PYM General Secretary Christie Duncan-Tessmer is currently traveling as a member of a delegation of the National Council of Churches to the Middle East. This ten-day trip includes visits with diplomats, politicians, church leaders, and activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine. PYM will be posting periodic updates from Christie this week during her trip, to share what the NCC delegation is seeing and witnessing through our General Secretary’s eyes.
I’m writing this letter at the end of two very full days in and around Jerusalem. We are staying in a place right across the street from the New Gate to the Old City. It is mesmerizing to be walking in Jerusalem on the same streets that Jesus did.
We arrived here after a journey from Egypt through Jordan, with stops at biblical sites along the way. We stood on Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land in the distance before he died, and walked through the desert before wading in the waters of the river Jordan, where Jesus was baptized.
Transitioning from those spacious and breathtaking landscapes, we went through Israeli security into the West Bank and on to Jerusalem. We had an easier border crossing than is generally the case for others, but even so, it meant changing buses, answering many questions, and passing quite a few young soldiers with machine guns. It was on the other end of the spectrum in terms of interior experience of the exterior world.
Our meetings on this leg of our journey began with the Palestinian Authority Presidential Commission for Church Affairs. In the very limited time available, they took us through a high-level overview of the current realities on the ground, and the prospects for the future from their perspective. They highlighted the fact that 2017 marks the anniversary of many important landmarks in the conflict, including 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, almost 70 years since the Nakba, 50 years of Israeli Occupation, 30 years since the first Intifada, and 10 years of the blockade of Gaza.
They gave an overview of human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, and spoke about their concern for Christians, which now make up only about 2% of the population. They also shared their current vision for what they see as a resolution to the conflict: two states existing side by side.
My next stop that day was a visit to the Ramallah Friends School along with Diane Randall, Executive Secretary of FCNL. Separating from the rest of the NCC delegation, we walked together from the Palestinian Authority headquarters to the school, where we met the new head, Adrian Moody. (His predecessor Joyce Ajlouny has just stepped into the role of General Secretary of AFSC.)
Ramallah Friends School is deliberately half Christian and half Muslim, as well as half girls and half boys, reflecting a conscious effort in the admissions process to develop interfaith relationships while also increasing young girls’ access to education. From the moment we stepped onto the campus, the school emanated a recognizable, familiar feeling. There was an openness and sense of welcome from the adults and children we met.
After a walk from the school past the Quaker meetinghouse in Ramallah, we took public transportation back to Jerusalem. At the border, the bus stopped and everyone got off for a security check. Diane and I stood up to get off with everyone else, but the bus driver told us to sit back down. We waited for a minute in our seats along with one or two other people. Then two Israeli soldiers with machine guns came on the bus to look at our passports, and then allowed us to get off that bus, walk across the street, and board another bus, which took us directly into Jerusalem. We noticed that none of the Muslim people who had been on the first bus with us were on this one. They were diverted to a much more complicated security process and would, presumably, be getting on a later bus.
During this time Diane and I were separated from the rest of the delegation. We had hoped to rejoin them before a meeting with the Head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions at the Israeli government, but due to all the cross border security, weren’t able to make it back in time.
Our next day started with a meeting with the Deputy Consul General at the US Consulate, who explained that engaging with West Bank Palestinians has been part of the Consulate’s mission since the Oslo accords. When asked about the US stance on the two state-solution, they kept their answer short, stating that President Trump has said he’s looking for a deal that gets sustainable peace, in whatever form the Israelis and Palestinians can agree on. They acknowledged some of the many difficulties faced by Palestinians, for example struggles getting building permits, restrictions on travel, and limits to autonomy and authority with respect to Palestinian land.
Diane Randall and I split off from the group again at this point to visit the AFSC office in Jerusalem. We spoke with the coordinators of their Israel program and their Gaza program before heading to our final event for the day.
The evening closed with a dinner meeting with a variety of NGOs. I sat next to a Palestinian Christian woman who works to protect the rights of Palestinian youth who have been arrested by the Israeli military. At the end of the table was a young Israeli man who talked about his decision to leave military service before his tour of duty was over, similar to Quaker conscientious objectors, and what led him to do so. Another man at the table shared the story of how his daughter was killed by a suicide bomber 20 years ago, and ever since then he has been committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians talk with and know one another.
After dinner, we piled into the bus that has been driving us to all of these meetings and headed to Bethlehem, where we are now staying in a hospitality center next to the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born.
PYM General Secretary