2006 Nazareth and Haifa

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This page is a continuation of the travel journal for the Sixth International Sabeel Conference, 2-9 November 2006.

Day Nine – 8 November

The venue for today’s sessions was moved from the Mary’s Well Hotel to the nearby Nazareth Baptist Church as the facilities at the hotel were not adequate for the size of our group. This required lots of juggling for the program arrangements, as well as sensitive political and theological negotiations. For example. The Catholic Bishop was not happy about speaking in the sanctuary of the Baptist Church. However, as I write (during the final minutes before we commence for the day) it seems that the venue will work very well and make this day distinctive for reasons beyond the content of the sessions. Being packed into a far from small church building gives this gathering a peculiarly Christian feeling, and I expect that will have its impact on the way that the sessions unfold.

  • Prior to the conference sessions starting, Rhadia Qubty took me to the Nazareth Hospital where she still works part time as a social worker. This was originally founded by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society, and is sometimes called the English Hospital. It has recently had a major extension, and now has 160 beds. It has a top rate emergency ward and provides half of the emergency and trauma services for this city of 75,000 people. Two other religious hospitals between them carry a similar load, which suggests there is no government funded hospital service in this city.
  • After visiting the hospital we went next door to the Nazareth Village project that has recreated a first century Galilean village. It is on land owned by the hospital, and had its origins in the discovery of a 1C wine press on the site. It is now a well-developed site – if somewhat conservative in its scholarship and Evangelical in its approach to the faith – and well worth a visit. There were three groups of school children touring the village while did our quick tour. As I was familiar with the field and with the Village (from their excellent web site), I did not need to spend a great deal of time there.

On the way back to the church we dropped into Rhadia’s home. They have a house in the Coptic Quarter of Nazareth, which is close to Mary’s Well in the center of the town. Their home has quite a large garden with vegetables, fruit trees, chickens and rabbit – the latter simply as pet, not for food!

  • Bible Study – We began the morning program with the third and final study led by Kenneth Bailey. As with the earlier two sessions, this drew on his mastery of the Arabic commentaries but it also clarified for me what I find problematic about his method. In this case he looked at the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – another of the stories found only in Luke, as it happens. The most significant part of the exegesis actually related to information not found in the text – namely, the reaction (or lack of it) by Lazarus following the Rich Man’s request to Abraham for Lazarus to be sent across to relieve his pain. The insights offered were profound but they have no basis in the text, coming instead from Bailey’s own imagination, sharpened no doubt by his experience as a playwright. And therein perhaps lies the problem. Ken Bailey cannot resist the temptation to compose the script for a performance of this story, and that means the simple parable has been transformed into a more detailed narrative with the exegesis covering even those parts not found (or even hinted at) in the text. Well, so much for the professional sceptic. Now back to the task!

The next session took the form of a panel with contributions by Dr Ilan Pappe from the University of Haifa and Alain Epp Weaver from the Mennonite Central Committee.

  • Ilan Pappe is a post-Zionist Israeli historian and he provided a truly chilling account of Israel’s deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. He began with the secret meeting on 10 March 1948 (since described in various memoirs from participants) in which the decision was made to expel 500,000 Arabs from Palestine to create space for the Jews. Despite all that has happened, Pappe believes that a unified secular state will be the eventual outcome, but he fears there may be serious human suffering before that happens. He also warned that this will be a slow process and that human rights activists must be ready for the long haul as there will be no early victories.
  • Alain Epp Weaver challenged the mainstream western churches over their support for Israel and the Palestinians. He took the view that the churches have chosen to forget the Palestinian refugees, and have embraced the two state solution as a way to avoid dealing with the injustice done to these people. He posed the question of whether mainstream churches have held back from criticising Israel in order to protect their interfaith dialogue with Judaism. In his view, the churches should reopen the question of Israel’s foundation in 1948 as an exclusively Jewish state, and insist on the right of return for Palestinian refugees as an essential element of a just peace.

During the lunch break participants met in regional groups to discuss how best to act on what we have seen and heard after we return home. This was an easy enough process for the 8 Aussies, but must have been a nightmare for the 150+ people from the USA.

