Letter of December 1st 2001
A Travel to Bethlehem





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Still a Christmas without gifts?
Georges Vimard  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 in 1989).  J.Gaillot et Yassir Arafat 

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 thoughts.
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).
évacouer les territoires  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 1967.
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.  no war 
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.
jeunes palestiniens  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 to another!
What about this new job of being a messenger?
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 territories.  barrages et contrôles 
I was transporting clothes, mail, jam…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, its divisions?
accueil  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 and theology.
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 anthem.
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!  Christ ressuscité 
How to enjoy Christmas in a country at war?

Noël en Palestine 
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).  camps 
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.

à Gaza  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 spiritual terrorism.
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 Development.
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.
rendre visite  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…but 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?

Georges Vimard 

photos G.Vimard