- A TRAVEL TO BETHLEHEM
- Still a Christmas without gifts?
A priest from the Calvados diocese,
Georges Vimard was forty years old when he joined the diocese
of Evreux in 1987.
Paying special attention to J. Gaillot's
initiatives in favor of the Palestinian people (meeting with
Arafat in Tunis in 1985, participation to the action of a "ship
to return" in 1988, meeting in Evreux of representatives
of PLO including Mrs Arafat, a demonstration for Peace in Jerusalem
Georges had often said to the Bishop of Evreux" I will
go there". In January 1995, when J. Gaillot was deposed
by Rome, he made his decision. Fidei donum! Coming back to France
after six years, he is sharing with us his experience and his
- When you arrived in Palestine on
September 1995, what was the state of affairs?
- I was going to share the first free
Christmas in Palestine since 1948 in Bir Zeit. As it can be seen
on the photo taken in Ramallah on December 1995, the various
Palestinian groups were friendly assembled. It was the beginning
of the application of the Oslo agreements (1993).
The Israeli army was withdrawing from
the Gaza strip but also from Bethlehem, Jericho.
- On Christmas day, Arafat made a
speech for the first time in Bethlehem: he was definitely recognized
as the leader of the Palestinian Authority. The hope was great
to see the Israeli army leaving the territories occupied since
- What has happened?
- The hope of liberation was to last
only three months. Just a quarter of the territory promised by
the Oslo agreements have been recovered. Three years later, when
Jospin came to Bir Zeit, the stones thrown against his car were
expressing the violent disillusionment toward the international
authorities: they were attacked because they had failed to apply
the Oslo agreements! But the stones were also for condemning
the corruption surrounding Arafat.
Because of this corruption, the so appreciated
leader of Christmas 1995 has lost his charismatic aura.
- What did you do in 1996?
- I continued to learn the Arabic
language and I discovered the vitality of these people, the diversity
of the Arabic, Christian and Jewish cultures and mostly the difficulties
inherent to an occupied country. In the Gaza strip, 1.2 million
of Moslem Arabs and about 2000 Christians are living there. In
Cis Jordan the ratio is 80 000 Christians for 2 millions of Moslems.
Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, was sending
me to these Palestinian Christians, they are a minority group
but very active.
At the seminary of Beit Jala near Bethlehem,
I met 70 Arab school children, from 12 to 16 years of age and
30 older ones preparing themselves to the priesthood in Palestine
and Jordan. I participated to the teaching of the young ones
as if I was belonging to the Patriarchy and I was wearing a cross
and the Roman collar. In this society where every thing is religious,
the black dress is a distinctive sign of a catholic priest.
- Fortunately the state of mind is
less conventional than the dress! The young ones and their family
took advantage that I am a foreigner. Being French I could move
around freely because I had the official documents allowing me
to circulate, very often I would help in transporting various
things for those who are not permitted to move from one place
- What about this new job of being
- According to the Oslo agreements
two roads ought to be set up to connect the Gaza territory to
the center of Cis Jordan (Ramallah) and the south (Hebron).
They have not been built! Then I had
to take the Israeli roads with multiple controls and barriers.
I was the postmaster for separated families living in the two
- I was transporting clothes, mail,
The Palestinians may circulate only if they receive
a permit from the military administration in Jerusalem! Then
I had to go to Jerusalem at the Minister' offices to bring back
to my Palestinian friends the documents that they needed so much.
Once I brought back a school book of Physics for a student. The
Israeli soldier at the barrier for the search control made me
wait three hours because "one can make bombs with that"!
- And Jerusalem how was it? Its ambiance,
The Patriarch Michel Sabbah sent me
in 1997 to East-Jerusalem. It is the Arab side of the city but
in 1967 it was annexed by Israel.
- I was taking care of poor pilgrims
partially financed by the French Consulate and the Catholic Relief.