  • After lunch we had a very upbeat lecture from Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Latin bishop with responsibility for the small Hebrew-speaking Catholic community – about 300 people. He also plays a key role in Israel-Vatican relations since the Latin Patriarch, Michael Sabbah, is himself a Palestinian and has a primary responsibility for the Palestinian Catholics. Bishop Marcuzzo outlined the issues facing the churches, including the disparity between their official rights enshrined in the constitution or various laws and the realities on the ground as they pursue their lives as second-class citizens (citizens without nationality) in Israel. Despite all the hardships, Bishop Marcuzzo celebrated the existence in Nazareth and in the Holy Land of a vibrant Christian community that is the continuing presence of the risen Christ.
  • The next session was another panel, this time involving presentations by two human rights groups that focus on some of the issues mentioned by the bishop in his lecture. Suhad Bishara from Adallah spoke about the continuing loss of Arab land to Jewish settlements and the exclusion of Arab Israelis from the new towns created on their own land. Jafar Farah from the Mossawa Center spoke about the more general human rights problems, including the unexplained deaths of 32 Israeli Arabs killed by Israelis since October 2000 and the fact that 46% of the civilian casualties in Israel during the recent war in Lebanon were Arab citizens. His presentation covered details such as the disparity between their numbers (20% of the total population in Israel) and the allocation for education, health, sewerage, and security in Arab towns.
  • Lecture – Naim Ateek ended our formal proceedings with a lecture on the future of Palestinian Christianity. He presented an abridged version in this session but the full version of his paper will be available on the Sabeel web site shortly. He identified three major challenges: (1) internal threats to unity and cohesion (and especially the impact of Christian Zionism); (2) external threats from Jewish and Islamic extremists; and (3) political threats arising from Israel and the USA. He went on to identify the major internal challenges which the Palestinian Christian communities need to address: (1) conservative and past orientation; (2) fossilised relationship among local hierarchy; (3) indigenisation of the Greek (including proper theological education for its clergy); (4) develop spiritual potential of pilgrimage and the holy places - including a review of the Status Quo arranged and implemented by the Ottoman Empire in 1852 to stop violence between Christian factions; and (5) develop the witness of major Christian institutions such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for elderly, pilgrim hostels, etc. he also identified three sets of external challenges that have to be addressed: (1) relations with Islam – including an urgent need to articulate a theology and a strategy for relations with other faiths, especially Islam; (2) relations with Israel - a just peace is the most important agenda item but beyond that the churches have a role to play in national reconciliation between all three communities; (3) development of robust democratic institutions is an essential element for survival of Palestinian Christians who need to work towards appropriate constitutions for both Palestine and Israel and who refuse the religious categories of protected minority as dimni (under Islamic law) or ger (under Jewish law). In closing, Naim suggested 8 ways in which Western friends can help the Palestinian Christians: (1) educate churches about roots and presence of Palestinian Christians; (2) seek out Palestinian Christians in own countries; (3) be aware of concerns of Palestinians; (4) continue to work with us for peace and justice and then reconciliation; (5) support projects that strengthen Christian witness and presence in the Holy Land; (6) forge closer links between churches and institutions there and here; (7) challenge Christian Zionism in our own countries; (8) think of other ways to stay connected.
  • After dinner we were treated to a Palestinian cultural evening in a local theatre, with traditional Arab songs by the Muwwak Choir from Nazareth and a very high-energy dance program performed by a large group of local dancers. Their dances to familiar Christmas songs, including O Come all ye Faithful were spectacular and I suspect none of us shall ever think of that music in the same way again. It is good to see how their cultural traditions and national identity is preserved and developed even under the difficult circumstances of Israeli occupation and dispossession; and better still just to see a group of people having a good time with music, song and dance.

Day Ten – 9 November

This was the final day of the Sabeel conference, so everyone was up and packed ready for the trip to Tabgha where we were to conclude the conference with a Eucharist at the Church of the Primacy.

