A Lutheran Voice from Bethlehem

by eileen fleming

[Bethlehem, West Bank] On July 25, 2007, Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb,
captivated over forty international youth who attended Sabeel's
[http://sabeel.org] Second International Conference: 40 Years in the
Wilderness…40 Years of Occupation…

Born in Bethlehem, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, has been the Pastor of the
Evangelical Lutheran Christmas church in Bethlehem since 1988. He is
the General Director of the International Center of Bethlehem/ICB,
which provides the people of occupied territory training in arts,
crafts, training and degrees in media and communications and health
and wellness programs for youth and the elderly.

Raheb spoke with passion, "People need to see the potential of
Palestine and Palestinians come to this center to create facts on
the ground; creative and cultural facts on the ground while Israel
creates destructive facts on the ground.

"We are not spectators, we have a role to play…we are nonviolent but
I have problems with nonviolence; people from abroad come here and
give us sermons on nonviolence and I appreciate it, but why don't
they preach nonviolence to Israel and America?

"It's a miracle that the Palestinians are so nonviolent in spite of
the abuse we live with on a daily basis. If you lived here every day
you would get fed up too. The world assumes it is the Palestinians
who are the violent ones, but nonviolence is who we are. If you
operate in a system of violence you will also be violent when you go

"Palestinians who throw stones; and many think that is ok, but I say
why do that? One day you will throw stones at Palestinians too and
that is exactly what happened in Gaza, but the reason is the
occupation! Where do you think Hamas learned to torture? In Israeli
prisons from their captors!

"There is no way to end the violence without first ending the
occupation. Our Palestinian government was boycotted for a year and
a half by America and the EU: this is violence! As long as the
violence is exercised against us that is OK with the world. When the
Presbyterians talked divestment the Zionist rose up and said 'you
can't do that!'

"I started interfaith dialogue in 1985 because Christians should not
be islands and you don't dialogue just with yourself, you must
dialogue with the other and the biggest temptation for the church is
to stay within their walls and only be dedicated to their own
members; which leads to a dead church. We are called to go out, and
we do not just preach with words, people here are fed up with words;
they hear one thing and see another with their eyes.

"They hear peace, peace, peace and for 85 years the politicians have
been working for peace and the situation gets worse. Blair, and all
the politicians are into PR for themselves; they do nothing for our
situation. Blair got himself a good job marketing himself and he
will come and go and Israel will continue building the wall,
settlements and carving the West Bank into Swiss cheese; Israel gets
the cheese and we Palestinians fall into the holes!

"Fifty million American dollars went to build the checkpoints
to 'make our lives easier' we were told, but these checkpoints and
terminals are not for people, they are for cattle!

"We have too much religion and it suffocates us! If God would speak
today he would say, 'I am fed up with your religion!' The more
religion there is; the less spirituality.

"During the Israeli invasion in 2002 when the Church of Nativity was
occupied by the IDF and Palestinians were sheltered within, as an
eyewitness I wrote 18 short stories that will keep you awake at
night, in my book Bethlehem Besieged.

Immediately after Rev. Raheb spoke, I and my friend Daniel-who was
born and lives in downtown Bethlehem-walked about a mile from the
International Center to the nearly 60 year old Aida refugee camp,
home to Palestinian Muslims who fled from their homes in 1948.

Just before entering the winding narrow alleys of the camp an old
woman eating ice cream under the covered porch of a small grocery
story caught my eye, as she only had one good one.

I asked Daniel to ask her if she knew any mothers with sons who
would speak to me about their life in occupied territory.
Immediately the diminutive lady dressed in traditional Palestinian
Muslim attire, jumped up from her chair and beckoned me to sit down.
Her grandson then appeared from inside the store and offered me and
Daniel an ice cream bar. Within three minutes, his parents also
arrived and I learned –via Daniel who acted as translator- that the
23 year old grandson in our midst is the only one of six brothers,
who has not yet been imprisoned. The family is from Abu Gush, where
a settlement now stands upon their homeland.

Mahmoud has been incarcerated for the last two years without charges
and his first day in court was scheduled for July 26, 2007.

Mustafa has been imprisoned for eight years. He worked for the
Palestinian police and was picked up for carrying a gun. I was told
that a few years back, Ariel Sharon released him and for ten months
he walked as free as one can, in occupied territory. One day the
Israeli soldiers returned and picked him back up, claiming, "his
release had been a mistake." The family believes a camp spy turned
Mustafa in for being 'active' against the occupation.

I asked if he were Hamas or Fatah and was told; neither, that he is
just like many others who resist the occupation but who are not

Sadaam in now 16 and has spent the last two years behind bars. His
mother travels to one of the two main prisons for children –
constructed with the assistance of USA tax dollars-under the age of
17 in Haifa, every few weeks and has been refused visits many times.
She did see him two weeks ago and although healthy and clean, he is
thin, depressed and angry. Sadaam was charged with having a knife,
but his family denies the charge.

