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Photo: Melanie Williams

The Mount of Temptation. Note the black tanks atop of the Palestinian homes due to the water restrictions.

A Holy Land Pilgrimage: Pt. 4 — Here For More Than One Reason

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Renewing our Baptismal promises at the Jordan River.

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Renewing our Baptismal promises at the Jordan River.

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The Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting before his public ministry.

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A monastery sits on the side of the Mount of Temptation.

By Melanie Williams (Feb 27, 2018)
From Oct. 26 - Nov. 5, 2017, staff writer Melanie Williams went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Having walked where Jesus walked, prayed where He prayed, and experienced the current Middle Eastern cultural and political climate, she would like to share some of her pilgrimage and journey with you. Today, in the fourth part of an nine-part weekly series follow her down Mount Tabor, through the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley, and into Jerusalem.

Last week I shared with you my "mountain top experience" upon Mount Tabor. Like all such experiences, they must come to an end. We made our way down the mountain in the Bedouin vans (holding my breath on those hairpin turns!) and journeyed by bus through the West Bank towards Jerusalem. At a rest stop, we saw a camp of simple buildings surrounded by barbed wire. It was a Jewish settlement — a camp set up by the Israeli government in the West Bank for Jewish people to live.

I later researched if the Catholic Church had an official stance on this. It turns out, she does. In the synod of bishops and special assembly for the Middle East in 2009, the published document entitled "The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness," states:

Hostility [in this part of the world] is due to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories and some Lebanese and Syrian territory. On this level, the political leaders concerned, with help from the international community, have the responsibility to make the necessary decisions in accord with the resolutions of the United Nations.

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI stated this clearly on his Apostolic Visit to the Holy Land, in two welcoming ceremonies. In Bethlehem, on 13 May 2009, he stated: "Mr. President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbours, within internationally recognised borders." And during his discourse at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, on 11 May 2009, he expressed the desire that "both peoples might live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders" (63-64).

Both Israel and Palestine obviously have a difficult and complicated history, and the whole situation needs our prayers. Due to the violence on the part of both parties' extremists, there are a minority of people, including Christians, who are trying to peacefully resolve this conflict. Unfortunately it is the loud, violent voices that are heard by the world.

As we continued through the West Bank, we arrived in the Jordan River Valley, which borders the country of Jordan. When we entered an area that said "caution - military zone," we were assured to be at peace; they were old signs of a former military zone. Now, the entrance to the River Jordan and the Baptismal site of Jesus. However, the Catholic Church isn't allowed to build a church here. The Greek Orthodox have built a church on the other side of the river, which is actually the country of Jordan. Here, at the border of Palestine and Jordan, in the very waters that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, we were able to submerge our feet and renew our Baptismal promises.

Next, we travelled through Jericho, one of the most fertile areas in the region. It was quite an interesting little town - the main mosque and Muslim school is located caddy-corner to the Franciscan church and school. Black water tanks lie atop every Palestinian home, whether located in Palestine or Israel - they receive running water two days a week and run off of their water tank reserves the other five days a week. Is there a water shortage? No, every Israeli home and settlement has running water seven days a week. What is the exact reason for this water restriction? Every side of the argument gives a reason, and they continue to wrong each other in the fight over this land.

As I continued to learn more and more rules and laws restricting the Palestinians, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, I realized more and more how I had never heard about any of this, and maybe would have never if I had not travelled all this way. I realized this pilgrimage was becoming so much more than walking in the footsteps of Jesus and reliving Bible passages. It was opening my heart to see the plight of the Christians and others in this area who suffer persecution. I'm speaking of the ones who seek peace, whose voices aren't heard. They need our prayers and our support. Indeed, in more ways than one, it was good that we were there.

Our last stop in Jericho before finishing our journey to Jerusalem was at the Mount of Temptation. Why is it called that? This is where Jesus, after being driven by the Spirit, spent 40 days fasting and in prayer. This is also where He was tempted by Satan and afterwards began His public ministry (see Mt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13).

