By Timothy Seidel
September 21st marked the International Day of Prayer for Peace. In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring September 21st of each year as the International Day of Peace. For the third year in a row, the World Council of Churches also invited member churches around the globe to pray for peace on September 21st.
Here in Bethlehem, many Palestinians marked this event as well. Last year, meeting at a monastery that continues to be threatened by the construction of Israel’s separation barrier, friends from local organizations such as the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, the East Jerusalem YMCA – Beit Sahour branch, the Bethlehem Bible College, as well as a number of other organizations joined together to remember this day. There were thoughts and prayers shared, speeches and encouraging words given, and songs sung that bore witness to a living hope in the midst of death and despair.
Following the meeting, we all gathered for a prayer vigil. We left the monastery grounds and proceeded toward the Wall. Towering above us at around twenty-six feet or eight meters high, some of the most valuable land in this “little town” of Bethlehem has been expropriated by the state of Israel to make room for this monstrosity of concrete. This monastery itself was in danger, but through the efforts of both local and international advocacy, the path of the Wall was rerouted so as to not infringe on the church’s property “too much”—for now.
It has been over two years since International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that this Wall was illegal and that it should be dismantled and the people whose lives it has impacted compensated. But it was only the week before this vigil that the Israeli supreme court, hearing a petition from five Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank devastated by this Wall, ruled that its construction beyond the internationally recognized boundary known as the “Green Line” was legal, disregarding the voice of international law.
This ruling only reinforced the point that the construction of this Wall is a unilateral move by an occupying power in violation of international law. Palestinian livelihoods continue to be devastated in the process as more land is being expropriated for the construction of this 430-mile or 700-kilometer barrier that has little to do with security and terrorism, built not on the Green Line” but instead on Palestinian land, cutting deeply into the West Bank.
The Wall continues to have a very destructive impact on Palestinians living under occupation. Palestinian farmers are cut off from their land with some forced to watch their harvest rot on their trees while others watch their trees uprooted to make way for the Wall. Where I live, in Bethlehem, the completed Wall will make this community a virtual prison, with only three points of entry or exit. This adds more stress to an already devastated economic situation for Palestinians where unemployment figures are as high as sixty percent across the West Bank.
Unfortunately, the construction of this Wall is just one more chapter in a long history of Palestinian dispossession. Whether it is more land being expropriated for the construction of this separation barrier, the dramatic growth of illegal settlements, including in and around Jerusalem—essentially cutting this important city off from the rest of the West Bank in an effort to create a “Greater Jerusalem” depopulated of its Palestinian citizens, the proliferation of a closure system of checkpoints and roadblocks that obstruct mobility, the demolition of homes and other forms of collective punishment, the one-big-prison-status of Gaza, or the continuing state of dispossession of seven million Palestinians refugees worldwide, Palestinian livelihoods are devastated by military occupation and their experience of dispossession continues unabated.
And now, it appears that this separation barrier will become the de facto border of a Palestinian quasi-state composed of several isolated islands of land on roughly forty to fifty percent of the West Bank. Palestinians will be confined to what some call “reservations,” or, evoking South Africa under apartheid, “Bantustans,” which will be partially connected by a network of tunnels controlled by the Israeli military. Industrial zones may then be established at the edges of these areas so that businesses can take advantage of a cheap, imprisoned labor pool. Israel’s declaration earlier this year to unilaterally set these borders in a larger plan to solidify control over the West Bank known as “convergence” only reaffirms this sad reality and destroys any hope for a two-state solution to this terrible conflict. Absent a viable, contiguous Palestinians state, what remains is a “reservation” life for Palestinians parallel to the Native North American experience in the United States. Not a very optimistic future.
I kept coming back to these thoughts as we began walking along the path of the Wall. I looked up to see what was happening on the faces of those around me. It would have been a beautiful sight if not for the ugliness of this visually and physically imposing structure. I saw a mixture of Palestinians and internationals, joined in solidarity. But what was more beautiful was the mixture of Palestinian Christians around me—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. And even more beautiful was the sight of Palestinian Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters together, defying all of the dehumanizing stereotypes of “Muslim vs. Christian” used to create internal conflict among Palestinians and distract the world form the role the illegal Israeli occupation plays in the suffering of these people.
At one point we stopped in front of a gate in the Wall which will serve as one of Bethlehem’s only entrances /exits when the Wall is finished, and somebody offered a prayer. When we began to walk again, we all started to pray, singing the words of the Christian liturgy in Arabic:
Ya Rabba ssalami amter ‘alayna ssalam,
Ya Rabba ssalami im la’ qulubana ssalam.
Ya Rabba ssalami amter ‘alayna ssalam,
Ya Rabba ssalami im’nah biladana ssalam.
Oh Lord of peace shower us with peace,
Oh Lord of peace fill our hearts with peace.
Oh Lord of peace shower us with peace,
Oh Lord of peace grant our land peace.
I had heard this liturgy so many times before, sung beautifully in the Palestinian Christian churches I have attended, but it carried with it so much power here, against this Wall. For here, it was a tangible, voiced protest against a tangible, concrete injustice. This simple prayer presented a loud “yes” to life and a resolute “no” to the death-dealing status quo of occupation, a reminder of what the late Dutch priest Henri Nouwen once wrote:
Only a loving heart, a heart that continues to affirm the life at all times and places, can say “No” to death without being corrupted by it…the first and foremost task of the peacemaker is not to fight death but to call forth, affirm, and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest. (Road to Peace, Orbis, 1998, p.42)
So often in my own faith experience back in the United States, I struggled with the sense of an irrelevance that faith and religion held in the face of the injustices of this world. But distanced and disinterested religious practices that serve little function in the larger context of global poverty, environmental degradation, or war (except perhaps as a means for some to distract, control, or even maintain structures of violence) have no place here.
Indeed, in this place, something so mundane as offering a prayer becomes a powerful form of resistance. It becomes a means by which the very essence of our faith takes on human form and “dwells among us” (John 1:14).
Advocacy—our active engagement with the “burning issues of our time”—continues to be so important, and not simply an option for the life of the Christian. For as the writer of Micah asks us still “What does the Lord require?”
But to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Raising our voices against injustice is inseparable to our faith witness. And just like with the monastery in Bethlehem, our actions can make a difference.
As we take time to pray for peace in this and in other lands, may our prayers lead us in action to heed the call of Micah to pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Bethlehem is the place where we claim the incarnational presence of “God with us” was first made known to humanity. Still today, this divine contextualization continues. How will we respond?
-Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past two years.