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Palestine Revisited
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Beth Pratt
A-J RELIGION EDITOR
June 29, 2002

Christian missionaries Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders dress for dinner with the Bedouins while visiting ancient biblical sites in Syria.
Missionary teachers suffer through Mideast violence

Buried in a maelstrom of violence are the hopes and dreams that Arabs and Israelis can find a way to live side by side in peace. Extremists on both sides have seen to that.

More than bodies and explosives lie beneath the rubble at Jenin's refugee camp in Israel's West Bank, say Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders.

"The folly of trusting in military solutions becomes painfully obvious," says the missionary couple, who left teaching posts in April to stay with friends in Nazareth when fighting intensified in Jenin, near Zababdeh, the West Bank village where they teach.

"When people have nothing to live for, they can easily find something for which to die," they write in the May 8 through May 15 issue of Christian Century magazine.

"There's always been a minority of Palestinians who don't want Israel to exist at all, and it's growing," Elizabeth says. "In Israel, there's always a minority whose intention is to kick all (Palestinians) out."

In the wake of the suicide bombers, that number has grown to 50 percent, according to recent polls, she says.

Finding the way home is daunting for the refugee population of Camp Jenin after the Israeli military response in April to Palestinian suicide bombers. The entire area is reduced to rubble.
The Presbyterian couple just completed its second year as teachers at the Latin Patriarchate Secondary School in Zababdeh, which has a student body of 700 and a 45-member faculty. Some of their students live in Jenin. The student body is about half Christian and half Muslim.

They describe themselves as ecumenical workers to support ministry for the indigenous church.

"Christians have been there since the time of Pentecost," Marthame notes.

Since the Israeli state was established in 1948, the Christian population in the area has shrunk from a healthy 25 percent minority to less than 2 percent. Factors include education, immigration and birthrates.

In the wake of the suicide bombers, that number has grown to 50 percent, according to recent polls, she says.

The Presbyterian couple just completed its second year as teachers at the Latin Patriarchate Secondary School in Zababdeh, which has a student body of 700 and a 45-member faculty. Some of their students live in Jenin. The student body is about half Christian and half Muslim.

They describe themselves as ecumenical workers to support ministry for the indigenous church.

"Christians have been there since the time of Pentecost," Marthame notes.

Since the Israeli state was established in 1948, the Christian population in the area has shrunk from a healthy 25 percent minority to less than 2 percent. Factors include education, immigration and birthrates.

"Our village is mostly Christian peasant farmers," he says. "Their situation is the same as for Arabs in general anyone who had the means moved. The farmers didn't have the option to move."

Life is difficult for Christians in the Middle East.

"Christianity is very different because it teaches grace, not law," Marthame says. "Judaism and Islam are religions of law."

Church ritual gives comfort and continuity as Palestinian Christians observe holy moments such as baptism. Since the Israeli state was established in 1948, the Christian population in the area has shrunk from a healthy 25 percent minority to less than 2 percent.
For Elizabeth, the fear of more misunderstanding and hatred gave them a feeling of urgency to tell people here about people there to help avoid generalizing the actions of the terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Marthame says, "What we can learn from the Mideast is how abhorrent and contrary to the will of God violence is. It goes against Christian teaching. It is an offense to the cross because in the cross, Christ took the sin of the world on himself.

"There's always Christian hope," he adds, "but people on both sides are calling for dangerous interventions."

Israeli efforts to make Arafat less relevant have backfired, he adds.

"Palestinians have been calling for reform since Oslo (peace agreements), and have been ignored by all," he says, leading to cynicism about talk of reform in the government of the territory.

By destroying the infrastructure in the West Bank, the Israelis have destroyed or damaged the means for reform, he says.

For the Sanders couple, living in an atmosphere of violence takes its toll in numerous ways, including physical symptoms such as headache and sleep disturbances, Elizabeth says.

"In our personal emotions, we are feeling really frail right now," Marthame says.

Yet, they will return for the new school term in the fall.

Life goes on even in the midst of war, whether in Israeli or Palestinian territory. Children go to school. Families continue to mark the important occasions such as baptism, weddings and funerals.

Christian worshippers participate in a procession in Jerusalem during Holy Week, celebrated on the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

When they traveled, it was strange seeing people going about their daily lives. For example, Elizabeth says, they saw people paragliding in Haifa and others participating in a bicycle race.

But there are far too many funerals.

"To live here is to cope, and to cope is to go numb," the couple says.

The Israeli army entered Jenin Camp in early April, and in a week it left a trail of destruction that appears to have spurred more rather than less terrorist activity by Palestinian suicide bombers.

Marthame and Elizabeth returned to the area after the army left and worked with students from the Arab-American University of Jenin to help translate for the emergency workers and journalists.

The university is close to their village. It has about 15 international faculty members. Most have stayed on through the fighting.

"We stepped out in April and went to Nazareth, which is calm, nothing like the West Bank," Marthame says. "The roads are open. It's mostly an Arab area, so it's not a target of the suicide bombers."

Several small but dedicated Israeli peace groups demonstrate against Sharon's policies. Also, 400 Israeli soldiers are conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the West Bank because they think it is morally wrong (for the Israeli settlers to be there), he adds.

In May, after the couple had returned to their school in Zababdeh, a group of American pilgrims from Boston visited. The tour was led by the Rev. Robert Tobin, whom Elizabeth had known when he was headmaster in the 1980s at All Saints Episcopal School in Lubbock.

Tobin took the tour by Zababdeh to visit a girl and her mother from near Jenin. The Palestinians had stayed with his family in Boston while the daughter had skin graft surgery for burns.


bpratt@lubbockonline.com
766-8724