In May Ms Teresa Jaggar and John Usher, a Bootle CLP member, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
While visiting the Holy Land in May, Pope Francis, witnessed by the world’s media, stopped his car to pray at the Israeli Apartheid Wall that now imprisons the men, women and children of Bethlehem, many of them members of his own Catholic flock, as well as other Christian and Muslim people. The Pope’s action demonstrated that he has not forgotten or abandoned any of those denied justice or freedom by the illegal Israeli Occupation.
Also in May, and just before the Pope’s visit, John and Teresa joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
John says: This was Teresa’s first visit. I had been there with my late wife Margaret, back in 1966, but that was before Israel’s 1967 invasion and seizure of Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, and I knew that it would be a very different Holy Land now, changed but not for the better.
For me, there were three main objectives of our pilgrimage, which was lead by an English Anglican clergyman, and a group of experienced local Palestinian guides. All objectives were achieved.
Firstly, we saw and experienced the very places where Jesus was born, lived, taught and died, the very source of our Faith, and found the experience moving and uplifting.
Among the inspiring places we visited in the area of Jerusalem, were the Mount of Olives and the little Chapel of the Ascension; the Chapel of Dominus Flevit (the Lord Wept) where Jesus wept on Palm Sunday over the future fate of Jerusalem; the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his arrest; the Western Wall (the Jewish Wailing Wall); the beautiful Golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the world’s third most holy place for Muslims; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s Crucifixion (Calvary), burial and Resurrection; the home of Caiaphas the High Priest where Jesus was held before appearing in front of Pontius Pilate, and where Peter denied three times even knowing him. In Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born, the Shepherds’ Fields where the shepherds heard the good news of Christ’s birth, and at the Sea of Galilee we visited the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached his wonderful Sermon on the Mount, Tabgha the location of the well-known loaves and fishes story, and we had a picnic at Capernaum and paddled in the Sea upon which Jesus is said to have walked. And in Nazareth we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation where Mary learned she was to be the mother of Jesus. Teresa and I lit candles for loved ones in churches we visited, and Teresa also requested the celebration of Masses for our intentions.
Secondly, we had the opportunity to meet with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, suffering under the Israeli Occupation, families in their homes, and two families whose homes had been demolished by the Israelis without any compensation, one of them more than once, and rebuilt with the help of volunteers. They still lived under the threat of the Israelis returning to demolish yet again, making the families homeless yet again. We met a farmer who showed us where illegal Israeli settlers had entered his farm and killed his sheep and goats, and when he tried to protect the animals, the Israelis attacked him as well, and seriously injured him. Two days after we visited the Palestinian ‘Tent of Nations’ farm, the Israeli Army arrived at 8am and using bulldozers, uprooted and destroyed 1500 fruit trees upon which the livelihood of the Palestinians depended. The Israelis cared nothing for the people or the Holy Land environment. We tried to show those we met, friendship and solidarity, and assure them that good people abroad had not forgotten them. We also met with humanitarian workers and educators, and brave Israelis of conscience, a minority I know, who oppose the wrongdoing of their own government, because they are isolated and vilified, and also need our encouragement and support.
Thirdly, we saw for ourselves the effects of Israeli Occupation in all it’s ugliness. A normal life for Palestinians is made impossible by the Occupation, now in it’s 47th year, no Palestinian there under the age of 47 has ever known the freedom we take for granted. The Palestinian economy is in ruins because of the Wall, the illegal settlements on stolen land, house demolitions, hundreds of checkpoints at which Palestinians must queue for hours, prevent people from reaching their jobs, farms, children from getting to school, the sick to their doctor or hospital, and most upsetting, many women going into labour on their way to hospital, have not been allowed through the checkpoint, and have given birth at the roadside. Not surprisingly, many of the babies died through the lack of proper care, and some mothers died as well. Mary would face this if she was trying to reach Bethlehem next Christmas.
We ourselves were delayed at Israeli checkpoints, but the inconvenience we experienced was nothing compared to the frustration and humiliation that the Palestinians are forced to bear. A young woman who had returned from America to teach Palestinian children, told us she was held for hours at an Israeli checkpoint, she was worried about reaching her pupils and was reduced to tears, she asked the soldiers what she had ever done to them, that they should treat her like this, but they wouldn’t listen. I am aware of another young Palestinian woman, a student, who was going to visit her grandfather, and came to a checkpoint where the soldiers were very bored. So to have fun they said to all the girls in the queue, that they had to make two queues: one for the beautiful girls and one for the ugly girls. Then one soldier walked down and he stopped at one girl and said you are not beautiful, move to the other queue. Then he came to a beautiful girl who was wearing a scarf. He told her to take it off so he could see her hair. ‘I didn’t wait my turn’, she said. ‘I didn’t want to face this, so I turned round and came home’. Israeli men with guns who derive pleasure from bullying and humiliating defenceless young women over whom they hold power are not fit to be called men.
Israel has stolen all of Palestine’s water, and supplies uninterrupted mains water to Israelis. Palestinians on the other hand, never know when the Israelis are going to turn their water supply off, often for weeks on end, so when the water comes on they must save some in a tank on the roof, ready for when the Israelis turn the taps off again. This is a game of cat and mouse, while Israelis have no problem filling their swimming pool or watering their lawn for example, nearby Palestinians don’t have enough water for essentials. These rooftop tanks on Palestinian homes, but not on those of Israelis, are blatantly obvious for all to see, including visitors from around the world, but Israel shows no shame for this disgraceful racial discrimination.
We felt shocked, disgusted and outraged by what we saw and heard. As Christians ourselves, we noted that Israel is forcing Christians to leave their homes in the Holy Land in large numbers. Christians can be found living all around the world, but unless Israel can be persuaded to change it’s behaviour, eventually the only place where no Christians will be found will be the Holy Land itself, the homeland of Jesus, and the land where Christianity was born. We have returned home with a conviction that good people everywhere must demand that the injustices and wrongs inflicted on the people of Palestine by the illegal Israeli Occupation must be brought urgently to an end, and this must be our message to all our elected politicians, even those MPs who consider themselves ‘Friends of Israel’ must find the backbone to tell Israel some home-truths, which is what true ‘friends’ would do anyway.