Daniel tells me it is common practice for the IDF to claim rocks
were thrown at them and they were attacked with knives.

After I am offered beverages, the father of the clan stays at the
store while grandma takes my hand and her daughter and grandson lead
us to their home tucked within the narrow alleys of Aida camp.

Upon the living room wall is a landscape mural with a bullet hole
delivered by the IDF. Pieces of exquisite art work were brought to
me, all made in prison by the three sons. Their mother brings them
pieces of silk, ribbons, fabric, buttons, gold and white beads,
cardboard boxes, paints and the 'terrorists' who are in actuality
artisans created a replica of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a sail boat,
plaques and finger sized icons inscribed with hearts and names of
family and friends. I am offered one constructed out of the top
cover of a mattress; it is barely an inch wide and two inches long,
stuffed a quarter of an inch think and sown by hand. In Arabic it
say's "Sadaam and Khalid" who is a friend recently released from

On one of the plaques which the grandmother held on her lap during
my two hour visit, is inscribed: "To my loved ones, I left my life
in the shadows, the life without you is too painful to even mention.
See you later. -Mahmoud and Sadaam."

The young sister of the brothers, mother to two small boys tells
Daniel, "I left Gaza on March 20, 2007. My husband has been there
ever since he was sent there in 2002, after Bethlehem was besieged.

"It began on an ordinary day, helicopters and airplanes circled
above and tanks came up the street. The soldiers were on the roof
and breaking in doors and through walls. The resistance fighters and
many young people ran to Manger Square. The soldiers stole money and
jewelry. The Franciscan father Abraham Feltus sheltered my husband
in the Church of the Nativity. After it was all over, I went and
prayed and lit candles there."

Reported by the National Catholic Reporter on 4/26/2002, "the
standoff between the Israeli Defense Force and the 250 Palestinians
holed up inside the church along with 45 monks, nuns and priests…is
taking a toll on both those inside the church and without. Bethlehem
residents living near Manger Square, where the church is located,
continue to live under curfew. The Israeli army has said it will
continue its siege, which began April 3, until it captures about 30
men inside the church whom the army says are wanted as terrorists.

"Reached by telephone April 16, Franciscan Fr. Amjad Sabbara, parish
priest at St. Catherine's Church, the Latin church that adjoins the
1,400-year, old Orthodox basilica enshrining Christ's birthplace,
said the most serious problem for all those at the Church of the
Nativity is water. The Nativity complex, which includes Catholic,
Orthodox and Armenian monasteries in addition to the basilica, has
one well. With some 250 more people now living there, water is
running low. So far, the Israelis have permitted the delivery of a
crate with 20 bottles of water, but no food. Sabbara reported that
those inside the church are living on one meal a day.

"A youth who escaped from the Church of the Nativity April 15
provided a fuller picture of the squalid conditions inside the
church. In an article printed in The New York Times April 17, 16-
year-old Jihad Abdul Rahman said cold and the stench from rotting
bodies and gangrenous wounds drove him from the church. There was no
water for washing and only one toilet for the 250 Palestinians
taking shelter inside the church, Rahman said.

"Dwindling supplies of food and water are not the only problems
those inside the church are contending with. The Israeli army is
exerting psychological pressure by blasting loud music and shrieking
cries at night as well as intermittent demands to those inside the
church to give themselves up.

"It's the Noriega technique," said Bethlehem resident Br. Kenneth
Cardwell, referring to the tactics the U.S. government adopted in
its efforts to dislodge former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega
from the Vatican embassy in Panama City where he sought refuge in
1989. "They play really repulsive music very loudly."

"They broadcast loud commands to surrender in the middle of night.
They explode huge explosive charges and then lesser flash-bangs I
call them. We're a half-mile away and we wake up five, six times a
night with this racket. There are blimps with a cable below. There's
been a drone flying overhead all day today.

Yesterday colored gasses wafted across the square," Cardwell said.
He added that a box dangling from a large crane the Israeli army has
brought into or close by Manger Square "gave a laser light show the
other night and that was pretty exciting."

"…all the computers of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem have
been destroyed in what he called a deliberate attempt by the Israeli
government to destroy the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian

Cardwell said, "We watch on TV the great support Israel is receiving
from the Jewish people in the United States. If they only knew what
this government is doing to the Palestinian people, they would
repent in dust and ashes. American Jewry has a very high sense of
moral responsibility for the widow, the stranger and the orphan, and
they just are blind to what the Israeli government is doing."


Bethlehem Beseiged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble
by Mitri Raheb