- In the mean time I was the Catholic
chaplain of the French Lyceum with two hundred pupils, in the
schoolyard during the interruptions one could hear speaking,
Hebrew, Arab, English, Italian
and French. But what was
most striking for me in Jerusalem was the well-organized presence
of Israel, the invasion of his western efficacy in the middle
of the oriental world. The foreign Christian communities are
separated, even divided both at the point of view of politics
- How the Palestinians in Jerusalem
stand the presence of Israel? What role can the Latin Patriarchy
play among all these acts of violence?
- Palestinians of Jerusalem organize
collective taxis to visit their family in the Gaza strip. Often
on Wednesdays I used this collective means of transportation:
the patriarch Sabbah was sending me to bring things to his clerics
living in CisJordan, in Bethlehem or in Gaza. About eighty priests
are under his jurisdiction, and communication problems among
this dispersed flock are not the least problem. Mgr Sabbath's
objective is to prepare the future where Palestinians and Israelis
can live together, in confidence and in peace.
During these travels I met for the first time Manouel Mussalem.
Beside taking care of his parish this Palestinian Catholic priest
has the responsibility of running a school of 1000 pupils. Abouna
Manoual is quite an outstanding person, joking all the time,
a friend of Arafat. During the visit of the Pope at Bethlehem,
he prepared the speech of the Leader of the Palestinian Authority!
In his school for boys and girls, Manouel is accommodating any
one of his young compatriots, Christians or Moslems. Every morning
the children gather in the schoolyard, in front of the Palestinian
flag hauled up to the pole and they all sing heartily the national
- Under the shelter, some young Moslem
artists have painted a resuscitated Christ. He wakes up the world
holding a Palestinian flag in his hand.
On each side of the painting one can
read in Arabic from left to right: "Almasih koum wachaabi
sayakoum, the Messiah is resuscitated and also my people will
resuscitate." You can see how much religion and politics
in Palestine stay intermingled!
- How to enjoy Christmas in a country
- In 2000, Manuel invited me to a
rally with candles during Christmas Eve. Coming from the nativity
in Bethlehem, at the Trappist Monastery of Latroum, I received
a torch that was lighted by the Patriarch Sabbah. I was half
way from Gaza. I was going to bring it to the Church of Manuel.
Under the rain I had to go through the Israeli checkpoints. The
soldiers laughed at my tiny flickering torch.
But this light wants to transmit some of the foolish hope born
2000 years ago. Protecting it under my umbrella, I am thinking
of the Dominican J.B. Humbert's prayer: " In this country
without peace, do we still have to break chains to get our own
freedom? Perhaps, but 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, when men were
already fighting, freedom came from a baby born in a stable"
(Bethlehem, 2000 years of passion).
- The dominant feeling isn't it today
that a terrorist and military violence is leaving no hope?
- Sure, we are far from the glimpse
of overtures seen during the Jubilee when Clinton and the Pope
visited us. During his visit to Gaza, Timothy Radcliffe, the
General Prior of the Dominicans, said to us that this strip of
land reminded him of the huge detention center in Ricker's Island
where 12 000 prisoners are locked up. The Palestinians are in
their own land like in the greatest penitentiary of the world!
The Gaza strip has been divided into three sections, and it happens
that the only way that the Israeli army allows for going from
one section to another without control is the wet sand of the
beach along the sea.
How people are living in Gaza?
- From 1998 to 2000 I lived in Chateh,
one of the eight Palestinian refugee camps (they are 600 000!).
In a Home of Mother Theresa sisters, I did house keeping tasks,
took care of old people and children without parents.
Later I was the host of a Moslem family
of shopkeeper. It is hard to imagine the noise, the crowd of
people in the labyrinths of these camps: 60 000 inhabitants per
Km2 ! (app. 135 000 per square mile).
- Not only the territory has been
locked up in three parts by the Israeli occupying troops, but
also the 5000 Israeli settlers who took over 40% of the cultivated
area. Besides some 2000 Orthodox Christians who make the business
bourgeoisie group of Gaza, there is a lot of room for misery.
