Lack of Sight

By Rachelle Friesen, MCC peace development worker. Originally from Saskatchewan, Rachelle lives and works in Bethlehem.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada recently visited the Middle East. He spent his days seeing holy sites, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials to sign agreements and to give aid, and viewing a bird sanctuary named in his honour for his undying support of Israel.

The Prime Minister was able to travel quite extensively in his short time here: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Galilee. Despite his travels, his speeches and statements reflect a truth contrary to what the people of MCC Palestine and their Palestinian and Israeli partners experience on the ground. Reflecting upon his schedule, it was not that he did not visit the sites of injustice, but rather, that the injustice was withheld from his view.

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. Luke 24:31

Umar Ighbarieh of MCC partner Zochrot leads a tour of Canada Park, an Israeli national park created over the remains of several Palestinian villages demolished after the Six Day War in 1967.

Umar Ighbarieh of MCC partner Zochrot leads a tour of Canada Park, an Israeli national park created over the remains of several Palestinian villages demolished after the Six Day War in 1967. [MCC photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler]

Arriving at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Harper began his Middle Eastern tour. On the road to Jerusalem he passed by the demolished Palestinian village of Imwas, the biblical site of Emmaus. Before 1967, Imwas was a thriving Palestinian village that was able to fight off the Zionist militias in 1948; its residents maintained their ability to stay on their ancestral land. However, after the war of 1967 Israeli forces invaded the village along with two others, Yalu and Beit Nuba, and ordered all of their residents to leave. Although the war was over, the residents were expelled from the villages and became refugees in Ramallah, Jordan, and near Jericho. After the expulsion, the military demolished all three villages. Following the demolition, through the assistance of Canadian donations, the Jewish National Fund planted trees on the site. Today Canada Park sits on top the three demolished villages while the previous residents remain refugees.

Saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Then he went and washed and came back able to see. John 9:7

After arriving in Jerusalem, Prime Minister and Mrs. Harper went to the Mount of Olives in Occupied East Jerusalem over-looking the holy city. From this view they would have looked over the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.

Demolition of home in East Jerusalem

Demolition of home in East Jerusalem.
[MCC photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler]

The same waters of Siloam flow today in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. Today in the Bhustan area of Silwan, 88 Palestinian houses have been given demolition orders by the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality. If these demolitions are enforced, over 1000 people will be displaced. Already four houses have been demolished by the Israeli Military. The municipality claims that the houses have been built or renovated without permits, therefore despite Palestinian land ownership, their houses can be demolished not only without compensation but owners are often fined for the cost of demolition.

Although some of the houses have been built without permits, the process for Palestinians to apply for permits becomes a Kafka-esque maze which often ends in denial and around $25,000 spent.  Only 5 percent of Palestinians who apply for permits to build actually receive them. This is in contrast to Israeli settlers where 90 percent of applicants receive permits. Therefore many Palestinians face the challenge to build without a permit. Also important, in Silwan many of the homes were built before 1967 under Jordanian laws. One house in particular is said to be 120 years old.

Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? Mark 8:17-18

Mohammad Musa (striped shirt), staff member of MCC partner Lajee Center, in front of Aida Refugee Camp.

Mohammad Musa (striped shirt), staff member of MCC partner Lajee Center, with an MCC learning tour group in front of Aida Refugee Camp.
[MCC photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler]

The next day Prime Minister Harper arrived in Bethlehem at the Church of Nativity. Just two kilometers away from the site sits Aida Refugee Camp. Its 5000 inhabitants have been refugees since the war in 1948. For the last two weeks Aida Camp has been considered a military zone via an oral military order. Every day Israeli military personnel have been entering the camp, firing tear gas, shooting rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition, in addition to spraying the camp with dirty water. The day after the Prime Minister’s visit, the Activities Coordinator for Lajee Center, an MCC partner, was shot in the head by a rubber-coated steel bullet. Thankfully, he only needed stitches.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn and be healed. Isaiah 6:10b

On day three of his Middle Eastern Tour, the Prime Minister visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. As he wandered through the memorial and looked out to forested hillside, did he know that the memorial is built on top of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassien? On April 9, 1948 Zionist militias entered the Palestinian village of Deir Yassein and killed over 100 of the inhabitants. The rest were forced to flee. Today its refugees still remain in camps, similar to the residents in Aida Camp.

