Rubber Bullets & Teargas on the Streets of Bethlehem and a Wonderful Engagement Celebration in Tel Aviv

Along with hundreds of people from all over the world, I left Bethlehem a few days ago, where I was covering the third Christ at the Checkpoint Conference for the ASSIST News Service (ANS).

Working with ANS and covering stories of this type is a natural extension of the ministry that I feel God has given me to help and bring light to the oppressed and marginalized.

engagement-dinner1-300x300It was a wonderful experience.

After the conference was over, I spent a few days in Tel Aviv with my fiancé Elma Cabug, where we also celebrated our engagement dinner with some of Elma’s church family.

While you can read all my official reports on ANS, this is the “back story,” sometimes referred to in journalistic terms as “reporter’s notebook.”

I left Albuquerque for Washington’s Dulles Airport on March 8, after just having returned from Washington’s Baltimore Airport about 36 hours before.

There for the previous few days I had taken part in an annual legislative summit organized by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, of which Joy Junction (the homeless shelter in New Mexico which I founded and direct) is a long time member.

Knowing I would only have a very short window at home before leaving again, I had half gotten things ready for Israel before leaving for Washington.

After a whirlwind few hours in Albuquerque, 3 a.m. Saturday morning came quickly and it was time to make my way to the airport. I had a few hours layover in D.C., which I put to good use doing some work for ANS.

The journey to Munich was uneventful until we landed and I powered up my Blackberry, expecting to be able to check emails and update Facebook and other social media for Joy Junction. That didn’t happen, on either my phone or my Netbook-even after rebooting both devices a number of times. All I got was a notice saying there was no service.

A call back to my service provider in the States provided the answer. I had neglected to tell them about my German layover, so while my devices were set to function in the Middle East, some additional tweaking needed to be done for service in Europe. Yeah!

“So sorry, sir,” the cheerful representative said. “We’ll have you up and running in a few minutes.”

Good to his word, that was indeed the case. My adrenalin returned to its normal level. I boarded the plane sending emails while in line, and was soon on the way to Israel. Just after 2 p.m. Sunday Israeli time (6 a.m. Albuquerque time), I landed in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

It was so good to be back in Israel, where I had been a few months previously, and not only to know that I would be covering a very important conference, but get to see Elma again as well.

After making my way through Israeli immigration, I made my way to the airport entrance where I found a cab driver I had booked in advance. We started the journey to the beautiful hotel facility where the conference was to be held.

I checked into my room, and took a few moments to breathe. It wasn’t until beginning to unpack that I realized I was very short of shirts. I only had three, including the one I was wearing. The perils of a very quick turn around and a more than slightly hectic schedule this month.

Still, I really can’t say I didn’t like it. I don’t know for how many months I could keep up the pace, but at least for the moment it was good. While the lack of shirts was annoying, I decided I wouldn’t let it get to me. I’d just get more.

After cleaning up, I made my way through the very cavernous hotel to where dinner was being served that night.

At my best I am directionally challenged, and that’s in places I know. This hotel posed a special challenge.

However, once I found where I was supposed to be going I met some delightful United Methodists from Oklahoma who were there for the conference. The food was delicious, as was all the food I enjoyed while there. The Middle Eastern diet is so good, and a lot more healthy than much of the usual American fare.

After dinner I was exhausted, and the pillow was calling my name. Sleep that night was good and much needed. I got up late the next morning, had some Turkish coffee (my favorite) and did some pre conference interviews with anyone willing to talk to me.

I was just enjoying supper, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

isam-and-jr-catc-march-2014IMG9500001669-300x300It was a pleasure to run into Isam Ghattas, director of Manara Ministries in Amman, Jordan. I met Isam some years ago, while in Jordan for ANS.

We caught up a bit, and I also enjoyed meeting his wife. What an amazing couple!

Among a variety of other things, Manara helps some of the refugees who have flooded into Jordan from neighboring countries. They could use our ongoing prayer and financial support!

A little while later the conference opened with a word of greeting from Rev. Munir Kakish, president of the Evangelical Council in Palestine. He said, “As a religious group we are unable to practice our civil rights … Our council prays for peace and justice to rule our land.”