UNO distributes to the refugees, medicines, water and school
equipments for children.
Certainly children keep smiling and
playing in this maze, but at the same time fear for their father
or older brother engaged in the revolt against the Israeli army,
always in danger
I saw the children of my host, so cheerful
when I arrived, losing their youthful enthusiasm and becoming
apolitical and skeptic about Arafat. Some times I could read on their face a kind
of reproach for me who is just passing by and belongs to a country
of security without permanent violence to face with.
- Is there any hope? Can you review
the positive aspects of your living there?
- Certainly I never saw the installation
of the peace process defined in 1995! The lobby of the settlers,
who spread all over Palestine, imposed gradually a kind of apartheid
and intolerable regime. Facing up to this violence, there is
the terrorist response. But the Palestinian people are diverse,
rich of human resources, profoundly religious, open to the dialogue
of religions and even to some movements opposed to any religion.
Some Koran sourates are pined to shop doors, taxis or commented
about on the radio. It is not rare in a family that some go to
the Mosque and others don't. It is the sign of a great tolerance;
this tolerance reveals the great capacity of the Palestinian
people to resist to the overwhelming action of intellectual or
- Are there some indications of a
possible reconciliation between the Palestinian and Israeli people?
- Strangely enough, during my chaplain
activity in an Israeli prison for criminals I perceived some
signs of hope, weak but intense, a promise for the future. Such
as the lady Director of a detention center nearby Haifa who proposed
me to visit a young Colombian, condemned for trafficking drugs
and very depressed. Or that Israeli lawyer, activist for the
Human Rights, a French Jew, Mickael War who is still thinking
that a bi-national State is possible in Palestine, he believes
in "the Andalusia dream" (the title of one of his book)
where in the 12th century the Arabic, Jewish and Christian cultures
were living together. This utopia is still alive today. I am
thinking again to Malika, a Moslem activist for health who is
organizing training for women in some villages of Cis Jordan
and Gaza with the help of the Catholic Committee for Food and
The future is preserved by the energy of these men and women,
they prepare the peace in the middle of the war, and they will
reverse the fatal destiny. Mgr Sabbah wrote: " Only one
thing can give security to Israel, the friendship of the Palestinian
people. A friendships that Israel will obtain only by giving
back to the Palestinian people its freedom and its land".
- In France, in Europe, what can we
do? Are the Churches involved?
- The permanence of international
and European solidarity is essential, like also the action of
humanitarian associations. By sending material and human help,
they prevent Palestine to be transformed into a besieged camp,
isolated from the rest of the world.
J. Gaillot avec une petite soeur du Père
de Foucault. Visite à une famille musulmane.
- The fact that Jacques Gaillot, bishop
of Partenia, came twice in two years, is the sign that the country is accessible to
travelers and to human solidarity, it is still a strong sign
of valuable help that has delighted and comforted men of different
origins and I who care for truth and an authentic peace. It seemed to me that the attitude of the bishop
of Partenia is in harmony with the recommendations of Michel
Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, that he gave in October
2001 at the opening of the Synod in Rome" It is among the
domains of justice and peace, where often hate and death predominate,
that the bishop is invited to make known the love of God
some time that forces him to be opposed to a regional or even
a world while public opinion. However it is asked of the bishop
to be the prophet who is proclaiming the just words to the oppressed
as to the oppressor
He can give in and just consoles the
weak one and shows him his compassion when he is afraid to make
the necessary action toward the strong one to help him to see
the justice. The bishop has to help human society to fight against
terrorism. He has also to help to identify the roots of the evil:
which are the political denies of justice, like for example the
situation of the Palestinian people and the embargo against Iraq
who greatly damaged the existence of millions of innocent persons
and all sort of unfair social status which divide the rich countries
from the poor ones. These are the origins of the terrorism"
The close relationship between these words and those of J. Gaillot
for the September 11 event leads me to make an appeal: why not
have a parallel synod
of all the members of Partenia on
these themes of solidarity?