Monday, 12 March 2012

Archbishop’s Reception
Hard on the heels of the Moderator’s visit, the Church in the Galilee welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had come on a ‘private pilgrimage’, but obviously had to connect with the Church, so on a Saturday evening there was a reception in Nazareth for, not just the local Anglican community, but leaders of the wider Church. The clergy came in all their finery, with pectoral crosses, purple piping and flowing robes, and I felt distinctly underdressed in my suit and clerical shirt. After various speeches by local dignitaries and an Arab member of the Knesset, Dr Williams spoke, and the thing which stuck with me most was when he said, ‘We pray for you every day in the Chapel at Lambeth Palace’. The Church here can feel very vulnerable, and somehow it is empowering to hear that every day prayers are said for the church in the Holy Land. We know it, but it is sometimes good to hear it.

Snow-capped Mount Hermon
It is always good when groups from Scotland stay in the Hotel. There have been a few groups in February, including one from Cowal led by my predecessor here, Jen Zielinsky, and the ‘Guild’ group led by Clarence and Joan Musgrave. This year, the weather in February has been a bit ‘iffy’ however, with rain and wind and even some snow. The views over the Lake have been shrouded in mist, and sailings on the Lake were cancelled a few of the days. However, it has been wonderful to hear the sound of the water on the lake, and now suddenly the weather has cleared, and Mt Hermon covered in snow stands majestically over the Lake. There is no snow in Tiberias, but I travelled up to the Druze villages on the Golan with a friend to show him the Syrian border, and the streets were packed with snow. Such is the novelty that people from Tel Aviv drive up in order to build snowmen and have snowball fights! One friend even collects snow in a bucket to make ‘snow’ soup!

AIDS Awareness Sunday
Aware that Clarence’s group would be at Church on the Sunday, we decided to hold our AIDS Awareness Sunday to coincide with their visit, so that at least there would be a few people there. As it turned out we also had a group of Presbyterians from Atlanta, as well as some Methodists from Atlanta and a group of Dutch pilgrims, as well as some individuals. It was the fullest I have seen the church! Baker Awawdy, the Director of the Galilee Society, spoke about their work with HIV, especially in the Palestinian community in the Galilee. Admittedly HIV affects a far smaller percentage of the population than in Africa, but they face similar difficulties from stigma and taboo.

Price Tag
The’ price-tag’ phenomenon has been with us for several months, a disturbing tit-for-tat which has seen graves desecrated and mosques set alight. I picked up the ‘Haaretz’ newspaper recently, and there was a prominent article on Christians in Jerusalem being the latest victims of ‘price-tag’ attacks. A Baptist church had been vandalised and cars spray-painted with nasty slogans. It also reported that Armenian priests were spat upon when walking through parts of the Old City. The writer of the article indicated that this wasn’t part of any organised ideological attack, but was probably ‘just’ hooliganism carried out by individuals jumping on the price-tag bandwagon. I have certainly never experienced anything like this and nor would most Christians going in and out of Jerusalem. However, I did think that the article brought out the vulnerability Christians can sometimes feel in this Holy Land.

Mar Elias School in Ibillin
It was good to visit the Mar Elias school in Ibillin, a town near Haifa. It is run by the Melkite Church and is the brainchild of the now Archbishop Elias Chacour. Although a Christian school, many of the 3000 pupils who attend the kindergarten, elementary and senior schools are Moslem, and there are even some Jewish and Druze pupils and teachers as well. The school has an excellent academic standard and the exam results are among the top 10% in the country. However, what impressed me as I was taken around was the emphasis on peace, reconciliation and acceptance. Everywhere there seemed to be mosaics and murals on the theme of peace, while much of the ironwork also incorporated doves. The school sees it as so important to impart such values, so that the pupils on leaving the school may work towards a better future. It was also good to visit the church, which had the most amazing ikons and pictures, which focused on the Beatitudes and included modern ‘saints’ like Brother Roger of Taize and Dorothy Day, who embody the values the school aims to inspire within the young folk. It was also good to meet several volunteers from UK and America who are spending several weeks helping at the school.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Orthodox Christmas

