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Diary: Nicholas Papadopulos

17 May 2024


Watch, and pray

I HAD only ever seen the Via Dolorosa packed to overflowing with pilgrims. Walking the Way of the Cross is difficult when the crowd makes it barely possible to put one foot in front of another. Contemplating the Passion of Christ is difficult when the songs of worshippers from every corner of the globe mingle with the loud appeals of business owners to “just have a look” at their pottery and tapestry. Yet, arriving in East Jerusalem in January, nearly four months into the war on Gaza, I found the city almost deserted.

On sabbatical from Salisbury, I had come to spend three months as member of an international team on the World Council of Churches’ (WCC’s) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Hotels were locked and barred; souvenir shops were boarded up; restaurants were barely trading. The barber said that I was his first customer in four days (not, on reflection, a skilful sales pitch).

My colleagues and I were there to monitor abuses of human rights, to deter such abuses through our presence, and to show solidarity with Israelis and Palestinians working for peace. But curiosity about our sudden appearance in the deserted streets was mixed with resentment at the absence of internationals since Hamas’s horrific attack on 7 October 2023. “Where have you been when we have needed you?” we were asked, time and time again.

What that meant was brought home to me when, early one morning, we were walking in the Old City. Ahead of us, an Israeli Border Police officer stopped a Palestinian man. Words were exchanged between them, and she began to raise her gun, slipping off the safety catch. Then, over his shoulder, she saw us. And she stopped, letting her gun fall back.

Exchange of views

WE GOT used to seeing Israeli guns, carried by people in uniform and people dressed as civilians. They were ubiquitous: on the light rail, in the streets, at the bus stops.

Breaking The Silence is a courageous organisation that brings together former members of Israel’s military to speak out about their experience. We met Eran, an idealistic Israeli socialist who had joined the army enthusiastically. He had become disillusioned when he was required to search Palestinian primary-school children in a Hebron street. It made him take a long, hard look at himself. He realised that he was in no way contributing to Israel’s security.

Occupation exacts a cost from the occupied and from the occupier. Ours was an emotionally charged meeting. As it was ending, Eran told us almost casually that, after the attack on 7 October, the Israel Defense Forces had called him up for reservist duty. Such was the impact on him of Hamas’s brutal action that, despite his life of anti-occupation advocacy, he had gone and served.

Future imperfect

THE churches of Jerusalem have missed their pilgrim congregations, and, through the weeks of Lent, I worshipped at churches of every denomination and tradition. Over coffee after the wonderful liturgy of the Syrian Catholics, I chatted with the two Palestinian boys who, that morning, had served as acolytes.

When I commented that they both spoke very good English, they told me that they learned it at school, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. “I don’t like Hebrew,” one of them complained. “We have to learn Hebrew,” the other retorted. “If we don’t, when we’re grown up, how will we speak to the soldiers?”

Aged 11, they had ambitions to become engineers and doctors. But they could conceive only of a future in which negotiating with a military presence would be their reality.

Truth to power

PALM Sunday is a huge occasion for Palestinian Christians: the day when they celebrate Christ’s entry into their city. This year, the procession was the biggest that I have ever been part of, numbering thousands; yet it was far smaller than usual, and there was a muted tone.

As they processed, Jerusalem’s Christians were mindful of the hundreds of Gazans sheltering in two church compounds, and mindful, too, of the West Bank Christians who were absent. Applications had been made for 20,000 of them to come to Jerusalem; just 200 were allowed.

As we descended the Mount of Olives, a zealous American pilgrim told me that she was praying for a great outpouring of God’s power on suffering Gaza, where she was expecting to see mighty works performed. I replied rather curtly that I was praying for a ceasefire. These are not necessarily, of course, mutually exclusive. But naming the immediate need — as I write, there have been more than 34,000 Palestinian deaths — seemed to me more honest than draping a desperate situation in piety.

False dawns

HAQAN QAM!” He is risen indeed! Archbishop Hosam Naoum invited a fascinating cross-section from the congregation at St George’s Anglican Cathedral to join his family and the cathedral clergy for lunch on Easter Day. The food was prepared by Muslim kitchen staff, who were in the midst of their Ramadan fast.

Priests, diplomats, and students; young and old; Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals — all raised their glasses around the festive table in celebration of the resurrection.

Wandering happily home through the Old City, I went into a shop to buy Nablus soap. The proprietor sold me two bars for ten shekels. “Where are you from?” he asked. I told him. He looked straight at me. “Stop this war,” he said, as he handed me my change. “Stop this killing. Why does God allow this to happen?”

“Can you ever be hopeful?” I had asked Archbishop Hosam. “Of course,” he had responded. “This is the city of the empty tomb — and here we know that the tomb is still empty. But hope is not the same as optimism. I am not always optimistic.”

Signs of the cross

BACK in Salisbury, I slipped into the cathedral’s eucharist for Ascension Day. It was a joy to see familiar faces, to sing festal hymns, and to hear the choir. Listening to the Gospel, I thought of Jesus and the Twelve making their way to Bethany, a route now disrupted by Israel’s Separation Wall. I thought of the Ascension chapel at the top of the Mount of Olives, its stone slab marked with the last earthly footprint of Jesus. And I thought of the indelible mark that Jerusalem has left on me.

There are emails to read, meetings to prepare for, papers to digest, and even sermons to write. But there are also stories to tell: stories of these three eye-opening, heartbreaking, Christ-revealing months.

The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos is the Dean of Salisbury.

To learn more about EAPPI, visit: eyewitnessblogs.com

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