Priest defies Israel’s ‘separation wall’

Priest defies Israel’s ‘separation wall’

Worldwide Faith News (press release)
June 3 2004

World Council of Churches 7 Feature
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – 03/06/2004 – feat-04-12

“These are my guests, and this is my house”
Priest defies Israel’s ‘separation wall’

By Larry Fata

Free short video and photos available, see below.

“No! These are my guests, and this is my house!” The admonition is
delivered to Israeli soldiers attempting to stop a group of Palestinian
women crossing the grounds of a monastery. The messenger is Father Claudio
Ghilardi, a Passionist priest from Italy. His message is clear: at least
as far as the monastery grounds are concerned, he will not permit the
harassment of Palestinians by soldiers. The soldiers desist as long as
Father Claudio is present. The Palestinians continue on their way,
attempting to cross the monastery and reach Jerusalem on the other side.
The continuation of their journey depends on whether soldiers are waiting
at the exit, but at least they were able to get this far, thanks to Father
Claudio’s intervention.

Father Claudio cuts an elegant figure in his long black robe and matching
black beret. He seems weary on this particular day, however. He relates
how he has been chasing Israeli border police off the grounds and dealing
with soldiers all morning. The source of his weariness can be seen looming
in the distance; it is Israel’s “separation wall.” An ugly concrete
behemoth standing about 30 feet (nine metres) tall, dwarfing the much
smaller but more aesthetically pleasing stone monastery walls, the
“separation wall” stands poised to invade, as the two gaping holes in the
monastery wall attest. For now, work has stopped only a few feet from the
monastery grounds, thanks in part to the interventions of both the Italian
consul and the Vatican apostolic nuncio, but much damage has already been
done. And Father Claudio does not think that this reprieve will last for
very long. “This is not a barrier,” he exclaims. “This is a border. Why
don’t they speak the truth?”

The Santa Marta dei Padri Passionisti monastery is located at the
confluence of East Jerusalem, Abu Dis and Al-Izariyyeh (Bethany), the
latter the biblical home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother
Lazarus. It seems that the Israeli authorities want to build their wall
right through the monastery grounds, in contravention of the 1997 agreement
between the State of Israel and the Vatican respecting ecclesiastical
property. Not only will the people of Bethany, Abu Dis and parts of East
Jerusalem be cut off from the rest of Jerusalem economically, but the 2,000
Christians living in the vicinity of the monastery will lose their
spiritual centre as well.

Father Claudio’s church, named for St Martha, is now empty. The faithful
are not allowed to come to the church because it is situated on the
Jerusalem side of the grounds. They can enter the monastery on the Bethany
side but are not allowed, when soldiers or police are present, to approach
the Jerusalem side where they could conceivably exit. Many of the
Christians who used to fill the church come from the bordering towns of Abu
Dis and Bethany, and most lack the permits to enter Jerusalem. Due to
these conditions, Father Claudio celebrates mass where they are allowed to
go in a church belonging to the neighbouring Comboni sisters’ convent on
the Bethany side.

The monastery forms the centre of a Catholic “complex” that includes three
nearby convents. The Sisters of Charity run an orphanage for 45 children;
the Comboni Sisters have a school for 38 elementary-aged students; and the
Sisters of Notre Dame de Douleurs in Abu Dis have a rest home for 74
elderly Bedouins. The convents and the people they serve will be cut off
from each other and from Father Claudio.

On top of all the religious and property issues, there is the matter of the
archaeological importance of the grounds. The monastery is the site of
some large cisterns dating back to Roman times and 12 large tombs belonging
to members of the early Jewish-Christian community, with inscriptions in
Aramaic. Some of these finds have been disturbed or damaged by the
activities surrounding the construction of the wall. “When they came, they
damaged these sites,” Father Claudio says. “The government does not
respect the history of this land * a history that is important to the
Jewish people as well.”

