An Easter Never to Forget
By Susan Nchubiri, Ecumenical Accompanier in Jerusalem
“Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees who were telling him to admonish his disciples to keep quiet. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,“ He replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
On April 5, 2022, our first full day at the EAPPI placement house in East Jerusalem, we went to a parish in Beit Hanina to meet with the Palestinian youth and scouts leader. He gave us a rundown of the upcoming two Holy Week services. The youth and scouts were charged with organizing the processions. At this meeting, Rafi, the youth and scout leader, quoted these words, “if they keep silent, the living stones will shout out.” He added, “the Israeli authorities want to silence the Palestinian Christians, but we won’t be silenced. We have hope in the Risen Savior”. I heard the same words again on Palm Sunday, the EAPPI Handover Service (between Team 82 and my team), and Holy Thursday. I have heard these words proclaimed at Mass several times, but never did they have a similar impact on me as they do now. These words struck me deeply when a young woman speaking to the Church leadership and the faithful gathered at Bethpage at the start of the Catholic (Western Churches’) Holy Week. She said, “If they keep silent, the living stones will shout out, the living stones will speak…. We are the living stones; we shall speak for us and for Palestine, we shall uphold our faith, and we shall speak for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. We want you (Church) to include us.”
On Palm Sunday, as thousands of worshippers processed down the hill waving palm and tree branches, national flags, and singing “Hosanna,” occasional groups broke into dance and shouts of jubilation. I kept thinking of the many Palestinian Christians who had wanted to enter Jerusalem that day to celebrate this special day in their faith tradition. They could not because the Israeli authorities denied their permits to enter Jerusalem. I watched as flags from different countries of Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia waved above heads, pilgrim groups’ flags, scarves, etc., contributing to the colorful procession. BUT not a single Palestinian flag, scarf, or lapel pin bearing the Palestinian flag colors. They had been ordered not to bring their flags or even wear a scarf or a lapel pin with their flag colors. Should one be found to break this order, the procession would be stopped. Israeli authorities usually apply collective punishment. When a single Palestinian violates a law, the punishment extends to their family and sometimes the whole village. One example is a parent or a sibling related to anyone in jail will be denied entry into Jerusalem. Another example is from the Jenin refugee camp, where after a young man from a nearby village attacked people in Tel Aviv, the Israeli military went on raids in the camp.
With all the joy and jubilation around me, I felt sad. I kept hearing the words, “if they are silent, the living stones will shout out.” Indeed, at this Palm Sunday procession, the living stones were shouting out. And when at an entrance to the Old City, New Gate, the police officers started blocking the scout procession to St. Savior Church, the faithful stood their ground. They would not let the police change the route because this might set a precedent.
Israel not only denies the Palestinians access to fundamental human rights but also the right to self-determination. For this, Israel has received a lot of condemnation from the international community, but nothing has changed.
Jerusalem is claimed by three Abrahamic faith traditions (Christians, Jews, Muslims) as their inheritance and hence their holy city. The Christian faith has two large divisions: Eastern and Western Churches, and each starts its liturgical calendars at different times; therefore, Jerusalem ends up with two Holy Weeks for Easter. For Muslims, the schedule for Ramadan is guided by a lunar calendar, and for Jews, the timing of Pesach is somewhat consistent. Every 30 years or so, Easter, Pesach, and Ramadan overlap. The weekend of Friday, April 14 through Sunday, April 17 marked this rare overlap.
Initially, I had assumed that this would be a spectacularly memorable weekend in a positive way but listening to the news, reading social media, and receiving information from our security and field officer, my assumptions and aspirations of a special holy weekend were dashed. It was clear that tensions were high leading into this period. We braced for the worst and prayed for the best. Some Israeli ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers had planned on entering the Al Aqsa compound (Islam’s third holiest site) during Pesach (April 14-22) to perform a ritual animal sacrifice, which is illegal according to the status quo agreements and a provocative act. The Muslim community had vowed to protect their sacred space. On April 14, during the dawn prayers, heavily armed Israeli security officers stormed the Al Aqsa compound chasing away worshippers. The Israeli authorities allowed the afternoon prayers to go on as usual but then disrupted them again the following morning. The Catholic Way of the Cross celebration went on without any harassment from the Israeli security forces, although there were many of them along the path.
