema St., so we walked back down to the main crossroads and up another way to Bethlehem University. Several
of the TV people wanted to know what we were doing and asked to come with us but CPT discouraged them. At the University I met several of the Brothers, all of whom I know well, outside on the campus. Later inside their residence I met several more of the Brothers - their hospitality is always so gracious. I am sure they were happy to see us. I know I was very happy seeing them again, and in such good spirits, although Bro. Vincent's face reflected some of the enormous strain he has been under this last month as University President. A few remarks were made about the lead story in the NCR (National Catholic Reporter) this week which concerned the occupation of Bethlehem University. Apparently interviews were conducted by phone about 3 AM one morning, so the phrasing of some of their thoughts came out quite differently when read in broad daylight!
Our group waited for three other CPT members coming from Hebron. Then some plans were discussed about what we hoped to do. The main purpose was to try to get food to the people inside Nativity Church. CPT had brought bags of bread, and then the seminary in Beit Jala gave them milk and cheese to bring, if not to the church then to the families near Manger Square that have been completely under curfew and thus unable to do any shopping. (Even today when the curfew was lifted for four hours at 1 PM, none of those who live in the Manger Square area were permitted to leave their homes.) Shortly before one, after prayer we moved together from the University past the Star Hotel where many ISM (International Solidarity Movement) people are staying, down to "Paul VI Street" the main shopping area, and headed toward Manger Square. Still we met no one in the street. We were already in the area of total curfew. The destruction, if not devastating, was widespread. Broken glass covered the sidewalk, facades of buildings and shops severely damaged. Cars with windows smashed completely or riddled with bullets lined parts of the curb. Many were shoved aside and wrecked by either tanks or bulldozers. It looked precisely like a street where a mini-war had been carried out, which was probably the case.
Soon ahead of us was the empty expanse of Manger Square (up to
this time we had met no one.) Into Manger Square we went, still no soldiers,
then as we were about 2/3 of the way across Manger Square, a voice called
out, "Halt. Stay where you are." (The entrance to Nativity Church was just
over 100 meters away). We turned to try to find out who was calling from
where. As I glanced around I saw the mosque on Manger Square that looked
like it had been gutted by fire - not a great deal of external structural
damage, but much of the exterior was blackened by smoke. We decided that
the voice belonged to a rooftop soldier. We talked with him, telling him
what we were there for. (I noticed a tank in the corner of the square swing
its turret around in our direction) "You can't go into the church." "But
we are Christians and this is the birthplace of Our Lord." Same response.
By now other soldiers came up to us. We told them we had food for the people
in the church, many of whom are families with children. "You can't take
food in there." "We'll just take it to the door of the church, leave it
and turn around." "No. No food to the church. There are 150 terrorists
inside and they will shoot you." "We are not worried about the "terrorists"
shooting us; that is not at all our concern." We talked for five or ten
minutes, quite civilly, and one soldier said he would try to get the food
to the people - maybe to the Franciscans -- but could not promise anything.
Anyway we left a bit of the food with him. Several of the other soldiers
again about being shot by the "terrorists" in the church. Obviously it was something they believed strongly. The commanding officer then arrived and insisted we leave the Square immediately. We said we wanted to pray. "Not here." We followed them away from the church to the far end of the Square where we formed a circle and knelt in prayer (the soldiers wanted us to go further away from the church.) They seemed afraid that we or they would be shot by the "terrorists." We prayed for all the people who were there and for their safety and well being and for a peaceful resolution of the situation, and we prayed that the presence of Christ would somehow be manifested in this crazy standoff of power against power, violence against violence.
We then made our way back up the road to the Lutheran Christmas Church. We walked into the rectory and were greeted warmly by Mitri Raheb, pastor of the church, and his wife. Most of the others knew them well. We sat around and chatted about the events. Mitri is suffering from the remnants of pneumonia. On the evening of the invasion he went outside in his T-shirt and then he was forced to stand outside for three hours in the cold. He is still not back to full strength. One reason perhaps is the hundreds of interviews he has given by phone to various news media about the invasion of Bethlehem.
As we started to leave, we heard some shooting again, this time very close by, but as we gingerly stuck our faces out the door it seemed safe enough to go. I think, in retrospect, that the cause of the shooting was that some who live in the total curfew zone were trying to get back to their homes after breaking curfew to get needed supplies, and the soldiers were not letting them return. At the time that thought did not cross my mind. Maybe we could have helped some of them get home with their food supplies. The rest of the walk was uneventful. We waved to the people and greeted them as we walked, and they appreciated the show of support. When we drew near the University I dropped off to visit Peter DuBruhl, SJ, who had just received word of his brother's death. Peter was not at home, but I left word with one of his neighbors.
From the University we hiked back to the checkpoint. Again, the people we met, only a few in number despite the curfew lifting, seemed pleased that we were there. It took us fifteen minutes or so at the checkpoint itself. The soldiers said at first we could not cross there (where else could we cross?) So we just stayed there, and asked again and were refused again. On the third or fourth try they said OK. On the other side Susan Thomas, Michael's wife, met us and we all eleven somehow piled into their van. I arrived home to the news that a suicide bomber had hit the upper part of Jaffa Road just fifteen minutes earlier. First reports had at least four were killed (the number will grow) and a much larger number injured. Killing vs. killing, terror vs. terror, violence vs. violence-a "liturgy of death" it was termed at our evening Mass. But death cannot have the final word. We will again and again counter it somehow with our "liturgy of life."
Donald Moore, S.J.
Pontifical Biblical Institute