By 6th January people are usually putting away their Christmas decorations, but here the season is slightly lengthened, as the Orthodox celebrate Christmas almost a fortnight later (and the Armenians later still!). I was privileged to attend the Christmas celebrations in Sakhnin this year, firstly at a choir concert, when Bishop Theophilus of Acre conducted the Sakhnin choir in what was very like a ‘9 Lessons and Carols’- but in Byzantine chant. It was wonderful, and even the children’s choir sang a few pieces. On the Saturday (7th January) I attended the Christmas Day service, which in many ways reminded me of services in Zambia, with people coming in and out and wandering up to the front in groups to have a blessing from the priest, who was enormously patient about it all. There must have been a good few hundred people there, of all ages and all dressed in their best. Usually the women in the Arab communities dress very conservatively, but the younger generation here is certainly moving away from that! I somehow get the impression of a well-educated and reasonably prosperous community. It was held in the new church, a massive structure, but which the families themselves are building – and it is heartening to see how well it is progressing.

After the service, families gather for their Christmas dinner, thus breaking their 40 day fast (no meat) with chicken. I was invited to one of the homes, where Abu Hanna, the patriarch, has 10 sons and 1 daughter, all of whom were there with their own families, so very busy, but extraordinarily welcoming.

In the Greek Orthodox church (and even at the concert), the men and women sit separately, though interestingly the choir itself is mixed. Interesting, especially since there has been a lot in the news just now about female soldiers singing at army functions and provoking a walk-out by the more religious male soldiers. Israel has tended to be a very secular state with women reaching the highest offices (indeed, the leaders of two of the main political parties are women). However, there have been a number of issues recently which seems to undermine this. In the more religious parts of Jerusalem, streets were segregated during religious holidays, shops vandalised for not having a separate entrance for women; while certain buses have also been segregated with women having to sit at the back. A female soldier who refused to do so was verbally abused and had to leave the bus. Even adverts on buses or shelters featuring women have apparently been removed, in case they are vandalised. This all came to a head recently in Beit Shemesh, a town in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where a 9 year old girl had to run the gauntlet of ultra-orthodox Jews, who want schools there segregated and who regarded her clothing as provocative (ironically the girl is from a religious family, and her clothing would probably be regarded as acceptable by most!). This has led to rallies by both the more secular, who are afraid of freedoms being eroded, and by the ultra orthodox, who have grown in number and want their voice to be heard.

Moderator’s Visit

After 5 weeks in Scotland on furlough, I returned to Tiberias in early December. As always, it was good to be in Scotland, but equally good to return. I feel very much at home in Tiberias, especially now that I have moved into Yakfie. One reason for my slightly shortened furlough was to get back and prepare for the Moderator’s visit. David Arnott had been my ‘bishop’ during my probationary year in Netherlee, so it was good to be with him and Rosemary again. They had a busy time, including visiting Gaza and culminating their visit by spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, but it was also good to welcome them to Galilee. On the Sunday morning we worshipped in the Anglican church in Haifa, which was incredibly welcoming. It was also good to see here and also at the House of Grace, so many food parcels ready to deliver to those in need in the community. In the evening, just before preaching at the service in Tiberias, David dedicated the Peace garden at St. Andrew’s in Tiberias. The water was running in the fountain, as we gathered round the Peace pole, lighting candles to show our commitment to peace and reconciliation.

Olive Grove
During the afternoon of that Sunday (we seemed to pack in so much!), we had had an audience with Archbishop Chacour of the Melkite church, before visiting our partners at the House of Grace and Sinyanna. However, before we rushed back to Tiberias for the service, we made our way to the countryside on the southern side of Nazareth, where we are working with Sindyanna to plant an olive grove. The Moderator dedicated the Grove and unveiled a plaque in memory of Nesreen Abdo, who had worked so faithfully in the Hotel. It was lovely that her parents and family were able to attend. Trees will be planted there for members of staff at the Hotel on their birthday, for example, and hopefully it will be a place where the Hotel staff or the children from Tabeetha School can come on an outing.