Much has been said by the Israeli government about its need for a wall to
stop terrorist attacks within its pre-1967 borders. Much has been written
criticizing the placement of the wall in some places deep within the West
Bank, de facto annexing much Palestinian land. Israel has stated that the
“separation fence” or “barrier,” as the government prefers to call it, is
necessary to separate Israelis from Palestinians.

Even if one accepts the government’s argument that the wall is necessary
for Israel’s security, most Palestinians can’t understand why it has to go
through this area. “There are no Jews here. It’s not going to separate
Jews from Palestinians. It will separate Palestinians from Palestinians,”
comments Emad, who currently holds a Jerusalem ID and can make the short
walk to get to work, but will be unable to do so if the wall through the
monastery is completed.

And what will the wall do to the dwindling Christian community in the Holy
Land? Christians once made up a thriving and healthy 10-15% of the
Palestinian population. They now are officially only 2%, and some say that
the actual figure is closer to 1%. Building a wall right through the
monastery, separating Christians from their church and community services,
will only cause the further exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.

“We have lived here for over 100 years, under Turkish, British, Jordanian
and now Israeli governments, and no one ever tried to stop the people from
coming to pray. This wall will stop people from coming to church to pray.
Why? It is scandalous,” protests Father Claudio.

Israel has denied charges that it is trying to force the churches out, but
its recent policy denying most visa applications for clergy and lay church
workers, making it difficult if not impossible for the churches to continue
their work, will also cause erosion in the Christian community here.

Despite difficulties, Father Claudio vows to stay

Driving along the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives on our way to see
Father Claudio, we pass Beit Fage (Bethpage), where Jesus stopped to eat
some figs on his way into Jerusalem. It is from here that Christians begin
their Holy Week celebrations on Palm Sunday, following in the footsteps of
Christ as he descended from the top of the Mount of Olives and into the Old
City of Jerusalem. Soon, Bethpage will be cut off from many of the
Christian communities outside Jerusalem because of the wall, making the
Palm Sunday procession an endangered tradition for the local population.

Upon arriving in the area known locally as “Bawabe,” we can immediately see
part of Father Claudio’s problem. A temporary concrete wall blocks the
road that used to connect East Jerusalem with Bethany. There is a small
opening where, today, a soldier is checking IDs. This wall runs
perpendicular with the monastery, meaning that part of the property is on
what would be the Jerusalem side of the wall and part on the other side.
The wall is covered with graffiti: “Love God, love people;” “Peace comes
by agreement not separation;” and “God leads us to peace.” Going towards
Bethany and Abu Dis is not a problem, and the soldier pays us no mind, nor
does he pay any mind to the Palestinian students crossing on their way to
Al Quds University or the many other Palestinians going in that direction.
But he checks all the IDs of the Palestinians coming into Jerusalem. Those
without the blue Jerusalem ID or the proper permits are not allowed

There is a sea of taxis and mini-vans that serve as shared taxis here, on
both sides of the Bawabe wall. There are also makeshift stands selling
everything from fruit and vegetables to shoes and t-shirts. These
entrepreneurs try to take advantage of the foot traffic Israel has created
with its plethora of checkpoints; it is a booming cottage industry of sorts
in an area that has an unemployment rate of 60% or higher. We make our way
through the crowd, to enter the seeming oasis of peace and tranquility that
is the Santa Marta dei Padri Passionisti monastery.

The grounds are actually a beehive of activity. There are soldiers all over
the place attempting to stop Palestinians, and Father Claudio is
intervening on behalf of his “guests.” Members of the Ecumenical
Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) are acting as
witnesses and advocates. All this in a beautiful pastoral field dotted
with olive, almond and pine trees that, at this moment, is simply

Mostly, the Palestinians trying to cross are people who work in Jerusalem
but don’t have the proper permits. There are also people crossing to get
medical attention, since facilities in some parts of the West Bank are few
and far between. This morning, Father Claudio was woken up at 4 a.m. by
the sounds of tear gas being fired by border police in what is essentially
his back yard. Soldiers have been maintaining a constant presence on the
grounds, and recently, the border police have started making regular
appearances as well.

