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West Bank priests stress nonviolence amid Israeli occupation protests

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — With tensions still high in the Old City following weeks of violence, Father Firas Aridah completed his work at the Latin Patriarchate early so he could leave Jerusalem for his West Bank parish before any possible violence began.

“There were many (Israeli) police and soldiers, closing many roads,” Father Aridah said in a phone interview once he was back in Jifna’s St. Joseph Parish July 28.

Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street in Jerusalem's Old City July 27. (CNS photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street in Jerusalem’s Old City July 27. (CNS photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

Friday afternoon prayer in Muslim tradition is considered especially significant and is required of all Muslim men. Often during volatile periods, prayers at the contested Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have been followed by demonstrations. Sometimes the tensions spread to other sections of Jerusalem, or even to the West Bank.

For Father Aridah and other parish priests in the West Bank, the challenge is to emphasize the Christian tradition of nonviolence while supporting their young parishioners’ desire to oppose the Israeli occupation.

Father Aridah said he counsels young people not to throw stones at the young Israeli soldiers who sometimes come near their village on patrols or in search of men wanted by the army.

“The problem is with the (Israeli) government, not with the soldiers,” he said. “Violence is not acceptable from either side. With this conflict, Israel is losing its image as a democratic state. I tell the young men that we are not with this violence. If we do not accept for Israel to behave this way, then how can we accept it from our side? Wherever God is represented in our life, we should have no violence.”

If word that someone might be considering taking part in a violent demonstration reaches him, the priest makes a beeline to that home for a conversation. The way to best serve their society, he advises them, is to get an education, to bring a new vision to Palestinian life.

“I don’t want to see blood in my parish,” Father Aridah said. “If we want to see (real) results, I tell (the young people) to be educated. I (tell them) to serve your people well, do well in the university, then go get a job in society and tell the world (about our situation), but do nothing with violence. If we want to resist, we resist with education.”

As he prepared to leave for a new parish in northern Israel, Father Aktham Hijazin of the Annunciation Parish in Beit Jala spent his last Sunday with his parish saying his good-byes. He said the majority of Palestinians, including his parishioners, are proponents of nonviolent opposition to the Israeli occupation. His parishioners did not take part in the clashes in neighboring Bethlehem, he said.

Following the tenets of their Catholic faith, he said, “They are not interested to take part in any violent act.”

In Ramallah, West Bank, Father Ibrahim Shomali noted that though he did not take part, members of his parish as well as clergy from the Melkite and Greek Orthodox churches did participate in peaceful demonstrations in Ramallah, away from the flashpoints with Israeli soldiers.

He said he has made it clear to his parishioners that, even while under Israeli occupation, violent confrontation is not acceptable. Even if Israel settlers attack Palestinian farmers and villagers, violence is not justified, he added.

As Christians, he said, people must respect all holy places and respect the holiness of Al-Aqsa for Muslims.

“We resist with our prayers and with our Bible and with respect of the human person,” Father Shomali said. “If you can love your enemy, you can have more power over them and get stronger to ask for your rights.”

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound has been the focal point of Palestinian-Israel confrontation for decades. To Muslims it is Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary where, according to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. To Jews it is holy as the Temple Mount, where, according to Jewish tradition, the two biblical temples stood. In the Gospels, this is where Jesus lashed out against the money-changers when he came to Jerusalem on Passover.

On July 14 outside one of the compound gates, two Israeli policemen were murdered by three men from an Israeli Arab town. The men had smuggled guns into the compound; Israeli police shot and killed them. Israel responded by erecting metal detectors and other security measures outside the compound, sparking protests, some violent, by Muslims.

A week later, a Palestinian snuck into the Israeli settlement of Halamish and killed three members of an Israeli family during their Shabbat dinner. An off-duty soldier shot and injured the attacker.

Israel eventually removed the metal detectors at the Al-Aqsa compound and replaced cameras with “smart cameras” that have face recognition capabilities and can detect weapons.

“The place is holy for the three religions, Muslims, Christians and Jews, so we should (all) be able to raise our praise to God,” said a Catholic priest, who asked not to be named. “This may be possible when a peace agreement is reached.”