World Evangelical Alliance CEO Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe also greeted delegates. He began by requesting official recognition of his group’s member churches from the Palestinian Authority, adding “I will bring the same message to Israel later this week.”

He concluded by saying, “My hope and prayer is that as evangelicals we can be on the leading edge of peace, so that in coming years there may be a new bridge of peace.”

Geoff is a delightful man, and I agreed wholeheartedly with his sentiments. He has such an important position, but is so approachable and down to earth.

After the opening session concluded, I went outside. Outside the hotel, Monday evening traffic was quite busy, but there was nothing visible occurring out of the ordinary. Traffic flowed well, and people walked in and out of a local grocery store buying necessities. It could have been anywhere-almost.

tension1939497_10152671820773448_31600559_nHowever, just a few hundred yards from the hotel was a quiet reminder of what the conference is all about.

A sign read, “Warning. This is illegally occupied land. State of Palestine.”

This is an area where ongoing tension bubbles just beneath the surface and sometimes spills right over.

Teargas and rubber bullets on the streets of Bethlehem
The reality of the tense Middle East situation was brought right home for me and all the other conference delegates Tuesday.

tear-gas-300x300At the end of the morning session, a conference organizer said those interested in eating lunch at the nearby Bethlehem Bible College (organizers  of the conference) needed to take a back door from the hotel, as there was an “incident”  (that was I believe the word he used), occurring outside.

I ran out to see what was going on. Bethlehem’s main street was permeated with choking tear gas and rubber bullets when the Israeli army faced off against stone throwing Palestinian youth.

An observer told me there were about 100 young people involved, upset about what they believed was the killing of at least two Palestinians by the Israeli army (IDF) in the few days prior to the conference.

There may have been more than two, and the reason for the killing was disputed depending on which side you listened to.

A Times of Israel story said that according to a Ma’an News report, while driver Fidaa Muhye Addin Majadlah was killed and passenger Ibrahim Adnan Shukri was seriously injured after their car went off the road and flipped over, it may not have been by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

The Times said while a Palestinian security source had initially told news service AFP that IDF forces had fired on the vehicle, the news agency retracted the story after Palestinians notified them that “their information on army gunfire was incorrect.”

Youth were also reportedly upset about the killing of a judge by the IDF Monday at the Allenby Crossing. While a preliminary IDF investigation said that that an IDF soldier felt his life was in danger, Palestinians weren’t buying it.

According to a story by Gili Cohen and Jack Khoury for Haaretz, the Jordanian government sent a sharply worded statement to Israel Monday following the killing. The border terminal is operated jointly by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It is the main border crossing for Palestinians from the West Bank traveling to neighboring Jordan and beyond, and a crossing point for goods between Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Officials in Jordan told Haaretz the government is under pressure to conduct an in-depth investigation, and that the issue would be discussed in parliament.

A conference participant speaking on condition of anonymity told me killings were not “a reason to retaliate. It was senseless,” she said. “Walk away. Be a bigger man. Isn’t that what this (Christ at the Checkpoint) Conference is all about?”

However, Rev. Ashraf Tannous from Beit Sahour Church, had a different point of view. Tannous told me, “When we are killed and humiliated without reasons, we have the right to say we’re mad about what’s going on.”

Tannous said the afternoon demonstration was a “normal thing.”

“Whenever Israel attacks the Palestinians and kills someone, this is what happens. These people are telling the world by throwing stones that we are people who want to live in the land.”

According to Tannous the “Zionist country is trying to damage and distort the image of God in Palestine.”

He added, “We are all created in the image of God. No one is better. We are all included.”

Tannous told me he had a message for Americans. He said, “Come and visit us and see what’s going on. Never ever judge the situation without living it. There are Christians here who need you.”

I stayed outside the hotel as close as I could to everything going on. Hotel security ushered us back in (or attempted to do so), and I appreciated their concern for our safety.

