On Sunday morning Pax Christi international members meeting in Bethlehem gathered outside Banksy's Shop beside the Separation Wall, huddled together in two ribbons of shade for it was an oppressively hot day.
Yes, the famous British street artist was here in 2007. His cartoons on the Israeli-constructed Wall, which include the "Flower Thrower" and "Armoured Dove - are very much appreciated by the Palestinian community.
Anyway, why were we there? We came together for a short pilgrimage along the section of the Wall that is near Rachel's tomb in North Bethlehem - a tomb which Palestinians are not permitted to visit - stopping at the spot where Pope Francis prayed a year ago.
We then moved on to celebrate our final Mass at Wi'am, the well-known centre for reconciliation and Pax Christi partner. Our walk was a spiritual and unforgettable experience - seeing how the nine-metre-high wall - twice as high as the Berlin Wall - has cut through Bethlehem neighbourhoods and how it has divided Palestinians from their lands and their families and restricted movement.
How could the international community do so little about this over the past 12 years! Yet, the Wall is also an extraordinary display of resistance and persistence because you can see how people use it as a canvas for their hopes and dreams, covering it with drawings, writings, graffiti.
Along the route of our pilgrimage the Wall also displayed huge thin metal posters, put up by the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem, another Pax Christi partner. Each of around 110 posters displays a brief English-language story-from-life of a Palestinian. The posters highlight problems as a result of the Wall and Israeli occupation, but also Palestinian resilience. The posters together form a gradually expanding "Wall Museum", which visitors to Bethlehem can visit. Actually, most don't, they simply making a beeline for the Church of the Nativity and out again, but we didn't make that mistake. We had the area to ourselves since the Wall has destroyed a thriving community, but perhaps the Israeli watchtower we passed was keeping an eye on us. It was hard to tell.
As we sang various Taize chants and walked slowly along, we were able to read some of the posters, telling of Palestinian life under occupation and presenting stories and anecdotes.
In one, Farida, a Palestinian Christian from Beit Sahour, talks about visiting the Shepherds' Fields every Christmas as a child: "It was magical for me. I remember the candlelight processions to the Shepherds' Fields in the middle of the night. There we sang, prayed, ate together and made a big fire. Afterwards we attended Mass in the church and had breakfast with chocolate and wine. We visited our family and friends to wish each other Merry Christmas. There was no Wall and no checkpoint. No one would say, 'You are not allowed the enter this place'. Things could not be more different now".
Wi'am staff welcomed us warmly for our final Assembly Mass and presented the vessels used to Pax Christi International at the end. The Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center has been going for ten years. "Wi'am" in Arabic means "cordial relationships", and the rays of light in Wi'am's logo represent both the genuine struggle in non-violent reconciliation and the enlightenment that comes with learning peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
Wi'am is situated right beside the Wall so we could not escape Bethlehem's tensions throughout Mass in the lovely garden, although I will admit to being distracted by sitting under a shady walnut tree and enjoying the fluttering leaves throughout. I might say that I was also distracted by the words on the back of a tee-shirt worn by the woman in front of me who hailed from the US: "Peace is costly but it is worth the expense". The inspirational local staff and volunteers of Wi'am and the other Pax Christi partners in the West Bank must truly believe this.
The Eucharist used wine from the Cremisan monastery near Bethlehem, which was slated to be another victim of the Wall, to be split in half by the latest section under construction until it was reprieved last month by the Israeli High Court. Then, we held two small olive wood crosses and were encouraged to bring one home, but to place the other one somewhere in the vicinity as a sign of our ongoing engagement with the 'living stones' in Bethlehem. I placed mine under the walnut tree, but many others walked right up to the Wall before bending down and completing their task.
Several times during the week we heard Palestinian Christians express dismay that the hundreds of thousands of Christians who visit the holy sites at Bethlehem each year are largely only interested in the dead stones. Well that can't be said of participants in Pax Christi's International Assembly. Links:
New posters for the Wall can sponsored by contacting the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Wi'am see: www.alaslah.org