  • The Eucharist was celebrated in an outdoor chapel within a few metres of the Sea of Galilee. The Franciscan custodians have created a delightful worship space that features a circular stone Altar and a small amphitheatre, with ample shade from the well-established trees. Our preacher was to be Archbishop Elias Chacour, who has pastoral oversight of the Melkite churches in Israel, but he had undergone emergency surgery earlier in the week and could not join us. This was a great disappointment, but Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian attorney and a member of the Sabeel Board, did a superb job of preaching (see next bullet point). The service itself was conducted in Arabic, with an English text provided so we could follow the order and join in with the responses in our own languages. This was the first time Sabeel had included a celebration of the Eucharist in its conference programs, and it was clear from the high level of participation and the diversity of those offering prayers or serving the Sacrament that it was a welcome development. After the service we walked to the nearby edge of the Sea of Galilee for a commissioning service as we pledged ourselves to work for peace with justice as we returned home.
  • Jonathan Kuttab’s sermon addressed our ministry of reconciliation as Christians, and developed a three-step model for authentic reconciliation that moves beyond what he described as “lovey-dovey” projects. The first step, which is concerned with the present moment, requires our own reconciliation with God and with ourselves. This is the essential first step, and involves a change of heart – repentance and conversion. The next step, which is concerned mostly with the past, requires forgiveness – a difficult step for those who have suffered so much and have so much to remember from the past. It is, however, an equally essential step after the personal change of heart. Jonathan suggested that our Jewish neighbours seem to find forgiveness a very hard step to take, and may thus be excluding themselves from the blessings of reconciliation that can only begin to be enjoyed when forgiveness is both offered and accepted. Finally there is the future dimension of reconciliation – the time when the oppression and injustice of the past is not only forgiven but also replaced by a new set of realities in which there is a genuinely fresh beginning. He challenged us to seek the personal change of heart that is the first step to reconciliation and not to be content with anything less than the transformed reality of a new society that offers all its people opportunity, justice and peace.
  • After a final group photo on the shores of the lake, we went to a nearby restaurant for the traditional meal of St Peter’s Fish – as bony as ever! People seemed to be lingering over their lunches as we sensed the end of a very special time, and the sadness of saying goodbye to people with whom we have shared so much this past week. I made sure that all the Aussies were aboard their buses, and then stayed behind to participate in a meeting of the international coordinators for Sabeel.
  • The IFOS (International Friends of Sabeel) meeting is being held in the beautifully renovated hostel adjacent to the Church of the Beatitudes on the hill overlooking Tabgha. I had often seen the building when visiting the church here, but this was my first opportunity to stroll the grounds of this special holy place as a resident. The Franciscans have developed the site considerably since my last visit in 2004. There is now a gift shop and large parking area on the other side of the site, and construction of additional accommodation is underway. A new hotel is planned for the site, from which the Franciscans will doubtless make a lot of money!
  • After arrival we took a short break – for what Naim called a “holy nap” – before starting our meeting at 4.00pm. This allowed me some time to stroll about the grounds and soak up the silent holiness of the place; as well as visiting the gift shop to buy a fresh supply of holy oil for anointing. We worked from 4.00pm to 9.30pm, stopping only for dinner. My guess is that everyone will sleep well this evening! It was very helpful to hear reports from Sabeel coordinators in various parts of the world, and to get new ideas for Sabeel Oceania, so I am looking forward to the discussions tomorrow morning as we focus on priorities for 2007 and beyond.

Day Eleven – 10 November

The day began with the Mount of Beatitudes at its most peaceful. There were no visitors to the site at this stage, and the air was cool and still. It was a delight to wander around the site soaking up the atmosphere after so many days of crowded places and busy schedules.

The IFOS meeting continued until lunch time, with attention being given to a draft statement arising from the recent conference as well as priorities for the future development of Sabeel’s ministry.

  • After lunch, I drove back to Nazareth with Violette Khoury – the director of the Nazareth Sabeel branch – and Dick Toll, Chair of Friends of Sabeel North America. Dick was going to stay for a few days with an Anglican priest serving in a village next to Nazareth so we dropped him off on our way. Finding houses in narrow lanes that have no street names or house numbers is always a challenge, so it took us a few attempts before we got the correct laneway.
  • On arrival in Nazareth, we spent quite a bit of time driving through Nazareth Illit – the Jewish township on a hill overlooking Nazareth and constructed on land confiscated from its Arab owners without proper compensation. Nazareth Illit has around 20,000 people and four times the area of Nazareth, which has 75,000 people and very limited land after losing so much to Jewish settlement. Jewish residents received generous financial assistance to get established with homes and businesses, while Arab citizens of Israel receive no assistance. However, after a successful challenge in the Israel High Court a few years ago, Arab citizens have now won the right to live in Nazareth Illit and Violette was able to point our whole neighbourhoods that are now mostly Arab. There are also other areas that are entirely filled with Russian immigrants.
  • We also went up Mt Precipice – identified by some as the location of the incident described in Luke 4, when the residents of Nazareth try to throw Jesus off the cliff. This is the only green reserve in Nazareth and is a popular recreation area for families and young couples. It is hardly a cliff and is actually some distance from the Old City, but it offers 360-degree vistas with Haifa, Mt Carmel, Megiddo, Jenin, Mt Tabor, the Sea of Galilee and Jordan all being visible. We were there just before sunset so the view was not as clear as it might be, but I am hoping to return tomorrow for a better view.

In the evening Violette and I had dinner in a restaurant adjacent to the Sabeel offices. We were about to leave when a rock hit one of the external glass doors and shattered the door into pieces. Most patrons simply went on with their meal as if nothing had happened, but the owner was naturally rather upset.