However, I felt compelled to observe first hand. The tear gas was thick at some points and while I didn’t really want to inhale its obnoxious fumes, in one sense I did. I “needed” to see what it felt like.

Just a few short whiffs were enough. It made its way to the back of my throat, stung my eyes and gave me a headache. An ambulance made its way past the hotel down the street. I heard that a Palestinian youngster had inhaled too much of the teargas and needed medical treatment.

Regardless of your political viewpoint on who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” can you imagine living like this? I was told that situations like this are a pretty regular occurrence in Bethlehem.

I went back to my room, took some aspirin, drank some coffee and started writing the story on the incident for ANS.

More conference sessions came and went, and while many of the conference detractors ascribed an anti Semitic tome to the conference, in reality there were a multitude of viewpoints, including speaker Dr. Bill Wilson, the current president of Oral Roberts University.

While presenting a good message he was, I thought, not a good judge of his audience when he told everyone that he felt safer since the wall, or checkpoint, was built.

While that may have been true for him, I question whether this was the time or the place to say that. As I recall, a low torrent of disagreement rippled through the audience when he said those words.

Wednesday afternoon I visited a long time friend in Bethlehem, Alexander Hotel owner Joseph Canavati, where I stayed at last year in Bethlehem, as well as for a few days a number of years ago.

Joseph has always been so gracious to me. He set me up with a couple of interviews last year that included a visit to one of Bethlehem’s hugely overpopulated refugee camps, Camp Aida.

It was so good to reconnect again with Joseph, wife Ivonne and son Joey and enjoy Turkish coffee.

I asked Ivonne if she had any idea where I could get some shirts, thinking she would direct me to a local store. However, she was kind enough to give me some, which lessened my predicament and ensured that I wouldn’t be a (smelly) distraction to those around me!

Well, back to the conference where on Thursday I got to hear, report on and interview Pastor Bob Roberts, who energized delegates right from his opening words. He was also gracious enough to give me a one on one interview.

Roberts is the founder and senior pastor of Northwood Church, near Dallas, TX. Roberts covered a number of issues. Here are some of the highlights:

He said, “We’ve got freedom of the press, but we own the press.” Roberts said while he loves his Jewish friends, he also loves Palestinians.

When he asked conference delegates how many of them love Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem, there was loud applause. Eschatology was next on the agenda.

Roberts apologized to Palestinians here, saying his heart breaks for their suffering. Again, my reason is not to criticize one side or the other. I am for Jesus and want to see peace in the Middle East.

However, the argument I have heard several times doesn’t hold water, if you think about it. Proponents argue that “the Palestinians” (usually said in a derogatory tone) are getting an enormous amount of aid — with the implication being that as a result our responsibility ends.

Well, if the aid is indeed being provided, it doesn’t appear to be filtering down to those most in need, so I would maintain that our responsibility continues. We can’t regard the plight of thousands of Palestinian people as collateral damage – can we – while we bask in our love for Israel, and glibly say that God is fulfilling His plan.

The week flew by and it was soon time to join Elma for a few days in Bethlehem. I couldn’t wait to see her, as while we have talked together daily, we hadn’t seen each other in person since late Oct. 2013.

However, there was one more “adventure” in store before I left Bethlehem.

I needed to get some money out of the ATM located in the hotel lobby. Two of the bills I got were 200 shekels each (almost $58.00). I did the transaction without a thought and put the bills in my wallet.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later while attempting to buy something in Tel Aviv with Elma that a clerk looked at them and said both bills were fake. The paper was much glossier and of a lower grade than the genuine article.

I would never have thought I’d get fake money from an ATM. Well, I will know to check next time! Friday afternoon through Monday evening was a wonderful time of reconnecting with Elma, and a time to recharge our batteries.

The highlight, though, was an engagement dinner for us on Sunday night with a number of friends from Elma’s church family (including her pastors) in Tel Aviv. They went out of their way to embrace me and make me feel welcomed and loved. I most definitely did!

So that’s the notebook! Both Elma and I would appreciate your prayers for God’s continued blessing on us, and a multitude of other details that need to come together as we prepare to get married soon and begin a new life together in him.