Letters from the Holy Land

ancient wall

Uniting Church minister Ann Scull and her husband Joe have just returned to Australia after spending five weeks living in Bethlehem. They went there to help as volunteers before and during the Bethlehem Bible College’s bi-annual Christ at the Checkpoint conference.

The couple have visited the Holy Land before for the conference and on other occasions, forming strong connections with the people. These are excerpts of Ann’s letters back home during her recent stay that she agreed to share with Crosslight readers.

G’day all,

The shuttle bus into Jerusalem was its usual erratic best. It ran a few errands along the way, drove at breakneck speed, braked almost too late, threw our luggage around with gay abandon and dropped us off short of our destination. The hotel was a welcome respite after 31 hours of travelling and our room, although a little shabby and small, had a huge private balcony. We got to bed after being continually awake for 44 hours.

What a delight to be back in Bethlehem. We live between the Omar Mosque and the Church of the Nativity just behind the side of Manger Square. I just love listening to the call to prayer and the bells of the three Nativity Church Spires. Between them all there is always something to listen to and any quietness between  is filled with car horns and fireworks (it’s the wedding season) or the rumble of helicopter gunships and army drones.

Grace and Peace, and heaps of love and laughter Ann n Joe


G’day all,

NOW to house camping: The Israelis only let water into Palestine every few weeks for a few hours. Everyone has little tanks on their roof; the lucky ones have a house with a well in the lowest room. Aniyah, who we are staying with, ran out of water because of some malfunction in the system. Consequently we had no water at all. Not a drop. We always buy drinking water in this part of the Old City because the pipes and tanks are so old but now we have the whole neighbourhood supplying us with bottled water for showering and the toilet. Thank goodness Joe and I know how to get two showers out of one bucket!

Then Ibrahim, our Muslim neighbour, heard about our plight and came to the rescue with water from his well. Now our problem is disposing of stacks of empty water bottles.

People we love spending time with:

The little kids in Manger Square and in the back streets: still eating ice creams at 10pm and shyly trying out their English on us in front of their proud parents.

Palestinian women: There is a nook in the buildings near us where men hang out for their smoko or to talk on phones. A bloke went right off on his phone the other day – yelling and screaming and waving his hands about. Kdhera yelled at him from her window to cut out the abusive language and women from all the houses joined in and really got stuck into him. Thoroughly chastened he slunk off. Women rule here – despite outward appearances!

The amazing Israeli Jewish lady who came into the gift shop and shared her story with us: She is a religious and political Zionist, member of a conservative Jewish community, single mother of six, with a voice like a feather, and a heart transplant recipient with the heart of a Palestinian! This momentous event in her life has led her on a journey of a lifetime as she tries to get in touch with her Palestinian heart.

The college’s first-year tourism students have an exam where they have to take a group of tourists through the Old Town, so Issa, their main teacher, asked us if we would go as pretend tourists and their other teacher, Christy, asked us to help with the assessments.

It was great fun. It was a 5km walk wending around and about Star Street which is probably our favourite street in all of Bethlehem. It is not only quaint, old and beautiful but it is also the way into Bethlehem which Joseph and Mary would have used. We learnt heaps – particularly about the architecture and about Christian traditions (the Muslim students got those spots) and Muslim traditions (the Christians got those spots). I did not realise that for many years Christians shared the church of the Nativity with their Muslim neighbours. When the Muslims really hankered after a mosque of their own, the Greek Orthodox church in the Church of the Nativity donated the land on which the Omar mosque is built – the mosque and the Church of the Nativity face each other across Manger Square.   

Grace and Peace, and heaps of love and laughter Ann n Joe


G’day all,

RAMADAN is in full swing now so there are no shops open until about noon because everyone has spent the night hours breaking the fast, letting off firecrackers and catching up with friends. During Ramadan most of the shop proprietors are sound asleep on chairs outside their shops. You have to cough loudly if you want to buy anything and there are no coffees offered either because fasting involves no drinking in the daylight as well as no eating. The last call to prayer has a sermon attached and, now and again, a choir as well. There are so many mosques the sound comes at you from all points of the compass, which is almost as confusing as the church bells when they all start up. Because it is hot, everybody sits outside in the evening, so going for a walk after dinner is lots of fun. The streets and mosques are decorated with thousands of lights. Arabic lessons abound and there are kids everywhere.

Manger Square is a hub of activity all night because of Ramadan. We use the Omar Mosque shop, open all night, for our food supplies – the owner is teaching us how to count in Arabic. He says how much something is in Arabic and then waits for us to work it out. Tonight, evening call to prayer meant half the square was full of praying men. Much business is also done there during Ramadan. At midnight earlier this week we took delivery in the square of a load of leather journals made for the conference. The leather workers work at night because of Ramadan and the heat.

Grace and Peace, and heaps of love and laughter Ann n Joe

G’day all,

Jerusalem Day: May 13

WE went to church in Jerusalem but did not stay long. Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day means watching bussed-in young Jewish settlers wearing offensive T-shirts running through the Old City tipping over Palestinian shopkeepers’ tables. Much nicer to be in Bethlehem where we celebrated Mother’s Day at a lovely Arabic restaurant with the strange name of Blueberry.

