Few would imagine opting to live in one of the world’s most volatile regions, acting as an eyewitness to abuses of military and political power.
But for Rev Joan Fisher, the end of full-time work as a Uniting Church minister in the Albury Wodonga area presented the opportunity to do just that.
Joan has recently returned from three months living as a volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine – Israel (EAPPI). During that time she lived in East Jerusalem and saw first-hand the conditions endured by those in occupied Palestinian territories.
Joan explained that her interest in the Middle East began when she was training for ministry in the mid-1990s.
“My New Testament lecturer spoke about Christians in Palestine.
“That was a bit of a wake-up for me. I’d presumed that it was Jews and Muslims, but she alerted us to the fact that the Christians have been there since the church began and they’re really suffering under the occupation.”
After reading more information about the Middle East in the annual Act for Peace newsletter, Joan decided to learn more and joined a three-week tour to Palestine and Israel. While there she was inspired by a talk given by Rev Alex Awad at the Bethlehem Bible College.
“He spoke about the tremendous impact that the occupation was having on Palestinian people and discussed the numbers of Christians who are actually leaving Palestine altogether.
“He said 60 years ago the proportion of Christians was about 20 per cent, it’s now 2 per cent or less. In a couple of generations there may be no Palestinian Christians left in the Holy Land.
“Palestinian Christians can trace our history back to the day of Pentecost. Rev Awad asked our group why Christian brothers and sisters across the world were not concerned about what’s happening to them. He asked whether we were OK with having no Christians in the Holy land.”
Joan decided she wanted to do something practical to help, so enquired about EAPPI.
Coordinated by the World Council of Churches, the program was founded in 2002, following a request from Heads of Palestinian Christian Churches. Since that time, more than 1500 international volunteers have become Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs).
Part of the role of an EA is to act as a witness to life under occupation and, upon returning home, to report back to others the reality of the conflict. EAs also offer a protective presence to vulnerable communities, as well as monitoring and reporting human-rights abuses.
Before heading off, applicants are interviewed and undertake training in non-violent actions, international humanitarian law, human rights laws and general safety. EAs also have to raise enough money to fund the trip.
“I was very blessed to have lots of church groups and friends and family who were interested and who offered to help pay, which was fantastic,” Joan said.
“I had to raise $14,000 dollars which covered travel expenses and all living costs while I was there. The money also supports the head office in Jerusalem which coordinates all that is happening in the area.”
Teams of four to six people live in houses rented by the EAPPI program, throughout six known ‘hotspots’ on the West Bank, three in cities and three in rural areas.
“Most of the time we were working with communities in East Jerusalem and Bedouin tribes in nearby communities,” Joan explained.
“We accompany Palestinians in their daily lives to bear witness to what it is they have to actually deal with because of the occupation.
“This military occupation has gone on for 48 years. The Israelis seem to be treating the Palestinians worse and worse, and there is no punishment. The UN just passes another resolution that says settlements are illegal, and Israel goes on building settlements. There are absolutely no repercussions for Israel. The Palestinians are saying unless other countries put pressure on Israel, this is going to go on and just get worse.
“You can read about these things but it’s nothing like actually walking and talking with the people and seeing what life is really like. It was absolutely fascinating and very eye-opening.”
While the EA program aims to offer practical support in the form of advocacy and protection, it is the relationships established – knowing others care – that seems just as important.
“They are starting to lose hope,” Joan said. “It’s very sad but when you are there you can understand why because the violation of their rights is just relentless, it goes on all the time and it affects every aspect of life.
“There are children we met in the refugee camps whose parents and grandparents have lived in the same camp and they have basically not been outside that town or that district. They are not allowed to move anywhere because they are stateless people.
“It’s really hard for people in that situation to have a hope that things are going to get better.”
Joan said she was inspired by those she lived with during her time in the Middle East, and encourages others to consider helping in any way they can.
“The Palestinian people are absolutely amazing. Their resilience, their steadfastness in the face of all this harassment is phenomenal. They are wonderfully welcoming, their hospitality is brilliant, their enthusiasm about having people come and see what’s happening to them. And they’re very keen to tell their story.
“It’s an amazing experience.”
For more information about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel go to: https://www.eappi.org/en.
Assembly support for Palestine
The 14th Assembly of the Uniting Church accepted a proposal from former president, Rev Professor Andrew Dutney, to “establish an awareness-raising campaign throughout the Church on the plight of the Palestinian Christians and the Palestinian people, including promotion of the boycott of goods from the illegal settlements in the West Bank”.
The proposal was a response to requests – both official and unofficial – by Palestinians for an expression of solidarity. Prof Dutney led a group of Uniting Church ministers to a conference in Jerusalem in September 2014.
Following the conference the group met with Palestinian Christians. Prof Dutney said it was during this time “our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ asked us in person to join the international, peaceful movement to support them in their struggle for justice…”
Prof Dutney said those on the trip were inspired by the words of Bishop Munib Younan, head of the World Lutheran Federation and the leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
“He said to us ‘The world church owes us something, we Palestinian Christians. We’re your mother church and you owe us something. What you have to do is to go home and teach everyone to love their neighbour as they love themselves.’”
The proposal will encourage members throughout the Church to stand in solidarity with Palestinian Christians and includes the promotion of the boycott of goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Prof Dutney stressed that the boycott of goods produced in the illegal Israeli settlements in no way compromises the UCA’s “commitment to the existence, in peace and security, of the state of Israel, or our conviction that anti-Semitism in all its expressions is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ”.