As we approached Jerusalem, we were stopped in a long line of cars at what looked like a toll booth. But it wasn't a toll booth. We were told it was a checkpoint. There are many of these throughout Israel. Every car is stopped and is subject to inspection. If you are an Israeli Jewish citizen, you pass through without a problem. You can go anywhere throughout Israel. If you are a Palestinian, the Israeli soldiers have the right to inspect you and every part of your car, abuse you, and even shoot you on the spot if they think you are trouble. Almost every week you hear of a something horrible happening to a Palestinian going through a checkpoint, things I wouldn't want to recount here.

Christians in Bethlehem, even though they are only 5.5 miles from Jerusalem, rarely, if ever make the trip to Jerusalem, unless they have an Israeli ID or work permit. They cannot marry one another, and it's no wonder the number of Christians is dwindling. Christian children who live in one of these cities learn about the Sea of Galilee and all that Jesus did in Galilee in school, but if they aren't Israeli citizens, they cannot even travel the two hours to go see it. I can travel from the other side of the world to go see the Sea of Galilee, and they aren't allowed to travel the two hours.

Mothers make sure to pick up their children from school, because they aren't certain that a soldier won't stop their children on the way home and beat them up. These people live under oppression and fear, and that is why many of them leave if they can collect enough money. For many, that isn't possible. Even if they had the money, they would have to cross the border into Jordan to fly out, because they aren't allowed in the Israeli airports.

I share this with you all, because this whole conflict can be very confusing, but we must not forget to pray. This is the daily reality of our brothers and sisters. They need our prayers. The Church has written the following to Middle Eastern Christians:

Our attitudes, including those of certain pastors, vary between fear and discouragement. This faith must mature and grow more trustful. We must make a firm decision for the future, which will be shaped by how we manage to treat others and forge alliances with people of good will in our society. We need a faith which becomes involved in the life of society, a faith which serves to remind the Christians of the Middle East of the inspirational words: "Do not be afraid, little flock!" (Lk12:32). You have a mission, you are to fulfill it and assist your Church and your country to grow and develop in peace, justice and equality for all citizens. (The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness, 88)

After we settled into our hotel in Jerusalem and I decided to go with a friend to the local university to exercise in the gym. Our taxi took us through the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Again, it felt like I was in a whole new world. Men with white tassels around their waist and curls down their sideburns, women with their heads covered and a trail of children behind them - many of these people are paid by the government just to live this way of life, pray, and study the Talmud and Torah, to prepare for the rule of a true nation of Israel once again, according to the Zionist ideology.

To say that this day was a shock would be an understatement. I realized that going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was for so much more than visiting the holy sites - it was to be more aware of the current political climate so as to spread awareness and ask for prayers for our brothers and sisters. Please, join me in prayer:

O God of all the nations, the One God who is and was and always will be, in your providence you willed that your Church be united to the suffering of your Son. Look with mercy on your servants who are persecuted for their faith in you. Grant them perseverance and courage to be worthy imitators of Christ. Bring your wisdom upon leaders of nations to work for peace among all peoples. May your Spirit open conversion for those who contradict your will, that we may live in harmony. Give us the grace to be united in truth and freedom, and to always seek your will in our lives. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us. (Prayer composed by Archbishop William E. Lori, courtesy of the Knights of Columbus)

Addendum: You may have seen in the recent news that Christian Church leaders have closed the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in protest to the new taxes being made upon Church-owned properties. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre stated:

Betraying international treaties and centuries of practice, all Christian properties, except churches themselves, are being taxed tens of billions of dollars. This includes hundreds of agencies, including Christian schools, hospitals, homes for the needy, health care facilities, and pilgrimage centers such as the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. Many church assets are being frozen, fines threatened, and hundreds of thousands of dollars seized from Christian churches in an effort that will severely curtail Christian freedom of practice.

These are acts of unprecedented discrimination against Christians.

The persecutions continue upon our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Many are trying to leave in order to make a better life for themselves, if they can gather the money to be able to. The Holy Land, Israel, and Palestine, is a home for many cultures and religions. Please pray for peace in the Holy Land and for all the innocent lives who suffer due to the persecutions, tension, and violence.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Jeannette Clark - Mar 28, 2018

I am so sad after reading through your journey today. So much political unrest and lack of respect for human life and dignity in this area. Surely Our Lord intended for this part of the region to live together in peace and harmony such as it is His chosen birthplace, and therefor the birthplace of Christianity and all that it stands for under Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Rosa Sous - Feb 27, 2018

I’m also very Blessed