The tour bus full of Christian pilgrims came to a halt. Unlike the usual Holy Land circuit, this group wasn't visiting an historic church or antiquities site. Instead, they had come to observe the scene outside the east Jerusalem branch of the Israeli Ministry of Interior, where a cluster of Palestinians huddled in the rain.
Douglas Dicks, a Virginia-born outreach worker for Catholic Relief Services, stood up in the front of the bus, pointed to the building and began reading from the Gospel of Matthew, describing Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate. "And when Pilate saw a riot was gathering, he took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. `I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility,"' intoned Dicks.
The tour, billed as a trip along a modern-day "Via Dolorosa," aimed to illustrate the everyday indignities Jerusalem's Palestinian residents suffer at the hands of Israeli authorities in the city of their birth. It was part of an ecumenical Christian conference on the Palestinian issue in late February.
The conference was sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Sabeel, a center for Christian liberation theology. It brought together several hundred Christians from 17 countries around the world to consider anew the Palestinian plight, particularly in the wake of failed Middle East peace talks.
"Palestinians come to the Ministry of Interior building to renew their Jerusalem residency permits, to get permits for their children, to get permission to leave the country and to re-enter," Dicks said. But a whole range of Israeli administrative policies, beginning at the entrance to the ministry office, make it difficult for Palestinians to obtain, or hold on to, Jerusalem residency rights, he said, and that has resulted in the de facto expulsion of thousands of Arab residents from the city.
"You always find people standing here for hours, in the rain and shine. Just to get into the building, people start lining up at 3 in the morning," said Dicks. "It's all part of the `quiet' deportation policy."
The discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem was just one of the many Palestinian human rights issues that the conference sought to highlight not only through the "alternative" tours of Jerusalem, but also in visits to churches, refugee camps and urban social welfare centers in the West Bank. Along the way, the group got a little taste of what it might feel like to be a Palestinian under Israeli rule these days. …