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An alien in your own homeland

By Abe Ata - posted Wednesday, 29 August 2007


I feel blessed for many reasons. It is a blessing to be born in Bethlehem from a Christian family. My father hails from a Lebanese-Syrian Maronite (Eastern Catholic) family. His father converted to Lutheranism after he arrived in East Jerusalem in the thirties from Zahle (a predominately Christian Lebanese town).

My grandfather graduated from the German missionary Schneller School and later on resided in Bethlehem's Lutheran diocese compound. At the church he played the organ every Sunday for 27 years. After his death my dad took over the role as a church organist and played at the Lutheran church and Saint George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem for 45 years. He passed away in l994. He also taught English at the Vatican-funded Bethlehem University and played the violin - an extremely rare talent to find in wild, unruly, Middle Eastern societies.

At night time my dad read Shakespeare and Wordsworth. He was the first Palestinian (though Lebanese at heart) to ever visit the Holocaust Museum in West Jerusalem. We are told he shed tears on that day. That emotion must have been unparalleled for an innocent Christian citizen living in Bethlehem in l969. Bethlehem was then, as is today, under Israeli military occupation. It must have been pathological to shed tears for Jewish victims of the Holocaust at a time when he was a victim of an Israeli military occupation.

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Living as part of a Christian minority in a predominately Middle Eastern Muslim society was not any easier. This double bind spelt doom for 400,000 other Palestinian Christians and has forced 80 per cent of them to leave the land of their ancestors in the past 40 years. Most of their ancestors had lived in the Holy Land - their home land - since the times of Jesus.

Ongoing apathy by a majority American Evangelical Christians has also indirectly contributed to the Palestinian Christian exodus.

In 1968 there were no credible universities in Bethlehem and so I left for the American University in Beirut. I was issued a temporary ID by the Israeli military authorities as permit to leave and re-enter the occupied West Bank (i.e. to visit my hometown of Bethlehem) as long as I did it within 12 months. I was not able to do so opting instead to complete a B.A. in psychology.

This proved semi-fatal. My permit was declared null and void and my right of return was abolished with a stroke of a pen. There has never been a right of appeal under military occupation.

Subsequently, my father wrote a letter to Senator Symington in Washington DC. He pleaded with him to intervene on my behalf with the military authorities. ( I listened to Senator Symington play his guitar at Capitol Hill in July 1970 after he introduced himself to me and other young delegates at the World Youth Assembly at the United Nations in New York). My father asked him the following question: "Why is it much easier for American Jews to migrate to Israel, but my son who was born in Bethlehem, as were his mum’s ancestors for several centuries, is not allowed to set foot there."

Four weeks later my dad received a reply assuring him that his son (me) was able to return to Bethlehem at any time he desired. At the end of the conference in New York I was given “permission” to see my parents for four weeks. Disappointed I returned to the American University in Beirut, completed my degree and left for Australia.

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Two months before my father died in 1994 I travelled on my Australian passport to Amman in Jordan on the way to visit my parents in the occupied West Bank. I have several aunts and uncles from my mum’s family who live in Amman. Like most other Palestinian Christians they have been affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy since the fourth century.

Being identified as Bethlehem-born on my passport did not help much at the Israeli crossing at River Jordan. Like most other Western passport holding Palestinians, I had to strip naked as a condition of being granted a visiting visa. Wearing a cross around my neck made no difference, and why should it! My tooth paste, medication, shampoo and other toiletries were confiscated with an explanation that they could not be verified as such.

Five hours later I was allowed to travel to Bethlehem to see my dying father. His cancer was too advanced by then. Lacking human courage I returned one week later to Australia. He died six weeks after my visit.

My mum is now living on her own in a rented flat with my older sister in Bethlehem. She is 85 and getting more frail by the day. She complains on the phone that all of the other Christian families living in the same four-storey building have left for South America. This is what she says:

Of the 40 Christian (and non Christian) families I used to visit only two are left behind. Curfews, local religious fanatics, terrorists and Israeli military check points make me feel like an injured deranged trapped mouse. There is no safety, no protection and no certainty like before. Anyone can walk to your house at night, take you away and no one will care. There are no Palestinian police to protect you, and the Israelis protect their own citizens.

The last time I went to the Lutheran church on Sunday there were only ten people. There was the pastor, his daughter, his wife and her two sisters and five others. Thirty years ago there were 170.

I know they make money from American and German tourists who visit the church and stay at their hostel. But we, the remaining local Lutherans, do not feel welcome. The church now survives on tourist money, but we now have no place to pray, not at the church, not with the Muslims.

Bethlehem is now fenced off from the rest of the world. I can’t even visit my other daughter in Jerusalem. It takes six to eight weeks to get a permit from the military occupation to be allowed to go to Jerusalem for the day. Jerusalem is only 7K away. Water and electricity here is rare. We have enough water for one shower every two weeks. Curfews force us to stay in our wretched homes for weeks. It is like a prison. Do you know any one who lived under occupation for 40 years and stayed sane?

Two months ago they found a skin cancer on my leg. I can’t go to Israeli hospitals because I am not a Jew, nor do I have government insurance. The Palestinian hospitals are no more than laboratories full of chaos, dust, dirt, and noise. If you die in the hospital there are not many relatives left to take care of your body. If I am able to walk I will ask you to help me fly to Australia and get treatment there.

May be Olmert, Abdullah and Abbas will find a solution in Aqaba. They are meeting there today [May 15th]. They know everyone has little energy left to fight. For 40 years all what we saw was killing. Anyway call me next week. We can’t afford to pay for the phone any longer. We never see a cent of the World Bank donations. It goes to the local chiefs and they keep building bigger houses and drive Mercedes. Just come and see.

May Christ be with you until you call next week. Good bye.

Your loving mum

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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