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Christians, Jews and Muslims meet on the road to Bethlehem

By Firas Aridah
Originally published in the Globe and Mail

As a parish priest in the West Bank village of Aboud, my Christmas preparations include recording the identity card numbers of my parishioners to request permits from the Israeli authorities to allow us to travel to Bethlehem.

Some may be denied permits and prevented from worshipping there. While decorating our church for the joyous birth of Our Lord, we also prepare banners for the next protest against the wall that Israel began to build on our village’s land a month ago.

Aboud is nestled among terraced olive groves in the West Bank, west of the city of Ramallah. The village has 2,200 residents; 900 of them are Christian. Within the village are seven ancient churches and the oldest dates back to the third century. We believe that Jesus passed through Aboud on the Roman road from Galilee to Jerusalem.

The wall that Israel is building through Aboud is not for the security of Israel. It is for the security of Israeli settlements in our area.

The Israeli government continues to claim that it is building the wall on Israeli land, but Aboud lies six kilometres inside the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. The wall will cut off 1,100 acres of our land for the sake of two illegal Israeli settlements.

Sometimes the Israelis give special treatment to the Christians in our village. Sometimes they give them permits to go through checkpoints while they stop Muslims. They do this to try to separate us but, in reality, we Muslims and Christians are brothers.

Our church organist Yousef told me: “Some foreigners believe that Islam is the greatest danger for Palestinian Christians rather than Israel’s occupation. This is Israeli propaganda. Israel wants to tell the world that it protects us from the Muslims, but it is not true.”

In Aboud, we Muslims and Christians live a normal, peaceful life together. Last week our village celebrated the Feast of Saint Barbara for our patron saint whose shrine outside our village was damaged by the Israeli military in 2002. We invited the Muslims to share the traditional feast of Saint Barbara. They also invite us to share their traditional Ramadan evening meal. We have good relations. Muslims are peaceful people.

With signs, songs and prayers, our village has been protesting against Israel’s apartheid wall. Through peaceful demonstrations and the planting of olive trees, we want to tell the Israelis and the international community that we are against Israel taking our lands. We are working for peace here, but still the Israeli soldiers have attacked our peaceful protests with clubs, sound bombs, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Two weeks ago, we were honoured with a visit to Aboud by the highest Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. Patriarch Sabbah, a Palestinian, planted an olive tree on the planned route of the wall, and told 1,000 peaceful protesters, “The wall doesn’t benefit the security of either Israel or anybody else. Our prayers are for the removal of this physical wall currently under construction and the return of our lands.

“Our hearts are filled with love, and no hatred for anybody. With our faith and love, we demand the removal of this wall. We affirm that it is a mistake and an attack against our lands and our properties, and an attack against friendly relationships between the two people.

“In your faith and your love you shall find a guide for your political action and your resistance against every oppression. You may say that love is an unknown language to politics, but love is possible in spite of all the evil we experience. We shall make it possible!”

Just after Patriarch Sabbah left, an Israeli protesting with us was arrested by Israeli soldiers as he planted an olive tree.

We have good Israeli friends. We do not say that every Israeli soldier is bad, because they are just soldiers following orders.

Yes, there are Palestinian Christians here in Aboud, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza. We are the Salt of the Earth.

My religion tells me that I have to love everybody and accept everybody without conditions.

We have here good Jewish people, good Muslims and good Christians. We can live together. This is the Holy Land.

If we in Aboud can send a message to the world this Christmas, it is that Jews, Christians and Muslims have to live together in peace.

Father Firas Aridah is a Jordanian priest serving the Roman Catholic Holy Mary Mother of Sorrows Church in the village of Aboud.