If you, even, you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:42

Following his visit to Yad Vashem, Mr. Harper walked through the Old City of Jerusalem seeing the busy market place and the holy sites. Yet the Old City lives with daily tension.  In this holy city Israeli settlers have been taking over Palestinian houses. In the Muslim Quarter, young Israeli men have occupied a Palestinian house. In total, 78 properties have been appropriated in the Old City. The settlers are accompanied by armed security, making life for the Palestinians in the neighbourhood tense at best.  In some areas of the Old City the community spaces are divided so that there are segregated settler and Palestinian washrooms. Despite living in the same neighbourhood, laws are applied differently. The settlers are under Israeli civil law, while the Palestinians are subject to both Israeli civil and military law, depending on which law the Israeli authorities feel like applying.

Unfortunately after five days of traveling through the Middle East, Canada’s Prime Minister was left seemingly  unaware of the injustice that persists here. However, his lack of awareness does not come from not visiting certain sites, but rather from not seeing what lies beneath those sites. His eyes have remained closed.

This serves as a thoughtful reminder to all of us. We too are not immune to blindness.  What truths are being hidden from our eyes that allow us to support policymakers who uphold oppression and injustice? I wonder what truths — in our own narratives and lives — are being kept from us?

They said to him, “Lord let our eyes be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. Matthew 20: 32-33

A prime minister’s visit

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a large delegation of Parliamentarians, business people, religious leaders and others are visiting Israel and occupied Palestine to much fanfare this week.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Significant attention has been paid to how the Prime Minister’s words and actions – not only in recent days – seem to depart from official Canadian government policy.  His reluctance to publicly critique the unabated construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is one case in point.

MCC has worked alongside Palestinians for more than sixty years and alongside Israelis for more than forty.  Given this long history and an ongoing presence in the region, MCC workers are watching Prime Minister Harper’s visit keenly. Stay tuned for a reflection on the visit by MCC worker in Bethlehem, Rachelle Friesen.

MCC is committed to nonviolence and to a future of peace, justice and reconciliation for  Israelis and Palestinians. The following points guide MCC’s advocacy efforts on Palestine and Israel:

  • The land of Palestine and Israel should be a secure home for all, Palestinians and Israelis alike.
  • Any violence, especially attacks on civilians, is to be deplored. MCC mourns with all who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and awaits the day when both peoples will live in security on the land.
  • Any ideology or political program which seeks the expulsion or subordination of either Palestinians or Israelis is to be rejected.
  • Any political settlement or state solution should embrace:
    • A commitment to respect for human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants and conventions;
    • An end to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as called for by the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338;
    • A shared Jerusalem, in which Jews, Christians and Muslims may worship and practice their faiths freely and securely;
    • An end to discriminatory confiscation and distribution of land and water resources, including those practices prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention;
    • The dismantling of the illegal separation wall, in accordance with the ruling from the International Court of Justice.

MCC resources on Palestine and Israel include the following:

“Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: A Question for the Church,” MCC Peace Office Newsletter, September 2012.
What is Palestine/Israel? Answers to common questions, by Sonia K Weaver (Herald Press, 2007).
Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, edited by Alain Epp Weaver (Cascadia Press, 2007).

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

Seeds of peace in South Sudan

This week’s guest blog is written by Heather Peters, former MCC service worker in South Sudan, currently employed as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.

From 2010 to 2012 my partner Joel and I were MCC service workers in South Sudan, seconded to a Catholic Diocese as Peace and Justice Coordinators. In this role we would often travel to different churches and meet with community groups to discuss how peace was practiced in a “post-conflict society.” (Northern and southern Sudan had signed a peace agreement in 2005 ending the 22-year civil war.) For many people peace meant the ability to walk for water without fear, to send their children to school, and have access to a health clinic.

South Sudan 1

A student holds onto hope.

However, this vision of peace was still unattainable for many communities. After the civil war ended, violent conflict between tribal groups in the south increased – due in part to the trauma experienced during the war and by long-held grievances and mistrust of the different tribes. This meant that life was still insecure as people struggled to maintain the basics for survival and feared neighbouring villages which might retaliate for a past wrong. In discussions about peace, many people would advocate the importance of seeking reconciliation within their families; they could not think about reconciliation with an enemy tribal group.

We were deeply saddened to hear about the outbreak of violent armed conflict that began in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in mid-December 2013. This conflict had been instigated by a political division in the government but was being played out along tribal lines. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having gained independence in 2011. It has faced  many challenges in its birth – building infrastructure, government, and identity. It has also had much support from international organizations, including MCC, to work at these structures.

South Sudan 2

A women’s group prepares to spread the message of peace and justice through town.

