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Our visit to The Holy Land in 2008 (by Liz Sloan)

In November Chris and I joined a package holiday to Israel and Palestine organised by Riding Lights. They are a professional Christian theatre company, based in York, who use drama and comedy to tell people about Jesus, touring to schools and prisons as well as theatres. Riding Lights were invited by the Christian community in Palestine to pray for them and to tell the world about their plight. The result was Bridget Foreman's brilliant play, Salaam Bethlehem, which toured the UK in 2007; plans are afoot for a second tour. There was a third element to the invitation: to visit them, out of which our trip arose. We spent the first 3 nights at the wonderful Pilgerhaus on the shore of Lake Galilee (near the Church of the· Multiplication commemorating Jesus feeding the 5,000). From there we visited sites associated with Jesus and His teaching: Nazareth, Cana, Mount Tabor (believed to be the site of Jesus' Transfiguration), and the Mount of the Beatitudes. In most cases churches have been built at places significant to His ministry, thus changing the scene since then. Franciscan or Benedictine Orders tend to run the sites; they allow tourist groups to hold small acts of worship, either in the church, or at seating provided in the grounds. Our group leader was an Anglican vicar with long experience in leading pilgrimages, and readings, hymns, prayers or drama relevant to each location had been prepared. Holy Communion on Mount Tabor, at the Ecco Homo Church in Jerusalem, and at Emmaus, where Jesus appeared after his resurrection, were particularly memorable. So, too, were the numerous drama sketches provided by our five R.Lights actors. Day two started before breakfast with the scent of woodsmoke: our actors had a fire burning on the beach where they re-enacted the resurrected Jesus greeting his disciples after an unsuccessful night's fishing. Jesus asks Peter three times if he really loves Him and commissions him to "Feed my sheep". This event is commemorated by a wonderful statue a few hundred metres along the shore at the Church of Peter's Primacy. Later we had a trip on Lake Galilee in a replica 1st-century fishing boat, on which our actors performed a sketch based on the miraculous catch of fish described in John ch.21. Repeated dramas brought home to me the importance of Mary's willingness to say "yes" to God, and her faith which enabled her to face the subsequent responsibilities and anguish. In the synagogue in Capernaum the actors "interviewed" the Centurion whose servant had been healed (John ch.7). Standing in the synagogue ruins, only a few feet above the spot where Jesus would have taught, was sufficient to give me goose-bumps.

After two full days around Galilee, and a stop to renew our baptismal vows in the River Jordan, our coach took us south to Jericho (where the local perfumes/soaps are branded "417" to denote how many metres BELOW sea-level Jericho lies), and then up another 25 miles through the Judean wilderness to the Jerusalem/Bethlehem conurbation. We knew that the next part of the tour would be urban, noisier, and more commercialised. What no amount of pre-reading could prepare us for was the shock of seeing the grotesque separation Wall. Our first sight of it was at Bethany, where Jesus had mounted the colt which took him onto the Mount of Olives and then through the Kidron Valley into Jerusalem. Instead of the 3-mile direct ride which Jesus enjoyed (and certainly without the crowds shouting 'Hosanna' to us!), we had to detour 10 miles to reach central Jerusalem. This was a mere irritation for tourists like us, but is a huge daily impediment for people who used to commute from Bethany to Jerusalem for their work.

The next 6 days in Bethlehem and Jerusalem involved visits to numerous locations linked with the life and ministry of Jesus. However, since we had to pass through Israeli army checkpoints, walk past sites of house demolitions, constantly encounter the separation Wall which encircles Bethlehem, and had frequent views of the controversial Israeli "settlements", our "biblical tour" theme now became inter-twined with the present-day complexities of life in Israel/Palestine/the West Bank. Since our return, many of these complexities have been in the headlines because of the military actions in the Gaza strip (which we did not visit), but we became rapidly, though of course not expertly, acquainted with a few of the issues.

The first of these is that even the words we use to describe what we saw are open to interpretation. Should we describe the 9-metre high wall, with its Israeli army watchtowers, as the separation Wall, or should I use the official Israeli term, "Security Wall"? Was the war of 1948, which created 800,000 Palestinian homeless refugees, a "War for the freedom and independence of Israel", or should we use the Palestinian term "Nakba" (meaning catastrophe) because of the loss of their lives and homes? Did the Israelis really "withdraw" from Gaza in 2005 or did they simply walk out, turn the key, and turn it into one large prison? When Jewish groups in the USA are invited to fund tree-planting in Israel, is the aim to "make the desert bloom" and create nature reserves, or is it to cover up the evidence of Arab villages demolished by the Israelis? Is the piece of land between Israel and Jordan "The West Bank" or "The Occupied Territories"?

All of this, and more, was impinging on our consciousness as we continued to follow the footsteps of Jesus (and of Mary and Joseph). In Bethlehem, from our pilgrim hotel in Manger Square, we visited the neighbouring Church of the Nativity built over the cave where Jesus was believed to have been born. Cave dwellings were common, with animals apparently kept in quiet and safety behind the living quarters. We enjoyed more drama from a tent our actors had pitched in the Shepherds Fields, and were shown round a state-of-the-art maternity hospital, where we learned of the difficulties Palestinian mothers encounter in reaching the hospital as a result of the check-points. We spent an amazing evening at the International Peace Centre, learning from its founder, a Lutheran priest, Mitri Raheb, of their many outreach schemes to bring much needed hope to the local community. We attended an open forum with the students at Bethlehem University, whose chief wishes were the abolition of the checkpoints that blight their daily life, and an end to the humiliations and discrimination which Arab-Israelis and Palestinians constantly experience. In Jerusalem (its beautiful Old City would surely be in all tourist brochures if only circumstances were different) we walked down the Mount of Olives into Gethsemane where 2000-year-old olive trees still stand, visited the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount, before walking along the Via Dolorosa following the Stations of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the assumed site of Calvary.

So what did we "get out of it"? Were we frightened at any point? And was it a good holiday? Yes, it was a great trip, well-organised, with excellent guides, brilliant actors and 40 of the most likeable fellow­tourists that you could wish to meet. No, we were not frightened, certainly not in the West Bank, where the local Palestinians received us very warmly. However, having heard stories about the armed (and often inexperienced) Israeli soldiers, the two brief coach-searches at check­points did cause us mild tension.

I knew before I went that I did not need to travel to the Holy Land to "find Jesus", but I am nevertheless pleased to have seen some of the places mentioned in the Bible, and especially those where Jesus walked and talked. Finally, we do now have an urge to learn far more about everything that's happening in Israel and Palestine, and to pray, even in our relative ignorance, for peace, and justice for all the inhabitants of the region. If this small taste of what we saw encourages you to learn more about, and to pray more for, that part of the world, then better still.
Elizabeth Sloan (January 2009).

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