Praying for peace

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 29, 2002

Amid relentless violence in the Middle East, faith-based groups are trying to sustain hope.

More than 1,000 Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis have died in violent clashes and suicide bombings in the past 18 months. On Friday Israeli troops and tanks stormed Yasser Arafat's headquarters -- the same day an 18-year-old Palestinian blew herself up at a Jerusalem supermarket, killing herself and two Israelis.

A suicide bombing Wednesday in an Israeli banquet hall killed 22 diners during Seder, the ritual meal that marks the start of Passover. On Thursday and Friday came two attacks on Jewish settlements that killed six Israelis.

U.S. faith-based groups are working with local partners in the Middle East to address people's needs. 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 (UMCOR). They continue to be at risk for injury and death, and their escalating poverty rate -- 64% -- has far exceeded the unemployment rate of 50%, UMCOR reported.

In response to a basic need for food security, UMCOR has been working with Church World Service to provide emergency food packages for more than 60,000 people.

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.

AVH needs monetary donations, ACT reported, and there is growing concern that the hospital will face serious financial strain and be forced to end some of its efforts.

ACT partners are also supporting the Shepherd's Field YMCA near Bethlehem.

"We are focusing on field teams who are distributed all over the towns, villages and camps of the West Bank," said Nader abu Amsha, the director of that trauma counseling, rehabilitation and training center. Referrals to the center, he says, "are only carried out with caution, particularly when the surrounding area has been exposed to shelling."

A Lutheran school and rehabilitation center in Bethlehem was occupied by Israeli troops on March 11. The Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), protested against the occupation and damages to the Dar al Kalima School and Wellness Center.

"Places such as this institution are oases of hope in a wilderness of violence, and the military occupation of such an institution is in grave violation of that hope and of the principles of international humanitarian law," said Noko.

Noko called for cessation of such military activity and reparation for the damaged premises. The school in Jerusalem is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (ELCJ). It has 240 students. The Wellness Center, which was to treat traumatized children and adults from the Bethlehem area, was scheduled to open May 24.

Noko pressed for an end to Israel's military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Noko urged the prime minister to "take the initiative to break the cycle of violence by restoring hope to the Palestinian people" for the sake of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples whose children are caught up in the conflict.

Palestinian ELCJ Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan also denounced Israel's occupation of the Lutheran church premises as a breach of international law.

No students were harmed during the occupation.

In addition to meeting basic physical needs, faith-based groups are keeping their commitment to promoting peace in the Middle East -- even when it becomes deadly. Earlier this month a Palestinian suicide bombing in the heart of Jerusalem shattered a reception for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. The reception was intended to mark the Jerusalem launch of an interfaith declaration aimed at promoting peace in the Middle East. Participants had gathered to reaffirm their commitment to ending bloodshed in the Holy Land. Three Israelis and the bomber died.

U.S. truce envoy Anthony Zinni continued his mission Friday, meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and speaking to Arafat by phone. On Thursday evening, Arafat had said he was ready to immediately implement the U.S. truce plan without conditions. But he did not declare a cease-fire.

In the U.S., Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Sharon to use restraint and consider the consequences of escalation. He also called on Arafat to put a stop to terrorism and violence.

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