Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, a French woman, Madame Dortel-Claudot, and a French Bishop, Pierre-Marie Theas, began a movement to pray for peace and reconciliation between their country and Germany. It disturbed them terribly that two supposedly Catholic Christian countries could have been at war with each other, killing each other’s people. Seventy years later, Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement, the outgrowth of that simple beginning, spreads across six continents and continues the work of prayer, study, and action for peace, justice, and reconciliation.
To celebrate these 70 years of peacemaking, Pax Christi International invited its members to a conference in Bethlehem from May 13th to the 17th, 2015. What more appropriate place for a movement that was founded on reconciliation to gather than a place that cries out for reconciliation today!
And taking advantage of the moment, 29 members and friends of Pax Christi USA not only accepted the invitation, but also became pilgrims for two weeks exploring the Holy Land largely walking in the footsteps of its Living Stones. The Living Stones Pilgrimage was organized by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) and led by Bob Cooke of Pax Christi Metro DC/Baltimore. It focused not on the ancient remains of architecture and artifacts, but on the people who continue to breathe life into this region rich in history, religion, and culture. In particular, it enabled us to share in the joys and sorrows of Palestinians, mostly Christian but Muslim as well, who struggle to survive in a place that is occupied and severely oppressed. In this Kerux Live! I would like to introduce you to some of those remarkable, at times tragic, Living Stones with just a few highlights. To tell the full story would require a small book, which may yet come, but not now.
First there were the students of Bethlehem University who live within the confines of Israeli occupation but still insist there is no hatred. Hatred is useless, a waste of energy, they said. They believe that it is the will of the people on both sides (Israel and Palestine) to have peace, but not the will of those in power.
Then there was the Regional Director of the Bethlehem Museum of Culture and Heritage who told us about the struggle he and his wife are enduring to get their baby daughter a permanent Israeli ID like her mother, rather than a Palestinian ID like her father, because there are more advantages with an Israeli ID.
At the Aida Refugee Camp, the Living Stones were young boys probably between 10 and 12 years old. They were playing outside a community center when Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers decided to toss tear gas at them, we were told because they had wandered beyond the entrance to the Camp. No words, just an unprovoked assault that is part of the uncertainty of daily life in the Occupied Territories.
At Tent of Nations, a Palestinian family farm which Israel has been trying to confiscate for many years, we heard Daoud Nassar note that there are three ways to respond to the Israeli occupation: violence which only begets more violence, despair and inactivity, and evacuation. But he and his family reject all three, so they have adopted a fourth way—nonviolence—which they teach to visitors and volunteers.
In Hebron, again the Living Stones that stood out for me were children. At the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the mosque on the Muslim side, one adorable little girl shyly approached me with great curiosity and a huge smile. I reached out my hand and said Salam. She delightedly gave me her hand and then ran to get a littler girl, probably her sister, to do the same. As heart-warming a moment as that was, the other was heart-wrenching. A little boy was trying to sell a Palestine bracelet to a fellow pilgrim. As she went to purchase the bracelet, an IDF soldier charged down a flight of stairs to shove the boy away and yell at him. We can only imagine how such abusive treatment affects this Living Stone.
Back in Bethlehem is Wi’Am Conflict Resolution Center. The founder and director is a Living Stone overflowing with knowledge and wisdom. Among the many striking things he said were these: They do not actually want resolution but transformation. Their interest is in restorative justice to help everyone live freely. There must be collective responsibility; win-win, not zero-sum. Trust is greater than fear. We need to embrace the truth. Hope is a form of nonviolent struggle, and there is cause for hope. We need to bring people to their senses, not to their knees.
Combatants for Peace are Living Stones from both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide, people who are veterans of either the IDF or Palestinian resistance. We met with a young woman IDF vet and a young Palestinian man who spent over 10 years in prison for violent assault on Israeli soldiers at the age of 14. He told us how he learned about Gandhi, Mandela, and nonviolence in jail, which he called “Restorative U,” and then co-founded Combatants for Peace. She told us how she learned about the Palestinian plight from working with Palestinians in Jerusalem after her military service. Together they shared the three principles of Combatants for Peace: 1) bi-national decision-making and leadership to promote activism for change, 2) belief in nonviolence, and 3) the end to Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Two Living Stones we met were totally unplanned and unexpected. PCI held a Candlelight Vigil in Manger Square, Bethlehem to commemorate Nakba (Catastrophe) when Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the new state of Israel in 1948. Both men just happened by as we were praying, singing, and listening to testimonies. The first was teary-eyed as he thanked us for our presence and our support. The second man revealed that he was recently released from over 20 years in prison. He, too, thanked us and urgently appealed for peace and freedom.
Some of the most vibrant Living Stones live in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam/Oasis of Peace, a village founded by a priest nearly 50 years ago in Israel. It is totally bi-lingual, bi-cultural, and bi- (or tri-) faith. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam is a model of what the Holy Land could be where the children learn together, adults gather to learn from each other, and all people face the issues of the day with openness and a sincere desire to understand.
The Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions is another source of Living Stones. A vibrant young woman named Ruth reported on her work supporting Israeli Palestinians whose homes are subject to demolition for any of three reasons: punitive, administrative, or military. She also spoke of the challenge of Permanent Residency for Israeli Palestinians and the risk both Israeli Palestinians and Jews take should they protest.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights, “a zionist with a small z” as he described himself, offered his own solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict: a Federation similar to that of Belgium.
As delightful as the little girls were at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron were the members of the HCEF Senior Center at Birzeit, Palestine. As we shared lunch with them, chatted, and danced, we learned of their various families locally and in exile in the U.S. and other parts of the globe, the bittersweet emotions of separation, the longing for freedom, and the joy of community.
Even the shopkeepers proved to be Living Stones, offering hospitality each time we entered a store, offering us cool drinks and, sometimes, sweets.
Our last encounter with Living Stones on this pilgrimage was with three women from Musalaha, which means reconciliation, a very appropriate place to conclude a trip made possible by a peace movement founded on reconciliation. The women of Musalaha, mostly Jewish and Christian, work to address and de-escalate fear through listening to each other’s stories, exercising self-criticism, praying together, reaching out to others in need. As the Director said about their work: “If my theology doesn’t bless the other person, then there’s something wrong with my theology.”
Should you ever visit the Holy Land yourself, be sure to meet with the Living Stones there. If any of the Living Stones we met on this Pax Christi pilgrimage aroused further interest on your part, they can be found on the web. I encourage you to read more about them there.