Received on 1,7,2003

Reflections of the Inter-Conference Delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Conference of Religious in England and Wales

"I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people.  No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying."  (Is 65:18-19)

These words of Isaiah, taken from the liturgy of the first day of Advent are as important today as they were when Isaiah first spoke them to the people of Israel.  The sounds and sights of the suffering of many people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories have filled our media.  We have seen the faces of people living in fear, mourning the death and destruction that has enveloped this ancient land for decades, and which has escalated the last two years.  The daily reports of violence and death numb us to the reality of the life experienced by Israelis and Palestinians.  We cannot allow ourselves to become immune to the suffering of people, for they are our sisters and brothers.

At this time when the threat of war in the Middle East grows each day, we, the leadership of the Religious Conferences of the United States, England and Wales, visited the Holy Land to listen to the experiences of many people including those living under occupation and fear; to see the extent of the destruction - physical, emotional, economic, and spiritual - that has been inflicted upon the people of the region and to offer our solidarity at a time when holy seasons speak of peace while governments threaten war.  We would like to share with you some of the images and reflections from our recent visit.

Meetings were held with Israeli and Palestinian government officials; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders; those committed to working toward reconciliation and peace; and citizens and residents of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  We did not see the terrible effects of attacks against Israeli citizens, but became poignantly aware of how such attacks, usually against civilians, including children, fill Israelis with the fear and despair that can undermine any commitment to justice. We saw the devastating effects that decades of occupation have had on the Palestinian people, particularly the violent re-occupation of areas that were, until recently, under the Palestinian Authority.  The damage done by the re-occupation has destroyed the infrastructure of Palestinian cities - buildings have been bombed and bulldozed, roads have been destroyed, utilities have been disrupted, homes have been razed.  The closures and curfews have destroyed the daily life of the Palestinian people.  They are unable to work or shop for basic necessities and children are unable to attend school.  Like Jesus who experienced humiliation at his crucifixion, the Palestinian people experience humiliation daily during the closures and curfews.

We experienced the violence at the checkpoints where ambulances are halted as they transport people to hospitals.  We watched as one ambulance was stopped and inspected.
We heard many reports of people who died as they were held at checkpoints, unable to reach the hospitals where they could receive critical medical treatment.  The harassment of individuals by Israeli soldiers is commonplace.  Often Palestinians are forced to wait in long lines before passing and quite often they are refused permission to cross checkpoints.  Our own delegation was stopped several times at various checkpoints.  At one checkpoint the young Israeli soldier checking our passports and our driver's papers said, rather sarcastically, Israel "does not mess with the U.S. or the U.K." we saw the way they did "mess" with the Palestinians, when we were crossing the checkpoint from Gaza back into Israel where a young mother and her three children were standing in the rain waiting for approval to cross. In the Palestinian people, Jesus still suffers at the checkpoints.

The Israeli settlements, a form of systemic violence, ring the Palestinian villages.  Water, precious to all the people of the region, is diverted from the Palestinian villages where water is provided two days a week, to the settlements which have unlimited access to water.  In violation of international covenants, U.N. resolutions, and peace agreements that Israel has endorsed, the settlement of land in the Palestinian Territories goes on at a rapid rate, transferring large numbers of Israelis to Palestinian lands, often forcing Palestinians from their ancestral homes in the name of security.  These settlements divide the Palestinian Territories, preventing Palestinians from freedom of movement in their own lands.  As these settlements increase in number and size they destroy any hope of a viable Palestinian State.  Through the confiscation of land and the expansion of settlements, Palestinian families, like the family of Jesus, are forced into homelessness and exile.

In the midst of this, we had to ask ourselves, "Where is the hope?"  Surrounded by destruction and death, how do we as women and men Religious find new life and resurrection?

We were privileged to meet women and men; Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians and Muslims who, in spite of the oppression and occupation, are seeking paths of peace and work for justice.  They are providing humanitarian aid to those in need. They are speaking out against the injustice and violence, often at great personal cost. While they live in fear and say there is little hope, they are the very embodiment of hope.  They are bringing life by their acts of peaceful resistance, powerless especially in relation to the military might of the Israeli government.  Their moral strength enables them to challenge the current situation and work to bring about justice and peace in the region.

They also challenged us.  They are deeply disappointed that the international voice is virtually silent in the face of occupation, oppression and violence.  They say that it is a "roaring silence."  And they have asked us to speak out in our own Christian communities, our own nations, and in the international community.  This is a challenge that we must accept and that we pass on to you, the members of our Conferences.

We condemn violence in all its forms in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, especially that violence from both sides that targets innocent civilians.  In particular we condemn the excessive violence of the Israeli military, which has targeted civilian populations.  We believe that peace will come only when the injustice of occupation ends and the Palestinian people can live securely in their own nation.  We also believe that Israel will not know peace and security until a Palestinian homeland is realized.  We will call on our governments to urge the Israeli government to end the occupation and withdraw to the borders required in U.N.S.C. resolution 242.  We also plead for restraint from Palestinians who have turned to acts such as suicide bombings out of frustration and hopelessness. We also reject the logic of those who seek to legitimate these tactics.  As one of our hosts told us, "Only peace will bring peace, only justice will bring justice."  Violence whether state-mandated or the acts of desperate individuals will only bring more violence.

We also call on our governments to urge the Israeli government to cease all expansion of settlement, which includes stopping all new building and all transfer of people to the settlements.  We will call on our governments to urge the Israeli government to cease construction of the wall that will further divide this land and impede the already constricted freedom of movement of the Palestinian people.

During our time together moments of despair and hope and the challenge of the people we met allowed us to enter into and share our reflections on the suffering so evident to us.  Our personal and group reflections were a valued and necessary mutual support facing such a searing reality.  We were aware of the danger of the moment but with help from our hosts and from one another we were enabled to see beyond the danger to accept the passion of the experience in the richest meaning of the word.  We are convinced there are potentially great advantages in having our Conferences work collaboratively in developing a plan of support and solidarity for the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  We are committed to building such a partnership as we continue to address this issue.  As women and men religious from England, Wales, and the United States, we recognize that we have a great responsibility to heed the challenge of our friends in the Holy Land by raising the awareness of their reality and to act effectively in our congregations, our ministries and our respective countries.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who gives us the gift of peace, may we embody that peace by working for justice for the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories so that the words of the Prophet Isaiah will be realized:  "Peace, peace to the far and the near."  (Isaiah 57:19).

Canice Connors, OFM.Conv.  President, Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Margaret Scott, ACI, President, Conference of Religious in England and Wales
Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM, President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Nicholas Postlethwaite, CP,Vice President,Conference of Religious in England and Wales