Jane Haining
On the way to Jerusalem to meet up with the Moderator and his party, I found myself stopped in the Jordan Valley waiting for a whirlwind to pass. It was like something out of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, but fortunately I wasn’t whisked over the rainbow and could make my way to Yad Vashem, a museum complex which commemorates the Holocaust and where David would lay a wreath. It must be almost 30 years since I was last there, and I found it a deeply moving experience. The new museum is very impressive, but somehow it was walking round the gardens afterwards which I felt humbling, looking at names under the trees or at a railway carriage, in which people would have been transported to a concentration camp. I also spent time searching out the Garden of the Righteous, to look for the name of Jane Haining, the Church of Scotland missionary from Budapest, who had died in one of the camps along with her pupils. It was good to see it.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Bringing you up-to-date

The summer was eventful in other ways. Sadly we lost one of our really good staff members, Nesreen, who passed away at a relatively young age after a heart operation. Nesreen was an Arab Christian from Nazareth and had worked for many years at the Hotel, and for her, it was more than a job. She was so much part of the place, that I would never have imagined her leaving of her own choice. She was very much a woman of faith, and that makes such a difference. I found her incredibly supportive, and we are all quite devastated by her death.

On a happier note, I moved house during the summer. I had lived in a very nice, modern, open-plan apartment with lots of space. Many would have loved to live there, but it wasn’t ‘me’, and I never really felt at home there. I think I have been too used to living in manses with their ‘decaying grandeur’. Anyway, the Church owns a building nearer to the church and hotel, which has now been renovated, and I have moved into the flat on the upper floor, which has ‘character’, views and a wonderful balcony – what more could one ask for. I had happy memories of Yakfie (the name of the house) from my time as a volunteer, so am absolutely thrilled to be living there. My previous flat had been in a commercial area, surrounded by roads and alarms (which rang continually through the night). Here, I have neighbours and also peace and quiet (apart from the occasional noise of a party on the beach) and even a large garden. I had better discover some green fingers soon! Though there is a scheme in Tiberias where ex-prisoners learn gardening, and we are hoping to employ them.

I am in Scotland (from the end of October) for just under six weeks. However, the Moderator will be visiting Israel and Palestine later in December, so I will need to be back in time to prepare for that!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


In the summer I visited Gaza, albeit only for a day. I had gone with lots of preconceptions, thinking that I would be entering a war-zone with destroyed buildings all around. There may very well be evidence of destruction, but not where we went in Gaza City. In fact, it just seemed like a normal, rather dilapidated town. What did strike me was that there were people everywhere, and Gaza is the most densely populated place on earth. Sadly it probably has the highest unemployment rate of anywhere on earth as well, as it has little industry. One person commented that most people are at university, because there is nothing else to do!

We had gone to visit several projects supported by Church of Scotland, including ante-natal clinics run by the Near East Council of Churches and a hospital run by the Anglican Church. The Christian population of Gaza is very small, so these institutions are very much run for the needs of those who are unconnected with the church.

Photo from

We finished our day, by visiting the Atfaluna School for Deaf Children, which is housed in a beautiful building paid for by German partners, and we were amazed by the high standard of all the furnishings and education materials. Because of the dire employment prospects in Gaza, especially for those who have a disability, Atfaluna employ former pupils to make furniture, carpets and crafts, which are then sold (including, I believe, in the Hadeel shop in Edinburgh).

All in all, it was an interesting visit, not least to be made aware of the sufferings of those living in Gaza with the regular disruption of electricity and food supplies, all of which are delivered through Israel.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Short summer break

Please note, no access to update this blog or approve comments for the next few weeks – see you after that!

Peace Garden

Our Peace Pole had become quite a familiar sight, propped up in the back corner of the church, but all that changed last Tuesday when workmen from Tu’ran arrived and proceeded to dig a hole in the garden, and by lunchtime the Pole was duly cemented into the ground. A few of us were meeting for a bible study, and we were caught by surprise by the speed of the work, but it is wonderful that it is finally in the ground with its message of ‘Let peace prevail on earth’ in the four languages: Arabic, English, Hebrew and Russian. Interestingly, as the workmen dug the whole, they discovered a one mil coin, inscribed Palestine (In the three languages), 1939. Not valuable, but fascinating to speculate how it ended up in the garden. Was a schoolchild reprimanded for losing it?

On Sunday we had a dozen people at the service, from Seattle and London, Germany and Holland, so we dedicated the peace pole and cracked open some sparkling red wine (which proceeded to splash over my white cassock!). The official dedication of the garden will be later in the year.