Al-Masih qam! Hakkan qam. Alleluia! The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
At 6am on Easter Sunday, eleven of us gathered in the gardens of the Scots Hotel to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. As I mentioned in my last post, the major holidays of Easter and Christmas are unpredictable times here in Tiberias, a predominately Jewish town. Most people choose to worship instead in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, so I never know who might show up. When the start of Pesach (Passover) and Easter fall so closely together as they did this year, it adds to the uncertainty as members of the congregation in mixed marriages are usually celebrating Pesach with extended family and unable to attend our Easter celebrations.
There is something beautiful and intimate though about worshipping with a small gathering of believers in a beautiful garden overlooking the Sea of Galilee as the sun rises, and we continued our fellowship over breakfast at the hotel.
At our last Kirk Session meeting, we agreed to change our Sunday service time from 6pm to 10am, starting at Easter. It’s more convenient for those who attend regularly and will allow a few others who previously weren’t attending to come more often. But even on Easter, I wasn’t expecting more than a few people to show up. However, we had a wonderful crowd including families who were visiting Jewish friends and relatives at kibbutzim nearby, a few guests and former volunteers from Beit Bracha, a Christian guesthouse in Migdal, and a young couple who were married at St Andrew’s Jerusalem several years ago. I felt the joy of the resurrection fill my heart as we sang the great hymns of Easter.
I took a couple of days off after Easter, and on Tuesday went with a friend to Mar Jaris, the 6th century monastery of St George of Choziba in Wadi Qelt in the West Bank. As we drove south towards Jerusalem, we passed over 30km of traffic backed up along one of the main motorways in central Israel. It has been an unusually cold and wet winter here (on Easter Sunday, it was the same temperature in Tiberias as it was in Edinburgh), and Tuesday was one of the first warm days we’ve had. Because of the Pesach holidays, it seemed everyone in Israel was heading north to the national parks on the Syrian and Lebanese borders. By 2pm, the major sites had reached capacity and had to close to new visitors, and police began blocking the roads. By 4pm, there had been eight road traffic accidents including one fatality.
When we arrived at Mar Jaris, I noted the military presence at one of the side roads. After a leisurely wander down into the valley (believed to be the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ from Psalm 23), we climbed the steep slopes back to the car and headed towards Tiberias up through the Jordan Valley. Again, we passed queues of traffic, this time coming up from the Dead Sea. There was a heavy police and military presence at the major junctions and some of the roads heading toward Area A of the West Bank (the areas under the civil and military control of the Palestinian Authority).
I remembered then — as we and hundreds of other cars with Israeli registration plates traveled freely into and then out of the Palestinian Territory — that the West Bank and Gaza were closed for the entirety of the Pesach holiday, meaning it was closed for Palestinians wanting or needing to leave, but entirely open for Israeli and international tourists on holiday. The day before (Western) Easter, Israel had not yet granted permits to Gazan Christians wanting to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank for Easter, and only now has given permits to 500 Christians to travel to Jerusalem or via the West Bank to/through Jordan.
It seems a cruel irony that while Jews and Christians are celebrating our great holy days of liberation, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are suffering under even greater restriction of movement.
Unfortunately, given the recent election results, it looks unlikely that the situation will improve any time soon. There seems a concerted effort by the right-wing parties to increase suspicion of the Arab community, not just in the Palestinian Territories but also within Israel. Reports emerged early on election day that Likud (Benjamin Netanyahu’s party) had planted over 1000 hidden cameras in the voting stations in Arab villages, a move which was not only anti-democratic but illegal. Its purpose seemed to be two-fold: to create a sense of threat to discourage Arab voters from voting, and to create a picture of the Arab community as lawless and prone to voter fraud.
It can be hard to have hope in the current political environment.
But I am reminded in this Easter season that the empty tomb of Easter invites us to see life where we expect only death. The empty tomb invites us to search for love where there only seems to be hate. The empty tomb invites us to seek peace where violence is said to reign. The empty tomb invites us to sing a song of redemption when the world sees only sin. The empty tomb invites us to proclaim hope where there seems to be only hopelessness. Because whether we are grieving or joyful, Christ rose again. Whether we are doubting or believing, Love conquered death. Whether we are afraid or hopeful, God’s new creation has begun and is present here, now, all around us.
Here in this beautiful but conflicted land, I remind myself to look for signs of the Kingdom, in the flourishing of the earth after a winter of rain, and in the resolve of the organisations we are privileged to be partnered with, working for the flourishing of all people.
In a climate where the public space for critical political discourse is dramatically shrinking, it is becoming even more important to stand in solidarity with and support our partner organisations who continue to speak out against the military occupation of the West Bank and work for a more just and egalitarian society within Israel itself, organisations like House of Grace, Sindyanna, Sadaka-Reut, New Profile and Physicians for Human Rights.
I pray that the joy of this Eastertide may lead us to renewed efforts for justice in our communities and a new hope for liberation from fear and oppression.
This is an adapted version of the letter I wrote for my partnering churches and presbyteries back in Scotland. If you would like to distribute it within your own congregation or community, a pdf version can be found here:
If you would like to be added to the list of parishes and people who receive my letter (written roughly quarterly), please let me know in the comments. I will then email you directly to get the details of where you would like to have it sent. I’m only now discovering after three and a half years here that quite a number of people who should be on the mailing list aren’t!