Episcopal head's Gaza visit highlights plight of Palestinians

By agency reporter
23 Mar 2008

US Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's recent visit to Gaza brought a deeper understanding of the humanitarian crisis that is impacting 1.5 million Palestinians in the region and offered some signs of hope in the work of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, local churches and human rights organizations - writes Matthew Davies for ELO.

Throughout 19 march 2008, Jefferts Schori heard a constant message of Muslims and Christians united in their witness and common mission for peace, justice and reconciliation.

Joined by Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, who was visiting Gaza for the first time since his installation in April 2007, Jefferts Schori was encouraged by the hospital's commitment to providing essential healthcare in the Palestinian territory that has been severely affected by Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Israeli officials have said the blockade, enforced since January 17, has been necessary to put pressure on militant Palestinians to stop firing rockets into southern Israel. But regular power cuts, food and water shortages, lack of fuel, and attacks from the Israelis are placing immense pressure on the local population.

Donkey-driven carriages, vehicles backed up at gas stations, countless garbage piles and rocket-punctured buildings are typical scenes on Gaza's streets, and with the highest density of population in the world, the city's unemployment rate stands at 80 percent.

But the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, along with its dedicated staff and inspirational director Suhaila Tarazi, brings hope to Gaza's traumatized community, including its 3,000 Christians.

In addition to dispensing free medical treatment and services to everyone, the hospital also provides food and other necessities to those in need. But it struggles without electricity for 10 hours a day and it relies on limited fuel supplies to operate its generator. The blockade has also caused difficulties in bringing medicines into Gaza, and some food items, Tarazi said, have increased in price by 500 percent.

Founded as a mission of the Anglican Church in 1882, the hospital became a service ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem in 1982.

Touring the grounds, the Presiding Bishop and her delegation -- husband, Richard Schori; ecumenical and interfaith officer, Bishop Christopher Epting; and director of government relations, Maureen Shea -- met some of the patients and staff, and heard about the services that benefit some 45,000 local Palestinians per year, including free medical missions offered twice weekly.

One male patient told Jefferts Schori that the hospital provides the best services in Gaza and praised the staff for their tireless work.

Another said that he thanks God for people coming to visit. "The situation is very bad, but we are in God's hands," he said.

"We will go home and tell the story and continue to pray for peace," Jefferts Schori said.

"This is a place of love and reconciliation," Tarazi said, acknowledging the unity between Muslims and Christians in Gaza. "We are all children of Abraham working in mission to help one another."

"Everyone has a story," said Dawani, "and it is a story of deep faith. This is our witness."

The American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ) and Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) have provided critical financial assistance to the hospital as it struggles to serve the predominantly Muslim population in Gaza where about 80 percent of the population are living below the World Health Organization poverty line.

In January, the AFEDJ board sent $18,000 to the hospital for immediate humanitarian purposes. AFEDJ, a non-profit, non-political organization which supports the work of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, donated more than $160,000 to the hospital in 2007.

After leaving the hospital, the Presiding Bishop and her delegation met with Archdeacon Artemios of the Orthodox Church and visited the 1600-year-old building where he serves his congregation. He acknowledged that Gaza's Christian population is unique "because we live in peace with Muslims."

Jefferts Schori told Artemios "it is shocking to see the reality" in Gaza and that most Americans have very little awareness of the situation. She introduced Shea's work with government relations in Washington, D.C.

"We try to correct misinformation and now we can go back and relay what we have seen with our own eyes," Shea said.

Gaza's heads of Churches and dignitaries joined the Presiding Bishop's delegation for lunch overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where hundreds of fishing boats were moored due to fuel shortages in the region.

Earlier in the day, the delegation's entry into Gaza began at the Erez terminal, one of two main crossing points from Israel, where the delegation waited one hour for security checks before being granted entry.

A Palestinian family, including a young girl, was waiting to cross into Gaza to see relatives for the first time in two years. Although they had already secured the required permits, they were told the border had been closed. Moments later, the Presiding Bishop's delegation was granted access.

Once inside the complex, a long line of numbered metallic boxes with bullet-proof shielding faced the delegation, but the vast space was eerily empty and it was clear that not many people would be crossing the border today.

After passing security checks and walking 150 meters through no-man's land, the delegation arrived at an unmarked steel gate which opened to reveal a welcoming Palestinian man who was eager to assist in carrying the box filled with flashlights and equipment Dawani was delivering for the generator at Al Ahli Arab Hospital.

The first sighting of Gaza revealed a long dirt track with concrete bollards in the distance and a once-functional industrial city left in ruins from repeated Israeli attacks.

Once across the border, the delegation was met by Tarazi and members of the Ministry of Interior that provided security throughout the day.

The Gaza Strip, 25 miles long and between 4.5-7 miles wide, lies along the Mediterranean Coast and borders both Israel and Egypt. Its almost exclusively Palestinian population of 1.5 million includes 750,000 refugees.

Israel disengaged from Gaza and dismantled its settlements in August 2005 after almost 40 years of occupation.

Following the June 2007 conflict between Hamas and Fatah, known as the Battle of Gaza, the area is controlled by the Palestinian Islamist militant organization Hamas.

During the afternoon, the Presiding Bishop's delegation heard about the work of two Palestinian human rights organizations, Al Mezan Center and The Palestinian Centre.

Earlier in the week, the delegation met with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, and Ir Amim, an Israeli organization that strives for an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future and engages in issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.

Shea said she is delighted that B'Tselem will be opening an office in Washington, D.C. "It is important that Americans hear from Israelis who are deeply concerned about the affects of both the separation barrier and the check points on the daily life of Palestinians as well as on Israeli society," she said. "The well-researched information they bring will be enormously helpful in our advocacy for Middle East peace.

"In this land where the need for reconciliation is so great, where hopes for peace have been continually dashed, there are wonderful people and groups -- both Palestinian and Israeli -- who work daily to expose injustice, to find ways to bring people together, and to help them so that healing might begin."

Shea said the delegation has learned a great deal from the meetings with Rev. Naim Ateek and the staff and volunteers at Sabeel, as well as the leaders of Ir Amim, B'Tselem, Al Mezan Center and the Palestinian Center. "It is through groups such as these that we will have the just and reconciled world that is the promise of Easter."

Concluding the day in Gaza, Jefferts Schori reiterated that the information that filters through to the United States is very different from the reality on the ground. "We will tell the story loudly and freely and we will tell it to our government as well," she said.

She acknowledged her gratitude for what the Palestinian community is able to accomplish with minimal financial resources. "But you are rich in human resources," the Presiding Bishop said, and noted that she had been blessed to see many prophets on her visit.

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(c) Matthew Davies, editor of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the Anglican Communion, is traveling with the Presiding Bishop in the Holy Land. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/episcopal_life.htm

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