  • At 8.00pm I met with a number of members from the Sabeel Committee in Nazareth (see below left). This gave me an opportunity to hear what they have been doing, and to convey our greetings from Sabeel Australia. The Nazareth branch has a diverse program with activities for children, teens (to start next year), young adults, young couples and women. They also offer Bible studies, book launches and seminars – sometimes attracting up to 600 people and routinely getting 150-200. Their programs extend to Christian communities across Galilee and they have also been reaching out to communities in the West Bank, where the situation is even more difficult. They are also developing engaging with Jewish communities in the Galilee, where relations between Arabs and Jews are less tense than in Jerusalem. Most of all they appreciate the fact that we are interested in them, as this is the first time any part of the international Sabeel network has give them direct support. They value the relationship with Sabeel members in Australia, with any financial support being a bonus. Still, I hope that we can raise further funds to assist with some of their programs. For instance, a two-day trip to the West Bank costs about US$1,000 when transport, guides, speakers and venues are considered. Fortunately, the salaries for Janan (the program coordinator) and Amal (the administrative officer) are paid from Jerusalem. Amal is shown below right at the computer fiunded by Friends of Sabeel Australia.

Day Twelve - 11 November

The plan for today was to visit the archaeological site at Sepphoris then travel to Haifa so that I could spend some time with Naomi Ateek (one of Naim’s sisters) and see something of Haifa before catching a service taxi to Tel Aviv airport around midnight. That is not quite how it worked out.

  • Suhair was to pick me up from Violette’s pharmacy around 9.00am, but she needed to take her computer to Cana for some maintenance. I opted to go to Cana with her and took the opportunity to visit a small Greek Orthodox Church there with some lovely icons.
  • Violette’s pharmacy is very close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, but it has been trashed several times in riots. Naturally, there is no insurance cover for damage done during a riot. Unlike Jewish citizens whose property is damaged in civil unrest, there is no government assistance to Israeli Arabs such as Violette. Of more concern to her is the fact that none of the local church leaders has ever bothered to ask if she was OK even though she is well known to most of them. There does seem to be a radical disconnect between the protected and privileged life of the church hierarchy and the struggles of their parishioners.
  • After the computer got the all clear at Cana, Suhair and I went to Sepphoris – which is a few kilometres from Nazareth. In the time of Jesus it was the capital of Galilee and had just been rebuilt by Herod Antipas. Quite likely the menfolk from villages such as Nazareth would have been drawn into the labour force needed for such a major public works project, but the city is never mentioned in the New Testament. The large Arab village on the site was totally eradicated - except for the telltale cactus plants (see above) that mark the location of former Arab properties - and there is now a small Jewish township as well as a very important archaeological dig. The site is famous for its vivid mosaics (including the banqueting room in a Dionysian house) as well as for an ancient Jewish synagogue. Needless to say, the latter has been carefully preserved and enjoys the best presentation of any of the remains. We spent a couple of hours walking around the site, which I had not previously had an opportunity to visit.
  • On returning to Nazareth we went to a small shop adjacent to Mary’s Well in the centre of ancient Nazareth so that I could complete some shopping errands. As the items were being wrapped I noticed a newspaper clipping about the discovery of a Roman bathhouse under the shop, and asked the lady serving me about the age of the ruins. Not surprisingly she insists that the bathhouse dates back to the time of Jesus and also that he would have been a client of the facility. Once she sensed my interest as a NT scholar we were taken down to the bathhouse remains and spent the best part of an hour crawling through the hypocaust stacks that once conveyed the hot air under the caldarium, peering into the ancient furnace, inspecting ceramic pipes used to move heated water through the facility and being shown copies of academic articles on the site. This was a totally unexpected turn of events, even if I remain sceptical of such an extensive public bathhouse in the small village of Nazareth in the time of Jesus. The proud owner (pictured with me outside her shop) kindly gave me permission to take a photo of the hypocaust to use in teaching, but Martina has asked that it not be published in any other way. See also a story from The Guardian which casts doubt on the dating of the bathhouse.

Although it was around 3.30pm by the time we left the shop, there was no escaping yet another delicious Arab feast in a nearby restaurant. As a result, it was well after 5.00pm and already dark when we finally got underway to Haifa.

  • Haifa itself looks like a delightful city so it is a shame that we got there after dark. The city flows from the Mediterranean and up to the top of Mt Carmel. Not surprisingly, Mar Elias (St Elijah – he of the prophets of Baal fame) is the most popular saint in this area. There is also a famous Baha’i Temple on the side of Mt Carmel, and it now caps off a street that has been renovated to form a restaurant strip. I had a longstanding invitation from Naomi Ateek (one of Naim's sisters) to visit Haifa, so it was a shame that we arrived after dark. Even so, I could see what a lovely setting the city has and I look forward to seeing it in daylight some other time. One of Naomi’s sons owns a restaurant in this street which is also just below her house, so we were treated as honoured guests for the evening meal.

The service taxi arrived around 12.15am to take me to Tel Aviv. As I write this entry I am sitting in the departure lounge at Ben Gurion airport having successfully navigated security and customs without any hassles. The process of getting new tickets issued, being interviewed by security staff, putting the baggage through security, getting my seat allocations and then going through passport control took about 90 minutes but there were no unpleasant moments. We should be boarding our flight in about 10 minutes.