REPORT ABOUT THE JUSTICE AND PEACE MARCH 31/12/02 IN BETHLEHEM

 

On December 31, 2002 the Justice and Peace march was held in Bethlehem for the second time. Like last year the Heads of Churches from Jerusalem including the Latin Patriarch, Lutheran Bishop, Anglican Bishop, Greek-Orthodox Patriarch and Syriac-Orthodox Patriarch as well as Moslim dignatories from the Bethlehem area led the march, doing so hand in hand with the civil governor and mayor of Bethlehem and civil society leaders and PNA representatives (Nabil Shaath). Publicity was given in advance by several ads in two national newspapers, regular announcement on local TV and radio, and the distribution of some 10.000 flyers in the center of Bethlehem. Not surprisingly, the flyers elicited a discussion among people on the street whether or not to join a non-violent peace march. Reactions varied from curiosity to agreement, with few negative answers. Considering the pressures the Bethlehem community had undergone the curfewed weeks before, and the short time available for preparation, we were happy with the presence of some1000-2000 Palestinians and internationals, the last from especially Italy (the Cardinal of Florence participated and other Christian leaders from Italy) but also many other countries. In fact, many of the local population were understandably concerned about the personal or community-related consequences of joining a demonstration.

 

The marchers carried red-white hats with "Open Jerusalem" and "End occupation," written on it, and balloons to which prayers and wishes were attached collected through Pax Christi International, Pax Christi Netherlands, International Fellowship of Reconciliation and Church and Peace. Other slogans carried were: "Let Our Children Go To School" a reference to the obstacles Palestinian school children face due to closures and curfews and "Turn Checkpoints into Prayer Places a reference to the call of the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah in his Christmas message to do so, and other slogans claiming the right of religious freedom and protesting the curfews imposed on Palestinians cities ("curfew equals detention camps"). In a flyer distributed at the march it was said that the "Palestinian community in the Bethlehem area and beyond wishes to cherish an annual tradition of holding a community march on December 31. We do this with the sadness that presently fills our hearts but also in a spirit of hope and prayer. Led by religious and civil authorities, we follow the call to turn the checkpoint symbol of discrimination and fragmentation into a place of prayer that reflects our deep hopes for a better future."

 

The overall appearance of the march its size, atmosphere, religious and political character was comparable to the one of last year. The Israeli army erected an improvised barrier of soldiers near Rachel's Tomb to stop the marchers. A sharpshooter, turning his machine gun around, was stationed on top of a building along which the marchers passed. The outstanding feature of the march was its dignified character, with people walking calmly and even gaily showing a kind of spirited pleasure for being able to have a collective voice towards the world.

 

Contrary to last year's march, the demonstrators were not allowed to proceed to the main Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint. At an improvised checkpoint near Rachel's Tomb prayers were pronounced, religious songs sung, the birth of Jesus told according to the Bible and the Koran, and balloons lifted turning the impromptu checkpoint into a place of prayer. Several personalities gave speeches, emphasizing the connection between peace and justice. Patriarch Michel Sabbah lauded the determination and steadfastness of the people to continue to search for non-violent ways to reach peace, justice and security for both peoples, Palestinian and Israeli. He said that the opening of Jerusalem for persons from all religions and stopping the fragmentation of Palestinian communities and its separation from Jerusalem are essential for reaching a political solution. The governor of the Bethlehem area thanked the organizers as well as Pax Christi and CORDAID for their support to the march and emphasized Moslem-Christian cooperation in the preparations and implementation.

 

It could be noted that among the demonstrators were many women, older persons, youth, and both Christians and Moslems. Coverage included the international media (BBC and Reuters among others), Arab media (Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi etc.), and, extensively, the local Bethlehem media, especially Mahed TV. The demonstration was marked by good cooperation of an alliance of civil society organizations from the Bethlehem area including Arab Educational Institute, Wi'am, Rapprochment, Bethlehem Bible College, Holy Land Trust, the Scouts Movement and Arab Orthodox Society, all in good cooperation with the civil and religious authorities, and coordinated by AEI as secretary. Some days before, on December 24, during the patriarch's entry into Bethlehem, the same group of institutions took the initiative of holding a demonstration in front of the Church of Nativity along the Patriarch's route. That demonstration too received wide publicity all over the world due to the occasion and the presence of many pilgrims. Prompted by the latest activities, many civil leaders and community members in the Bethlehem area are now discussing the value of the march and non-violent activities in general.

 

Meanwhile, a few hours after the 31/12 demonstration, before midnight, a curfew was announced for the Bethlehem area which lasted till mid-day January 1, preventing the people from conducting proper New Year celebrations. On January 2, a sudden curfew was announced at 14:00 which led people rushing home. The curfew has been prolonged during Saturday.

 

The organizers of the march are grateful for the funding by CORDAID, a Dutch development organization, of the logistics of the march.

 

Arab Educational Institute

Bethlehem - January 3, 2003