Eight cyclists from Europe have spent three weeks travelling through the Holy Land to highlight the need for a just and peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
The bicycle journey, the third of its kind, began on 14 August in the Jordanian capital of Amman, where the riders toured the city and visited a Palestinian refugee camp. They then spent the remainder of the trip, cycling through Arab communities near Nazareth and Haifa in northern Israel, and Palestinian communities in the occupied territories.
"Starting the Peace Cycle for me was very much about my own faith, which shapes my feelings about justice and humanity," said Laura Abraham, 42, a British citizen who co-founded the peace cycling project in 2003. Participants aim to draw attention to the situation of the Palestinians, and to call for a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Seeing such injustice happening in the Holy Land, the place God himself walked upon the earth, was too wrong to ignore and I felt compelled to do something," Abraham, an Anglican, said.
The Peace Cycle initiator was unable to participate in this year's ride and said that at first she had been disappointed with the low-turn out compared to previous years, when some 25 riders took part. In retrospect, she said, it appeared this year's smaller group had allowed for greater cohesiveness and unity.
The cyclists' route took them through checkpoints, roadblocks and confiscated land, and past the Israeli separation barrier, a controversial structure consisting of 18-metre-high cement slabs and barbed wire topped fences that winds through the West Bank, and which Israel says is needed to prevent infiltration by Palestinian terrorists into Israel.
The Peace Cycle rides also raise money for humanitarian aid to Palestinians. This year the beneficiary was Medical Aid for Palestinians, a non-profit medical group registered in England.
The first two Peace Cycle missions took place in 2004 and 2006.
The Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies (www.sirajcenter.org) in Bethlehem arranged the 2008 group's stay in the West Bank, where they rode through Nablus, Tulkarem, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and into Jerusalem as well as smaller villages.
"The whole purpose of the Peace Cycle is to break the cycle of violence and bring justice especially to the Palestinians," said George Rishmawi, coordinator for Siraj. "They came here to really see what is happening and take that message back with them when they go home."
The riders came from England, Belgium and Greece and ranged in age from 22 to the mid-40s. They included a gardener, a school principal, a university student and an avionics engineer. For most, it was their first trip to the region.
At one checkpoint between Nablus and the village of A-Siria, the group encountered problems from Israeli soldiers who insisted the checkpoint was only for cars. Still, after a 45-minute wait the commanding officer agreed to let the group pass.
Cycling through the area made for a slower trip, and allowed the riders to encounter people directly and see the situation close-up, instead of travelling on a bus with a pane of glass between them and the land, Rishmawi said.
"It makes more of an impact when people are cycling in downtown Jenin. It is not something you see every day," he added. "People here loved it."
The cyclists said that among their most significant moments was the warm and generous welcome they received from Palestinians. They met local Palestinian residents and community leaders as well as members of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
"The Holy Land should be a place of reflection, peace and pilgrimage for the world's main religions, and for those with no faith," said English primary school principal Nick Owlett, 39. "At the moment, there is no peace and no prospect of peace when Palestinian human rights are being abused in so many ways."
More information: http://www.thepeacecycle.com/
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]