In Shadow of Israel's Wall, Christians and Muslims Suffer Side by Side

Article excerpt

Abdalah Sharqawi's father once told him that his family's land was more important than his own children. "He told me I could lose a son or daughter and I'd survive, but if I lost my land, I would perish," Sharqawi remembers as he gently harvests the last crop of olives from gnarled, centuries-old trees about to be bulldozed by the Israeli military.

The ancient trees and the land they grow from are being taken from Sharqawi and other residents of Aboud in order to build the israeli separation barrier, a string offences and walls that Israeli officials claim are motivated by security concerns, but which the Christian and Muslim residents of this peaceful village argue are designed to steal their land and water, and ultimately to drive all Palestinians away.

Catholic leaders, from Aboud's parish priest to the archbishop of Washington, from Congressman Henry Hyde to columnist Robert Novak, have taken sides with the villagers and taken the case to the U.S. Congress, President George W. Bush and the U.S. public. Yet Israel remains unperturbed, and bulldozers and trucks work all day to uproot trees and move hillsides, some claim changing the facts on the ground in such a way that ongoing efforts at peace negotiations seem like empty gestures.

Aboud is a classically quaint village that sits on a ridge looking west into Israel and on to the Mediterranean. Its Christian heritage dates to Jesus himself; the Holy Family reportedly passed through Aboud on its way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and legend has it that Jesus preached here. The oldest church in Aboud dates to Constantine's reign.

Over the centuries Muslims began moving into Aboud, but Christians remained the majority until recently. Economic hardship resulting from Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement motivated better-off Christians to leave. One extended Christian family of 437 people moved to nearby Jordan, and during the second intifada 34 Christian families moved from Aboud to Ramallah in order to work in the larger Palestinian city without having to pass through the onerous and often arbitrary Israeli military checkpoints that form the backbone of the occupation of the West Bank.

The Christian exodus from the Holy Land has led many to wring their hands about whether Christianity can maintain a foothold in the land of its birth. Israel blames Muslims for the Christians' departure. Christian and Muslim leaders blame the Israeli occupation, and some Christian leaders, including Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, warn that Christians should put their own house inm order--specifically, denounce Christian Zionists--before complaining about any mistreatment by Muslims.

Sabbah and others are quick to point out that when problems arise, as they did in September when several Palestinian churches were attacked in apparent response to Pope Benedict XVI's comments about Islam, leaders of radical Islamist groups, including Hamas, were quick to condemn the violence, protect churches from further attacks, and in some cases lend a hand in rebuilding. Many here speculate that Israel was ultimately behind the attacks, sowing religious discord just as it nurtured political tension by assisting the birth of fundamentalist Hamas as an alternative to Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah movement.

In Aboud, the controversy over the pope's remarks went largely unnoticed. In the village's Catholic school, where 94 of the 215 students are Christian, nothing happened. The only church to be attacked recently in Aboud was a shrine to St. Barbara from the sixth century; Israeli soldiers blew it up in 2002.

According to Fr. Firas Aridah, pastor of the town's Our Lady Mother of Sorrows Catholic Parish, the outside world's interreligious conflicts have never penetrated into this sleepy town of 2,200 people, where Christians make up almost half the population today. Muslims celebrate Christmas and Easter with their Christian neighbors, and Christians gather with Muslims to celebrate the end of Ramadan. …