District Office, Beckminster Methodist Church, Wolverhampton, WV3 7BQ

The Holy Land

Israel Palestine February 2016

It was pouring with rain and cold. It felt like England! The water was enough to flood some of the more minor roads. As we went through the Beit Jala checkpoint the young soldiers looked even more uninterested than ever, that is uninterested except for a car with Palestinians in it that was being searched with considerable care. It was my first time back in the West Bank since the beginnings of the stabbings that had raised the tensions since last October. I say that the stabbings had done so, to be fair it was both the stabbings and the response to them that, according to the UN figures, have left over ten thousand Palestinians needing medical treatment and too many Israeli and Palestinians dead.

I was here to meet people and to prepare for taking up my role as a Mission Partner in Jerusalem next September. I have been appointed to work alongside Rev Kristen Brown from the United Methodist Church (of the USA) in the Methodist Liaison Office at Tantur. Life is complicated in Israel Palestine – I was about to say Tantur in Jerusalem, and Israelis would agree – but Tantur always used to be Bethlehem and Palestinians would still understand it in that way. It lies in the “seam zone.” When the Israeli Separation Barrier was build it wasn’t built upon the internationally agreed border of Israel (the so called “Green Line”) but considerably closer to Bethlehem. The area between the Green Line and the Separation Barrier is known as the “seam zone.”

Tantur is an interesting place itself. It was a Hospital run by the Austrian Knights of Malta. In 1972 it became an Ecumenical Institute for Theological Study. It stands on a small hill with views over Jerusalem in one direction and Bethlehem in the other. Somehow it seems right – it looks both ways. If you walk from its front gate you are almost immediately in the Gilo Settlement. If you go out the back gate a five minutes’ walk takes you to Checkpoint 300 the busiest of the checkpoints between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Here at Tantur people come from all over the world to study for three month periods in a Christian Ecumenical setting inside the Holy Land. It’s aims are wider however. There is an in house Jewish Scholar who has begun a “Praying Together in Jerusalem” once a month at Jaffa Gate.

It was the first interfaith event I have been to since arriving here. At the appointed time there were perhaps a dozen Jews and about twice the number of Christians. Some months there had been Muslims present as well, sadly not in February. An opening meditation and Jewish song gave way Christians and Jews praying in their own groups, alongside each other. Words of Hebrew could be heard over the prayers, readings and songs of the Christian worship. We then came together for some more songs and the passing of the peace – watched, by now, by quite a gathering of people who had been passing.

What a contrast to the Damascus Gate just round the Jerusalem wall. It has been the site of a number of stabbings and shootings in the last few months. The day before I arrived a Palestinian had been shot dead, during a demonstration there. It’s a place many people across the world know well, for many it’s the place where they first enter the Old City of Jerusalem. I walked past on Sunday and in an opening above the gate sat two Israeli Soldiers, one looking through the sight of a machine gun mounted on a tripod, ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.

Did it feel different this time to previous visits? Yes it did. So many of the conversations with Israeli’s or Palestinians were hedged around by the perception that there is no political process in existence, and the frustration levels and fears that predominate in both communities leave the feeling that something unpleasant is ahead. Do I feel safe here – yes I do – I almost always have.

The journey back into Bethlehem from Tantur is easier than the way in. We’re through the checkpoint after a quick wave of my passport and a quick response to the question “what nationalities are you?”

This will – In’ shallah – God willing – be home from September. Please pray for peace with Justice in Palestine and Israel.

John Howard

Tantur to Jerusalem