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U.S. Missionaries wait out West Bank conflict best they can
Oakland Tribune
April 18, 2002

By Doug Mead

Elizabeth Sanders' seventh grade class had Muslim and Christian children learning side by side before Israeli military actions forced the Zababdeh school to close.
ELIZABETH Sanders doesn't know how to spend her days any more. She reads and she watches TV. Occasionally, she and her husband sneak out of the home in Jerusalem where they're staying and make milk runs for the children of their home village of Zababdeh, some 50 miles away on the West Bank.

There's a certain level of fear, she admits. She'd rather be back in Zababdeh, teaching English to her students, a mixture of Christians and Muslims at Zababdeh's 800-student Latin Patriarchate School, but Israeli military actions have forced the school to close.

"I'm not coping especially well," she says by cell phone. "I find alternate methods of dealing with the stress. I can't sleep. I wake up, my head is spinning and I feel breathless. Now that we're out of there, a lot of it is escapism. I read books, watch stuff on TV, like the news. I try to escape for a little while. It seems to be what's holding me together recently."

Elizabeth, 29, and her husband Marthame, 31, are Presbyterian missionaries who were forced from their home and work in Zababdeh, about 30 miles north of Nablus, on April 2. Their purpose is to be a support to churches in the northern West Bank, teaching and trying to build bridges between churches and Islamic mosques.

Marthame - a combination of the names of his great-grandmothers, Martha and Mamie - leads worship, preaches and teaches religion classes. Elizabeth teaches seventh through 11th graders and first through fourth graders.  They have been in Zababdeh for 18 months. Even though their faith is closer to the Jews, they feel closer to the Muslims in the area, in part because of the school.

Marthame says the Christians and Muslims in the area mix well, with little friction. They have coffee together, go to each others' weddings and funerals and work side by side. The northern West Bank is primarily a Muslim region.

They miss their home and work in Zababdeh. Jerusalem is not a safe haven."It stinks," Marthame says. "One of the things that is most frustrating is that we have very little contact with the village. Telephone lines are cut because of the military action in Jenin. The Palestinian phones are out in the West Bank. There's a handful of people who have Israeli cell phones, so we've been able to stay in touch with a few of them.

"There's no school right now. The school draws from the whole region, ... but none are able to come, except for the kids from the village. Tanks are coming and going, and it's not a good risk having kids coming to school. Electricity has been spotty.

"Because our work is in the northern West Bank, we talk to people in Nablus, in Jenin (areas that have Jewish settlements). We're hearing what's happening there. It's heartbreaking, gutwrenching. It's emotionally straining; that's the best word for it."

Still, Marthame says, the children are sometimes oblivious to what's going on around them. Christians and Muslims interact with little thought to one's beliefs.

"They're like most kids," he says. "They don't seem to notice. The only time you notice is morning prayer. It's a Roman Catholic school. The Catholics cross themselves, and the Muslims raise their hands. The religion classes ... obviously, they don't have classes together. We teach Islam classes to the Muslims and the Christian kids Christianity.

"They tend to cling together from their villages. They get along, but you also see best friends. They're inseparable. They're crossing that divide between Christians and Muslims."

There are no Jewish settlements around Zababdeh, so the Sanders have little interaction with the Jewish population.

Marthame says he is torn between how he feels about the Israeli military actions and the Palestinian suicide bombings. Neither is helping subdue the already difficult situation.

Elizabeth says her missionary work has been a revelation to her. She knew very little about Islam upon arriving from Atlanta, and finds the situation in Palestine similar to race relations in the South in the 1960s.

"It has been really heartening to see people in the nitty gritty working together," she says. "We're good friends together, we're neighbors, we visit one another. It doesn't matter whether we're Christian or Muslim."

There are Christians, Jews and Muslims quietly working for peace behind the scenes, she says.

There are "a lot of groups working hard, doing humanitarian things like delivering water to places," she says. "I think that has, hopefully, some long-term ripple effect."

Meanwhile, Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders sit in Jerusalem, waiting for the roads to clear, so they can return to their home, work and Muslim and Christian friends in Zababdeh.

Doug Mead can be reached by e-mail at