Thursday, January 31, 2013

Palestinian priest celebrates mass to stop Israel building wall

Father Ibrahim Shomali celebrating massFor the past 16 months, through heat and cold, rain and snow, a Palestinian priest has celebrated mass every Friday afternoon on the outskirts of Beit Jala, a West Bank village 2 km from where Jesus was born, to stop the building of a separation wall there.
Father Ibrahim Shomali celebrates this mass, often with other priests, imploring God to somehow stop the Israeli Government from building the infamous 8 meter-high wall through the olive groves and fruit farms of 58 Christian families in the Cremisan valley area below the village, taking over Palestinian land.
This wall,  or “separation barrier” (“security fence”)  as Israelis call the 700 km long security measure (part wall/part fence)  that separates Palestinian territories from Israel - will also cut through the grounds of a Salesian monastery and convent, and prevent an extension to a Church school that had already received planning permission.
Father Ibrahim is parish priest of Beit Jala, a majority Christian town of more than 12,000 people (40% are Muslim), adjoining Bethlehem and 10 km south of Jerusalem. He is also Director of the Latin Patriarchate’s school in this Palestinian village where 60 teachers provide education for some 900 students, boys and girls, Christian and Muslim, from kindergarten to high school.
Since 1 October 2011, he has conducted this non-violent, peaceful protest against injustice by celebrating mass on the place where the building of the wall is to start, seeking Divine intervention to stop the Israelis constructing the wall.
He is not alone in this non-violent protest. On 23 October 2011 the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land called on Israel to stop construction of the “illegal wall”. Moreover, the Latin Patriarchate joined forces with the Beit Jala municipality in a legal challenge through Israel’s courts to this project. The court is scheduled to issue its verdict around February 11.
According to Father Ibrahim the wall will take away 1200 acres of green land from the local population, separate owners from their lands, and drastically limit people’s freedom of movement.  Students living on the other side of the wall will take 30-45 minutes to reach school, instead of 10 minutes today.
“The students are very angry at what is happening to the Palestinian people, and ask why they cannot live their lives like other people. Hatred is filling their hearts because of this”, he told me when we talked together at the school recently.  
He explained that if students want to go to the sea, or visit Jerusalem they cannot do so without Israeli permission. It is particularly difficult for them to get permission for Jerusalem, and if granted the normal 15-minute journey by car, could take hours because of controls at the Israeli checkpoint, which are somewhat arbitrary.
He took 50 students to visit Nazareth recently, after obtaining Israeli permission. “It was the first time in their lives that they had left Beit Jala”, he said.
Fr Ibrahim, 41, knows it is difficult to win the court battle against the wall, and predicts “our land will be confiscated by the Israelis in the near future”. He has faith only in God.
“We don’t have faith in political leaders.  We don’t have faith in the State of Israel.  We don’t have faith in the media (which are here often subjected to controls or other pressures).  We only have faith in God who can support us and give us victory”, he stated.
Local Christians and pilgrims from many countries have joined him for the Friday Eucharistic celebrations.  Numbers attending have varied from 10 when it snowed to hundreds in good times, even 500.
He admits, however, that he was not the first to organize prayerful, non-violent protests in this area. Since 2005, when the wall was built around Bethlehem, religious women (nuns) working in a children’s hospital in Bethlehem have conducted their peaceful protest by reciting the rosary every Friday afternoon, as they walk from their convent to the checkpoint, alongside the wall that encircles the city where Jesus was born. They do so,  inspired by the Bible story (Joshua, 6) that tells how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down after the Israelites, led by Joshua laid siege to Jericho and, following God’s instruction, marched around the city of Jericho for seven days. The nuns hope for a similar result in Bethlehem!  So does Fr Ibrahim.

“We don’t throw stones.  We don’t use any form of violence. We don’t kill.  We just pray, and we feel sure that sooner or later God will hear our prayers”, Fr Ibrahim said.    
“Our problem is not the building of the wall and the settlements, our problem is the Israeli occupation of our land”, he stated emphatically
When I asked if he sees peace coming anytime soon to the Holy Land, Fr Ibrahim, who studied in Rome, responded: “I see peace in my dreams, and in God.  But in the near future God much change the minds of the political leaders to get them to make peace for us.  I do not see peace at the moment. But the media and the international community can bring pressure to bear on the Israeli leaders to make peace.”
Recalling how the international community reacted with determination when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Fr Ibrahim, like his students, wonders why they show no such decisiveness when it comes to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian land.
Fr Ibrahim concluded by confirming his determination to continue his non-violent, prayerful protest for as long as is necessary, convinced that sooner or later, “God will hear our prayer”.

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