Surviving a Near Brush with Death

Dec 24, 2002 05:59 PM EST

As Christians contemplate the miracle of their Saviour's birth during this advent season, the Revd Husam Naoum will be able to ponder a miracle of his own - surviving a near brush with death.

Earlier this month, Israeli soldiers fired upon the priest of St Philip's Episcopal Church in Nablus and St Matthew's in Zababdeh, as he travelled to a wedding. Fr Husam said the bullets, fired from less than five meters away, came very close to hitting him. Soldiers then told him to take off his shirt and stand in the sun for two hours while taking his passport back to their superiors.

"It was serious and not serious at the same time," Fr Husam said of the close call, noting that he is thankful that the bullets missed him. "(This type of incident) happens all the time. I'm not alone."

Fr Husam said he was travelling from Nablus to Zababdeh to solemnize a wedding during the morning of Dec. 8 - the time of the incident. He said he and a few passengers in his taxi had just left the taxi, and they were walking to a place where they could catch another one.

Palestinians in the West Bank like Fr Husam often must switch taxis near checkpoints because cars otherwise must wait in enormous lines at such places. Palestinians also must walk through rough and hilly plains, where Fr Husam was walking on this day, because they are denied access to main roads.

Fr Husam said he and the other passengers walked up a hill past an Israeli military jeep, which suddenly sped toward them. Soldiers inside the jeep fired 10 to 12 shots in the air at close range as they passed. Fr Husam said he did not think the soldiers meant to fire at the passengers, but the bullets just barely missed them nonetheless. The soldiers then left the jeep and ordered the group of Palestinians at gunpoint to take off their sweaters and shirts in the middle of the road. They claimed they needed to see whether the men were armed, Fr Husam said.

Fr Husam, who happens to be an Israeli citizen, said he tried to explain that he was a priest and that he needed to get to a wedding. One of the soldiers told him to "shut up" and ordered him to take off his shirt and undershirt, he said. They took his Israeli identification card and left him standing there for a few hours before other soldiers returned and ordered him to return to Nablus.

Fr Husam said he tried to look for alternate routes to the site of the wedding in the nearby village of Zababdeh, but did not succeed. He said he could not persuade the soldiers to allow him to go to the wedding. As a result, the Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, Anglican Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, had to appoint another priest to marry the couple in Zababdeh. Bishop Riah said Fr Husam's voice was shaking when he spoke to him during the day of the incident.

However, Fr Husam said similar things have happened to him in the past, and such occurrences are common. The fact that soldiers fire their guns in the air near civilians is a problem, but the fact that West Bank Palestinians cannot travel from place to place is particularly painful, he said.

Soldiers enforce curfews in Nablus on a semi-regular basis, including every Friday, when Muslims normally would go to the mosque to pray, Fr Husam said. However, life these days is better than it was this summer, when Israeli troops started a three-month curfew, only briefly allowing people out of their homes to buy food once every 10 days, he said.

"Sometimes, I'm just amazed how people deal with it," he said. "The situation here is very bad. I pray all the time for peace, and in church we always pray for reconciliation and for an end to this miserable situation."

The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem condemns all forms of violence, calling for peace and justice for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Fr Husam requested that supporters of the Diocese continue to hold up members of his congregations in their prayers. He added that financial support for diocesan institutions, including St. Luke's Hospital in Nablus, is needed. The hospital has suffered major financial setbacks because patients have not been able to come during curfew times, he said.

By Nancy J Dinsmore