Turbulent times: Holy Land sees continued violence, tension; traveling to area still safe

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2016

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

A  year ago today, I had just arrived home from a 15-day trip to the Holy Land. I wish I could say the situation has changed in this turbulent area, but it has not. Indeed, four Palestinians were shot and killed on Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve — the location of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth — and holiday celebrations scaled down and tourists scattered.

Nearly a month later, things seem pretty much back to normal there, albeit with an increased and even more visible presence by the Israeli Army.

To delve into the matter, I spoke with Dr. Monte Luker. He is professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Columbia SC, and serves as academic dean for The Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. He served as guide for our tour, sponsored by the N.C. Synod of the ELCA, and is at this moment leading a tour sponsored by the S.C. Synod, which wraps up Jan. 19.

When we spoke by phone via Face Time Audio earlier this month, he was unaware of the violence that occurred on Christmas Eve — he was in the States at the time — but did allow that violence overall had increased since our visit.

“There are these lone wolf stabbing attacks,” Luker explains. “There is a demonic, evil teenage Jewish group named Revenge. They are the ones who torched a Palestinian house in Samaria. There are also some right-wing Palestinian teens who killed a Jewish couple, but not their children. These groups are both right-wing fundamentalists.”

This recent conflict between Jews and Muslims does not involve any of the few Christians left in the area, Luker said. “They’re acting out largely on each other. It really doesn’t affect Christian groups. I just walked down to the market on Manger Square and got some bottled water.”

It’s estimated that only about 1 percent of the population in the Holy Land is Christian.

Luker noted that fundamentalist groups are highly susceptible to social media, carrying out attacks when instructed. “Those groups know how to use social media. That’s the kind of sicko thing that’s going on.”

He added, “But it has not affected my movement or comfort level, or the movement of my groups.”

He did say Israeli soldiers are now living at the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem, one of the places that his tour groups stay.

“There’s a big show of force now,” he said. “There’s a large, visible presence.”

Luker also said there have been no cancellations of upcoming tours.

“I’ve been to Manger Square about twice a week,” he said. “It’s completely normal.”

The Rev. Beth Kearney is assistant to the bishop of the N.C. Synod. Synod Headquarters is located in Salisbury. She and her husband, the Rev. Doug Kearney, were part of last year’s tour. Kearney first toured the Holy Land on sabbatical in 2010, and returned with her aunt a year later.

“Having been there,” she said recently, “I have more an awareness of the situation. And I know there’s probably a story behind the story of what we see on media here.”

On her first visit six years ago, she said, “People were saying the situation is really bad, but we are hopeful. This last time, I didn’t hear very many Palestinians who are very hopeful.”

Another telling sign was that in 2010, she heard about a housing development sponsored by Augusta Victoria Hospital, the only hospital in the area that treats Palestinians. In 2015, the hospital was still waiting for a permit to begin construction of the housing project, which would house Christians, Muslims and Jews, many of whom work for the hospital.

“The Israelis don’t want to issue the permit,” she said.

While in Jerusalem, the Kearneys got small cross tattoos on their wrists. Razzouk Tattoo has been creating tattoos for pilgrims to the Old City for 700 years.

“Doug set it up before we went,” she said. “He didn’t tell me, because he was sure I wouldn’t like it. But it was just one of those things that needed to happen.”

And, she added, “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing for me, but since then, I have not forgotten a single day to pray for Jerusalem.”

Kearney continues to lift up the Holy Land in her prayers.

“From a point of view of Christians, it is a place where they are being persecuted, a place they need to know they are being supported by people of faith,” she said. “It’s more complex every time I visit. There are just more layers and more nuances I learn about.”

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb is pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. The church is located on Manger Square, mere feet away from the Church of the Nativity.

Raheb is traveling out of the country, and at the end of the month will receive the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, for his endeavors to bring peace to the Middle East.

Beth Chase is vice president of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, the American fundraising group for Christmas Lutheran’s many social ministry and education programs.

During the past year, she said recently, “There is more tension and conflict especially at specific check points and places around settlements and contested areas.”

She added, “Travel to the Holy Land is safe as we have a number of groups that went this fall and now in the Christmas/Epiphany season from the United States. We adjust the itinerary if we hear of possible tensions in specific locations. Many of the incidents have been perpetuated by the right wing groups or individuals you have cited, especially from ultra-conservative Zionist individuals living in settlements. The statistics from this last year are very tragic with so many young people and women targeted.”

Chase urged Christians in the West “to become aware of the plight of Palestinian Christians and the true facts on the ground. Use Adult Bible study times to learn more through reading, and invite speakers who have these relationships and partnerships with the Christians of the Holy Land.”

Chase also recommended reading Raheb’s book, “Faith in the Face of Empire.” He is the author of more than a dozen books and numerous articles on issues relating to interfaith dialogue, social transformation, contextual theology and culture.

For more information about Bright Stars of Bethlehem, visit www.brightstarsbethlehem.org.

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