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The Olive Trees of Cremisan

On the last afternoon of Christ at the Checkpoint conference several hundred of us stood on the ancient, stony terraces among the olive trees to celebrate a Eucharist of solidarity with the people of Beit Jala (pronounced ‘bait-yala’) –Bethlehem’s smaller sister. It was icy cold and rainy. “Why don’t we do this inside the nice warm monastery?” I thought to myself.

I would find out why a little later.

The Christians of Beit Jala had been meeting for prayer and communion once a week, on Friday at 3:30 PM for three years in an attempt to stop the Israeli government from extending the massive dividing wall that snakes through Palestinian territory. The wall’s planned route would take most of the open land of Beit Jala and make it part of Israel. It would bisect the lands of a thriving Catholic monastery, Cremisan, putting its school on one side of the wall and its monastery and winery on the other. 

Standing in ascending rows on the muddy terraces we listened to the local priest begin the mass and looked out across the deep valley to the hilltop Israeli “settlement” of Gilo – in reality now a large, exclusively Jewish suburb of Jerusalem knifing deep into Palestinian territory. It is modern, high rise, and expensive.

During the homily, the priest narrated the story of how and why the Christians of Beit Jala began this Friday prayer and Eucharist service:

Some three years ago, the monks and sisters of Cremisan and the people of Beit Jala realized that the infamous dividing wall, ostensibly being built for Israeli security, would NOT follow the internationally recognized “Green Line” separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank. Rather it would snake around and in and out of the three Christian towns of Bethlehem, Beit Sahore, and Beit Jala to include, apparently, everything of any value to Israel.[1] This ranged from huge green spaces around the settlements (for future expansion already planned) to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem itself.

In short, most of the wall (which is actually a 26 foot high reinforced concrete structure in urban areas and a prison-like perimeter fence in other places) is built on Palestinian land well inside the Occupied Territories and NOT on the Green Line. When finished it will be nearly 800 kilometers long – twice the length of the Green Line – and take almost 9% of the territory left to the Palestinians living in the West Bank. On the North slopes of Beit Jala the wall’s route would bisect the monastery lands making its school and much of the town’s green spaces part of Israel. This would be a disaster for Cremisan and a huge loss for the town of Beit Jala.

But what could be done?

As the people gathered to talk about how to resist, there seemed no good options: A court case in Israel challenging the route of the wall had almost never succeeded. When it did, the military bureaucracy often simply ignored the civilian rulings on the grounds they had no jurisdiction in cases involving “national security.” Likewise, appeals to international leaders such as the Pope or US and European political leaders had, in similar situations, been completely ineffective.

In the end, they did two things: Filed a court case in Israel asking for an injunction against this portion of the wall, and decided to begin a weekly mass and service of prayer among the olive trees that would be destroyed by the wall.

It was the youth of the parish who came up with the idea of a weekly Friday prayer and Eucharist. They reasoned it out this way:

“We do this on Friday, at 3:30 PM because it is the hour of our Lord’s death and victory over death. We do this among the olive trees because they too are threatened just as are we. In the night before his death, in the garden, only the olive trees witnessed our Lords agony. The disciples slept. The olive trees wept with Jesus. Because of this, our Lord will perhaps pay special attention to what is happening here. Jesus loves all of us, but he has a debt of gratitude to the olive trees of Palestine.”

Naive? Sentimental?

Well, three years later the wall has yet to be built. Three weeks ago the Israeli Supreme Court temporarily suspended the construction of this section. Two weeks ago, President Obama raised this completely insignificant (in geo-political terms) case of Cremisan and Beit Jala in his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

And the biggest miracle of all? Two hundred evangelicals from around the world joined twenty Palestinian Catholics sheltered by the olive trees at 3:30 PM on Friday, March 14, in the year of our Lord 2014 praying for justice and joining together in communion.

Who knows what might come of that?

I wonder what Jesus is thinking about all of this?

What about you?


[1] An Israeli peace activist told us that the boundaries of Jerusalem (and the wall that “protects” those boundaries) were re-drawn following the 1967 war using the following criteria: The new boundaries should include the greatest amount of land possible and the fewest number of Arabs.

(For more detailed information on the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, a bi-yearly gathering hosted by the Bethlehem Bible College of over 600 Christians from all over the world, go to:   If you want to study more about the wall to which I refer, one of the better web sites is that of the respected Israeli human rights agency, B’Tselem: )

[Image: Flickr user [l a u r a] ]

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