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Some West Bank Christians don’t get Easter permits to enter Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

BEIT JALLA, West Bank — Nicola Sansour’s voice had a tinge of sadness as he recounted how his family planned to celebrate Easter this year. They planned to attend Holy Week services at Beit Jalla’s Annunciation Parish, purchase new clothes for the three small children, decorate eggs and attend the parish Easter egg hunt. His wife, Nivine, 34, would gather with his mother and sisters to make the traditional stuffed semolina “mamoul” Easter cookies.

Nicola Sansour and his wife, Nivine, pose with two of their children, Elia, 2, and Rivana, 5, at their home in Beit Jalla, West Bank, March 24. Nivine Sansour is holding her permit from the Israelis to travel to Jerusalem for Holy Week, but Nicola Sansour did not receive Israeli permission to travel to Jerusalem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Nicola Sansour and his wife, Nivine, pose with two of their children, Elia, 2, and Rivana, 5, at their home in Beit Jalla, West Bank, March 24. Nivine Sansour is holding her permit from the Israelis to travel to Jerusalem for Holy Week, but Nicola Sansour did not receive Israeli permission to travel to Jerusalem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

But this would be another year in which he and his family would not be able to celebrate the holiday with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a mere three miles from his home.

Christian Palestinians need a special Israeli entry permit to enter Jerusalem for the holiday, and Nivine Sansour received the entry permit, but her husband did not.

As a university student during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Nicola Sansour took part in anti-Israeli demonstrations and was stopped by Israeli soldiers but never arrested. Perhaps, he said, that may be the black spot on his record that prevents him from being giving the permit. But 20 years have passed since then; he has received a university degree and become a teacher.

He has sent written appeals to the Israeli Civil Administration but has not received a response as to why they will not issue him a permit.

“It is important for us as Christians here to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on these very holy days. And I can’t go,” he said. “There is only one checkpoint I have to cross. I feel like I am in a big jail. Many times I just sit, and think that they are taking something away from me. “

“I am a peaceful person. They never told me (why I can’t get a permit),” he added.

“We need to be able to go to Jerusalem every day,” said Nivine Sansour. “But here we are in a prison, and only on the holidays are we free.”

Of the 350 families in their parish, some 30 families are in the same situation as they are, Nicola Sansour noted, with the fathers being denied the permit. In addition, 10 unmarried men also did not receive permits. His brother was among those denied a permit.

Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, earlier said there were many similar cases of some members of Christian families not receiving permits throughout the West Bank, but the exact numbers would not be known until the end of the holiday season.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem website said 847 of the 890 Christian Gazans who had requested permits for the holiday received them, for some, 95 percent of the requests.

“The most impressive thing was that the majority of young Christians got the permit. Some of them didn’t leave Gaza since eight years. We praise the Lord for this grace,” Father Mario de Silva, parish priest, was quoted as saying.

Israel maintains that the system of permits and checkpoints, including the separation barrier that surrounds Bethlehem and the adjacent villages of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, are needed for security reasons following the second intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank carried out deadly attacks in Israeli cities, many of them in Jerusalem which borders Bethlehem.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, some 34 Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks and 404 people injured, including four Palestinians, in the wave of violence that began last autumn. There have been 331 stabbings and other attacks and attempted attacks, according to their statistics. According to Defense for Children International, some 180 Palestinians were killed and more than 15,000 injured from September through February. Some of the injured and killed included attackers.

Last year, Nicola Sansour received a permit to travel to Jerusalem for Christmas, but Nivine Sansour’s permit got lost in the bureaucracy, and she could not go.

Nicola Sansour went alone and spent the day meandering around the streets of the Old City before he returned home. But it was lonely without his family, he said.

“When I go to Jerusalem, I feel the past. I feel what it was like in the past, and Jerusalem was a very, very big city,” said Nicola Sansour, who said he enjoys watching movies about Jerusalem’s Crusader history. “I would like to introduce my children to the church (of the Holy Sepulcher). I need them to feel the moment. To be able to take all my children to the church during Easter would be like a dream.”

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