"Together we must wake the conscience of the world!", said Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan to a group of twelve ecumenical accompaniers meeting after their initial two-week placements in different parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. "The more you are critical of the present policy [of occupation and colonization], the more you help strengthen the position of the Christian church and community here as bridge-builders," the bishop said.
The twelve have been in the Occupied Territories since March 2003, and will continue on the ground until the end of May. The second group of volunteers to participate in a World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), they come from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA.
Bridge-building, solidarity and witness are the focus for this diverse group of people. As Israel announces that it will bar peace activists from entry and deport them, those who have responded to the call to advocate for justice are finding their place in an increasingly hostile environment of unabated assassinations, home demolitions, siege and suicide bombings.
Ecumenical accompaniers Tord from Sweden and Hallstein from Norway have experienced what life is like under curfew and amidst settler violence in the old city of Hebron. Tord confronted soldiers as they fired upon school children. "The interaction with soldiers here is one of our most important witnesses," he says. "How can such behaviour ever contribute to anything connected with security?" Both Tord and Hallstein accompany children to school and maintain an international presence through street patrols and regular visits to families whose homes and lands are threatened with demolition.
A diversity of backgrounds amongst the accompaniers results in a diversity of placement and work. Jesper, a medical student from Denmark, has used his presence to help facilitate passage of mobile health clinics and ambulances through checkpoints. Lynne and Aaron, both from the US, both with education, experience and interest in pastoral care, are well established in their respective communities of Ramallah and Bethlehem in a network of church community and refugee camp work.
Similarly, in the primarily Christian town of Zababdeh, south of the northern West Bank city of Jenin, Ken and Joel from the US and Hansruedi from Switzerland have discovered a need they can fulfil in just "being". While all three have provided classic accompaniment - of school buses, and food and water distribution in Jenin - Joel describes a unique role for western Christians here. "I've discovered how important it is just to be present to a community which feels isolated. As Bush justified the war on Iraq in religious crusader-like terms, he put Palestinian Christians in a precarious situation with their Muslim neighbours. We can be that alternative Christian voice for justice, and reach out into the Muslim community on the ground."