Israeli Independence Day: May 14

THIS has turned into ‘Trump’ day. If you watch the international news you will know that it turned into a disaster for Gazans who stood about 200 metres back from the fence to protest their captivity and the new American embassy. Drones firing multiple tear gas canisters are an abomination! At the college the usual demonstration out in the street occurred but it was much quieter than we have seen on other visits and the Israelis were far more contained. A few tear canisters and a few hours later some sound bombs but that was all. It might have been because the wind was blowing the wrong way and so gas was slightly ineffective against the intended targets. After we finished up at the college, there was  little traffic on the road so we cut through Aza Refugee camp to get to Manger Street to catch a serveece (similar to a taxi but shared and crammed full with a fixed very low fee). The camp is a warren of small alleys and it was easy to smell the tear gas. We were escorted through by Mamoud – the boy who often sells us coffee with his dad. He is a foot taller than two years ago and couldn’t stop smiling  and shaking our hands.

Nabka Day: May 15

THIS ended up being a very sad day because of the number of Gazans who died. There was a general strike. Nobody in the West Bank went to work, no shops or tourist attractions were open. We joined the people from our street for coffee. At  noon all the air raid sirens went off  and then all the church bells tolled and everybody stayed silent for a minute as we do in Australia on 11 November.

Heaps of love, Ann n Joe

G’day all,

THINGS are still fun here although the water situation is a bit grim. Last night Joe and I shifted back into the college where they have a well. Our room is at the front of the building and smelled faintly of tear gas until we aired it out. Nights at the college are as noisy as they are up in the Old City. Iftar meals are great family gatherings full of music, eating, and laughter – we have been invited to one but may not be able to go because of our conference responsibilities.

We have had a few projects on the go for the conference. Probably the messiest is preparing (‘cooking’) tear gas canisters to turn them into Christmas tree decorations. They have to be put in water and then caustic soda (or something) is dropped in and the water boils  and puts off an amazing odour – we have to wear scarves. It is very potent but it cleans them.

Heaps of love, Ann n Joe


G’day all,

WELL the conference has been and gone. It was a great success, although a huge amount of work for the those us in the gift shop because it meant moving the shop from the college to the Orient Palace Hotel foyer and then back again to the college at the end of the conference.

Joe and I are now happily ensconced in a room slightly larger than a bed in what was once the home of an 15th century Venetian painter called Canaletto.

Now to fill you in on stuff we couldn’t say while we were living on the West Bank – we were pretty much grilled by security this morning as we left as it was.

When we arrived we discovered, as we did last time, that the house we were staying in (which is well and truly in ‘A’ area, so out of bounds to Israeli soldiers) had been attacked during the night by Israeli soldiers. They poked the security camera in the street so it pointed directly at the sky and they used a hydraulic ram to smash open the doors. They did this to three other homes in the street although, having arrested the boy they were after twice before, they knew exactly where he lived. When they finally got to his house they beat him to a pulp, took him away and smashed up all his mum’s furniture. His dad died only six months ago, so with a husband dead and her only son in prison, his mother has no income. She sleeps in the broken bed and has no electricity. The neighbours have joined together to help.

The poor boy arrested is now in a prison in the Negev. He is regarded in the neighbourhood and by friends of his who we know as a quiet, polite boy whose job it is to light the chicken and bakery fires early each morning. People wonder if he uses Facebook to air his grievances.

Joe spent much of his first week repairing neighbourhood doors and other damage and resurrecting the locks.

There have been more gunships and drones and fighter planes overhead this time. Sometimes the fighter planes have huge spotlights following them across the sky at night – practise at locking onto an enemy we suppose.

Fighting between Israeli soldiers and the kids in the street only happened once this time but the Israelis use a much stronger tear gas these days and many more sound bombs. Aida refugee camp behind the college is the most tear-gassed place on earth. Aza Refugee camp, in front of the college, is probably the second most and bore the brunt of this particular assault because of the way the wind was blowing.

An international Christian we know visits Gaza from time to time. Not only does the college have a campus there, there are also a church-run school and a hospital. The hospital usually manages as a midwifery hospital but currently has two wards full to bursting with people with horrific leg wounds. The Israeli snipers are using bullets that explode on impact and leave absolutely enormous gaping exit wounds, which often lead to amputations.

The international Christian took a stroll down to the fence to check out what was really happening and to see if the demonstrations were as peaceful and non-violent as people claim. He said apart from one or two stone throwers and tyre burners (neither weapons have any way of reaching the Israelis) the demonstration was peaceful with people picnicking and sitting around on the ground talking. Nevertheless, while he was there, the Israelis fired a load of tear gas across the divide right amongst the picnickers – and him. He ran for clearer air and was surprised when a small boy popped up in front of him and sprayed a solution of water and either lemon juice, vinegar or carb soda onto his face giving him immediate relief. There are a number of these small Gazans, always at the ready.

We visited the village of Nabi Seleh, home of the Tamimi family, whose daughter Ahed is serving eight months jail for slapping an Israeli soldier who shot her cousin at point blank range with a rubber bullet. The Israeli soldier also got eight months jail and the little cousin has brain damage. The Tamimis and most of the village have been non-violently protesting the loss of a spring that feeds their village. It has been taken by Israeli settlers. We could see the spring but we could not go near it or we too would have been shot. Most of the villagers have spent time in jail. Ahed’s mum is also in jail.

Walking beside the wall on Saturday we found four lovely young Muslim women painting a memorial to the nurse killed by a sniper while tending the wounded in Gaza this week. It turns out the four painters are all doctors and shattered about the nurse in Gaza. They work at a local hospital where the worst cases in Gaza are sometimes allowed to be sent. Currently they are trying to save the leg of an 11-year-old Gazan boy who has already lost his other leg (those exploding bullets again) but they were not all that hopeful. I said I would pray for them, and they hugged me.

Sadly this time, Ann and Joe

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