“These people help me when the soldiers are in the area,” Father Claudio
says, referring to the Ecumenical Accompaniers. Alexandra Rigby-Smith, an
accompanier from Sweden, was working at the monastery today. “Many of the
people were scared,” she said. “We tried to help them get past the
soldiers so they could go to work, the hospital, university, to see family,
etc. One Bedouin woman was shaking, she was so nervous. We were able to
get some people through, but one pregnant woman, who was on her way to the
doctor, was refused a pass. That was very frustrating.”

Father Claudio tells us that a few months ago, soldiers found explosives on
one of the Palestinians crossing the monastery. But he doesn’t see that as
a reason for collectively punishing the entire community. One of the
soldiers tells a member of our group that the Palestinians dug a tunnel
below the monastery grounds to bring explosives into Jerusalem. We
inspected the “tunnel”, and there is definitely an opening large enough for
a person to get through, but not much more.

For Father Claudio, it is hardly surprising that people try any way to get
to the other side where they can find work: “The father of one family I
know with eight children hasn’t worked in one month. I help them
spiritually and I give them some food. Much more than that, I cannot

But Father Claudio does do much more. People see the monastery as a safe
haven. The sick come to him and he takes them to the hospital in his car,
using his status to get around the closures. He has had to rush women in
labour to the hospital as well. Were it not for him, these women would
have had to deliver their babies at home, a situation that adds to the
infant mortality rate in Palestine. The people call him “abuna” – our
father – even if they are not Christian.

But even Father Claudio is not always able to circumvent the authorities,
and he’s not immune from the troubles either. He shows us a scar on his
arm. “This was a gift from the army,” he tells us. “They fired tear gas
and it hit me right here.”

Father Claudio takes us around the monastery on an impromptu tour, pointing
to buildings owned by the Latin Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox
and Anglican Churches. Some of the buildings are used as low-cost housing
for local Palestinian Christians. The wall will separate all of these
community centres.

All the while our group is walking along a dirt path between the rows of
olive trees, Palestinians are scurrying by us in the other direction trying
to cross. Soldiers are stopping them and the ecumenical accompaniers are
advocating for them. When Father Claudio comes by, he tells the soldiers
not to bother the Palestinians and, curiously, they listen without
argument. Of course, he can’t intervene on behalf of every Palestinian who
tries to cross and he can’t be present at all times.

“This wall doesn’t respect the human rights of the Palestinian people,”
Father Claudio says. “It doesn’t respect private property because the
Israeli government takes the land to build it. It is not the land of the
government, it is the land of poor people. What more do they want from
these people?”

Father Claudio gets some help with the many caretaking chores from another
Italian priest from Abu Dis. Otherwise, he is essentially alone, but it was
not always this way. Before the outbreak of the current Intifada in 2000,
there were five priests living in the monastery with him. They all left
because of the fear and uncertainty caused by the situation. When asked if
he will be forced to leave as well, he replies defiantly: “The only way I
will leave is if they kill me. This is my home. These people are my family.”

Our tour ended at Father Claudio’s church, where the absence of worshippers
is symbolic of the disappearing presence of Christians in the Holy Land.
Located just a few hundred metres away is the traditional site where the
Gospel tells us Jesus called into the tomb of Lazarus and brought him back
from the dead. If the wall is completed, it may take a miracle of a
similar magnitude to bring back the Christian community here.

Larry Fata, a Catholic teacher and journalist from USA is managing editor
and communication officer of the EAPPI.

A free short movie (3 min., 50 Mb) featuring Father Claudio is available
> News & Updates > Catholic monastery could be divided
wall or click on this Link

Free high resolution photos are available at:

Media contact in Jerusalem: Cathy Nichols, Phone +972 2 628 9402

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)
was launched in August 2002. Ecumenical accompaniers monitor and
report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,
support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and
Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection
through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy,
and stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling
against the occupation. The programme is co-ordinated by the World
Council of Churches. Website:

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