But change comes slowly. We were often asked if we saw success in our peacebuilding work in the country. This was a hard question to answer. In many ways we saw our work as preparing soil for seeds of peace to be planted. It was still much too early in the story of South Sudan to know how and when these seeds would take root.

It is easy to feel discouraged and depressed about what is happening in South Sudan. The violence in Juba has spread throughout the country. Civilians have been killed and displaced. South Sudanese people are again becoming victims in a political struggle over which they have little control. These are people Joel and I know. People we worked beside. We listened to their stories, we held their children, we shared food together.  And together we struggled to prepare the land for peace.

Reconciliation workshop under the trees

Heather Peters leads a reconciliation workshop under the trees.

Despite the years of conflict, we  found people in every community, who had chosen to break free from the cycle of violence and walk a path that shunned revenge and advocated forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. These people were our teachers in how to live in a “post-conflict society” that was still filled with much conflict.  These people gave us strength in the work of peacebuilding. They are the ones that held the seeds of peace.

South Sudan is a country that is so much more than its wars and conflicts. The work that MCC has done in the past years in South Sudan portrays the richness that the country and its people have to offer. The relationships that have been formed and nourished strengthen our MCC presence, which will continue despite the current conflict.

On Christmas Day, Jok Madut Jok, who lives and works in Juba, wrote on his Facebook wall: “It takes more courage to be a peace messenger than a warrior and you save more lives with a message of peace than wielding a machine gun. It might not appear so in the immediate, but it will prove so in the long run. God bless us all, South Sudan and the world.”

As we remember the people of South Sudan and the current struggles there, we also remember the people who are embodying hope and planting the seeds of peace.

Avoiding predictions… sort of

Crossing the threshold of a new year is a good time to both look back and look ahead. Not surprisingly then, Canadian politicians and political pundits alike have been preoccupied with making lists and predictions.

Canadian flagMagazines and newspapers published their typical ‘news-makers of the year’ features and year-in-review photo spreads. Television and radio programs highlighted issues expected to dominate the headlines in 2014, and the corresponding challenges facing our political leaders.

On New Year’s Eve, Prime Minister Harper issued a statement highlighting 75 of the government’s “significant accomplishments in 2013.” The Prime Minister concluded by offering his assurance that the government would build on these achievements in 2014 in order to “secure prosperity and security for Canadians.”

I want to resist the temptation to start the year by making predictions for what lies ahead. After all, as I have argued in a past blog post, I don’t think the measure of political judgment should be predictive accuracy.

And in any case, a quick look back at the previous year only underscores the challenge of discerning the probability of future events in the realm of Canadian politics.

One year ago, who would have predicted:

  • That the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) would cease to exist, having been amalgamated into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD… awkwardly pronounced dee-fat-dee)?
  • That the Canadian War Museum’s newest special exhibition would be called Peace, and would feature several Mennonite-related artifacts?
  • That Prime Minister Harper would announce that his government is committed to establishing mandatory reporting requirements for Canadian mining, oil, and gas companies?
  • That the Canadian government would resist calls to arm opposition fighters in Syria, and that the response of western governments to the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be diplomacy rather than armed intervention?
  • That we would still be talking about the legislation to implement Canada’s commitment to the Cluster Munitions Convention, and that one of the last items of Parliamentary business for the year would lead to a small amendment to the bill?
  • That the Senate expense scandal—among numerous other political scandals—would only get bigger and bigger as the year went on?

I think the same holds true when we look to the political situation in other countries. Who would have predicted the changes we have seen in Iran over the past year?

Thus it seems to me that there is little point in speculating on what the big political stories will be for the coming year.

About the only certainty is that at least some of these stories will be about things that aren’t currently on the radar of the mainstream media. As always, we should expect that we will need to react to the unexpected.

Indeed, much of MCC’s advocacy is reactive. Many of the letters we write to the government—and many of the calls for action we promote among supporters—are in response to issues of the day.

To be sure, MCC’s advocacy is also rooted in longstanding partnerships, and deep commitments, that enable us to faithfully and effectively respond to the drama of the moment. And there is every reason to expect that we will be well placed to speak out on at least some of the big stories that emerge in the coming months.

Hope buildingPerhaps this will include Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan later this month.

Perhaps this will include the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into the impact and legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Perhaps this will include the Canadian government’s marking of the 100th anniversary of World War I.

I’m sure there will be many more issues that, when we look back on the year, will have stretched and surprised us. Hopefully it will also be clear, at least in retrospect, that our efforts are aligned with the moving of God’s spirit as well as the unfolding drama of Canadian politics.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director