The Catholic and the Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendars being different meant that the Orthodox Church was celebrating Palm Sunday when Catholics celebrated Easter Sunday. Both celebrations were taking place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I was designated to monitor access to worship at this site while also participating in the service. However, due to the two groups having their services simultaneously, the church was overcrowded and extremely noisy, so I felt I could not pray. I checked with my fellow accompaniers, and they told me that there were clashes at one of the gates to Al Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif. I decided to join them to monitor the situation.
I had left the chaotic but joyful “noise” at the Holy Sepulcher Church and its safety for the deafening sounds of stun/sound and lights bombs, gunshots, pushing and shoving, shouting, screaming, and ambulance sirens. Instead of celebrating Easter, new life, and the resurrection with joy, reverence, and jubilation, I was amid violence, pain, anger, and frustration. Several injured people were brought out on stretchers to the Red Crescent ambulances. Was this the reason why Jesus had cried when he entered Jerusalem? As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).
When we sensed the clashes escalating, we moved away and returned later and stood at a safe distance, and when that space got unsafe, we moved again. While the Palestinian Muslims were being denied entry to Al Aqsa/Haram al-Sharif, my companions who went to monitor access at the site found around 30 or more Israeli Jews walking freely into the same compound. On April 15, more than 150 Palestinian worshippers were injured, and more than 400 others were arrested. This is only a little glimpse of how discriminatory the Israeli authorities are toward the Palestinian people. These words hit me again: “if they are quiet, the stones will cry out.” The Palestinian Muslim community wanted to go to the Mosque to pray, but they were constantly harassed and denied access. The gates are guarded by heavily armed police all the time.
On Holy Fire Saturday, the Orthodox Church’s celebrated day before the Orthodox Easter, brought another awakening of how arbitrarily the Israeli authorities apply their laws against the Palestinian people. Palestinian Christians from the West Bank were denied permits to attend this holy feast. A great majority of Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem were denied access to the Old City. My teammate and I arrived at the Old City at 7:30 am to make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the celebration of Holy Fire was taking place. We found every alley/street leading to the Christian quarter and the Church barricaded with metal bars and hundreds of police officers. We tried to access the Christian Quarter and Church compound from 7:30 am until 4:00 pm. Although the police brutality was not as pronounced as with the Muslims, there were a few violent beatings and arrests of worshippers trying to go to Church. The Orthodox Christians were trying to go to their holy place to worship in communion with each other. The Christians trying to get to Church and the Muslims trying to get to the Mosques are not criminals. Why do the Israeli security officers use excessive and brutal force to stop them? Why criminalize a people? “If they should be quiet, the stones will speak, will cry out.”
The Holy Fire Day was the only day that my movement in and out of the Old City of Jerusalem was restricted. Why was I so frustrated? The Palestinians go through these horrible experiences every day. They can’t move freely in their own land, and they can’t access their places of worship, education, medical care, work, etc., without permits. Reflecting on this experience brought tears to my eyes, not because of my own frustrations but the heightened awareness that this was the “normal” life for the Palestinians under the occupation. How can this inhumane living be normal? Talking with a teammate who had previously tried hard not to get angry or sad about the Palestinian situation, she acknowledged that Holy Fire Saturday experience had put her over the edge. She felt anger, despair, and sadness. Experiencing the restrictions and violence against us made the reality hit home. It is one thing to be in solidarity, empathize with another person, and have a different reality when one experiences those things, not by choice. One cannot adequately understand or feel the pain of another person. You can only feel your own. On this day, when we were denied access to worship and a police officer pushed me, I felt very sad. If this is repeatedly happening, how will I shield myself from being sensitized into accepting it as “normal” life under occupation?
Are you the stone being called to cry out, shout out the injustice
the Palestinians are suffering under the occupation laws?
Are you willing to speak to the forces that give Israel such liberty and power to oppress a people?
Susan Nchubiri is serving with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. If you would like to learn more about the EAPPI program, please visit their website.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).