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Mideast disaster worsens

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 4, 2002

"We feel hopelessness in the midst of dehumanization."

—Rev. Dr. Munib Younan

Faith-based groups are doing their best to respond to a rapidly worsening humanitarian disaster in the Middle East.

In recent days Israeli troops have occupied Palestinian cities. Each new suicide bombing against Israel has provokes a more intense military response. Thousands of Palestinian families need food.

Church World Service (CWS) has issued an appeal to its member communions for $75,000 to provide emergency food parcels for 10,000 families affected by the violence in the Israeli Occupied Territories. CWS reported that, even before the current crisis erupted, the unemployment rate in the territories was more than 50 percent, and more than two-thirds of Palestinian people lived in poverty.

The Middle East Council of Churches, a longtime CWS partner, is distributing food parcels to 5,000 families in the West Bank and 5,000 families in the Gaza Strip -- in total some 60,000 people.

The council's effort is being supported by CWS and many of its denominational partners.

Among the most vulnerable people are non-partisan civilians in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, reported the United Methodist Committee On Relief, a CWS partner.

Palestinians were holed up Thursday in the Church of the Nativity. The door was blown off Thursday. Witnesses said they couldn't tell what caused the explosion. The church's bell ringer -- a Palestinian who rung the bell nearly his whole life -- was killed Thursday, and the church's bells were silent for the first time in years.

"Aside from the lack of food, medication, and the curfew imposed on thousands of Palestinians, there is continued Israeli harassment of medical staff and ambulances," said Bernard Sabella, executive secretary of the Middle East Council of Church refugee service program in East Jerusalem.

A pastor at a Lutheran church in Bethlehem also reported his church, home, and a church center were hit by shelling from Israeli forces Wednesday. The Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, said he checked on his parishioners and, though they were physically unharmed, many were terrified.

Raheb was holed up with his family on the second floor of the damaged parsonage. Israeli tanks were still firing in the area Thursday.

Raheb said Wednesday he could hear glass breaking in the church that has century-old stained glass windows.

Many church and civil leaders are pleading for international and U.S. intervention in the face of intensifying military confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The International Center in Bethlehem, which Raheb directs, was scheduled next weekend to host a Lutheran World Relief study and solidarity visit. But Tuesday staff there concluded they could no longer host visiting groups. The visit has been postponed until next November.

In accordance with the Fourth Geneva Conventions, places of worship and churches should never be assaulted.

Members of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global alliance of disaster response and relief agencies, have been supporting the Lutheran-affiliated Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) as the Israeli military reoccupied several refugee camps and the towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

AVH was significantly affected by ongoing conflict but at the same time has played a key role in providing needed care.

AVH arranged medical and nursing staff to help provide care at Yamameh Hospital in Bethlehem during the closure and Israeli military incursion.

Many Palestinians are caught in the middle area between East Jerusalem and the Israeli front lines -- a "no man's land." AVH has transported and treated several chronic patients who cannot access Bethlehem or Ramallah. AVH has also been treating dialysis and elderly patients.

AVH is also continuing to send medical staff into the refugee camps' clinics when possible, and continues to provide shelter for patients who were treated at the hospital and are unable to go home because it's unsafe.

The Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, wrote in an Easter message that people there have a sense of hopelessness.

"We feel hopelessness in the midst of dehumanization," he wrote, "seeing the blood of innocent people flowing in front of us, seeing people who are terribly burned from conventional and non-conventional bombs, visiting the families of people whose loved ones have been killed, watching funeral processions taking place every day, seeing many young people who don't care whether they live or die, meeting those people who live in trauma, watching people develop psychosomatic illnesses. All of this creates hopelessness and a sense of loneliness.

"We are experiencing what Jesus experienced on the cross when he cried, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' "

In what U.S. officials called a new push for peace, President Bush Thursday demanded Israel pull back its troops from Palestinian cities it has occupied. He called on Arab nations to do more to crack down on terrorists. He also ordered U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to carry the message.

His call for an Israeli retreat marked a sudden shift in the White House rhetoric, which before Thursday had defended Israel's actions.

More than 1,000 Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis have died in violent clashes and suicide bombings in the past 18 months.

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