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Letter from Jerusalem by a Comboni Sister

Beyond the wall and among people

 Di là dal muro e tra gli uomini  DCM-006
01 June 2024

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they prosper who love you!
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers!”
For my brethren and companions’ sake
 I will say, “Peace be within you!”

 (Psalm 122)

To travel to Jerusalem during the longest war of the last sixty years was certainly not an easy choice, nor was it a choice understood by many of my friends. Yet, even though I arrived in November 2023, I am still here, months later, looking and trying to understand where I have truly landed.

Actually, since my arrival, everyday life in Jerusalem has seemed almost untouched by the reality of the violence unfolding less than 100 kilometers away. I myself started an Arabic course (which I hope will be followed by a course in modern Hebrew), I move through the empty alleyways of the Old City, I can stop at the Holy Sepulchre, where there is a deeply silent atmosphere, to meditate because the long lines of noisy pilgrims are absent.

Jerusalem is always a particularly fascinating city, but above all extremely complex, where different realities meet (and often clash). One such reality is that of the Old City, where time seems to have stopped, where the stones speak of the time of Christ, where there are still those who are wearing the same clothes from Eastern Europe of the 19th century. This is a reality where coexistence is fragile and always threatened, even among Christians, to the point that everything simply moves according to the “status quo” (as the relationship between the different churches in the use of Christian spaces that should be simply common is called), that is, only according to tradition.

The complexity of relationships is also felt throughout Jerusalem, divided between the Arab and Jewish zones, where even the festivities are not shared because each group follows its own calendar and traditions. At this time without pilgrims and tourists, Jerusalem could even more clearly demonstrate its nature as a city of possible encounter, despite a reality so deeply divided that arises from a history of pain, oppression, and injustice.

Certainly, October 7, with the ineffable violence perpetrated, created a point of no return in the already precarious and difficult situation of coexistence between two peoples. The sense of insecurity, the fear of what could happen, mark the lives of all those who live here. At the center of all this is the experience of the history of those who preceded us and that we cannot absolutely consider past because it is our history, the history that has made us what we are. So on one hand there is the history of the Holocaust, but also of persecutions and ghettos, on the other hand the experience of being expelled from one’s own land and homes, of being second and third generation refugees without the possibility of return. A history of great suffering, but also of great fears on both sides, that of real, social, and cultural annihilation as well as the creation of a barrier of fear, distrust, and mistrust. It is certainly a story that is continuously reinforced by the violence perpetrated indiscriminately on one side and the other, which mainly counts young victims, killed after a rave or simply because they live in an area of the world called Gaza that they simply do not have permission to leave.

It’s a story clearly manipulated by politics to create fear of the other: the existing wall as a symbol of a division made by humans. I live next to the wall, I see it every morning when I wake up and every evening before going to sleep, and it is the clearest sign of what should not be, for it divides people, therefore creating enemies. If we do not meet, if we do not know each other, it is impossible to recognize ourselves in the humanity that unites us.

Yet, even in this reality, which is so divided and disheartened, there are signs of hope, or perhaps it is better to say, people who carry hope. These are the people who seek encounter, who desire peace, and who, despite the attack on October 7 and Israel’s military response in Gaza, with its victims, are asking fundamental questions about how it will be possible to build a common future. Amongst those asking are journalists, doctors, rabbis, who have not lost faith in the possibility of sharing spaces, creating communication, and perhaps, in a future hopefully not far off, communion. We cannot ignore the fact that there is also an opportunity, a chance for change. Certainly, it will take a long time because there are so many wounds to heal, not only physical ones but those of history, fear, injustices, and there is so much pain to metabolize that “often tends to be selfish,” as Cardinal Pizzaballa states in a recent interview. As a Church, this is the task that we are called upon to experience. To increasingly become a place of encounter; first, this encounter is with the Christians of the Holy Land who experience their minority status in a particular way from every point of view, encounter with all people of goodwill who desire to build a society founded on justice, fairness, peace, starting from the encounter with the pain of the other.

This all gives meaning to our presence as missionaries. We are places and possibilities of encounter, of understanding, and to help create spaces to imagine a different future, a future that does not allow us to think only in selfish, oppressive forms, but a future that is a possibility of life for whoever inhabits this land, that is for all those who call this Holy Land their land, the land of their life. There are no winners in this tragedy, only victims of distorted politics, of power projects, of that terribly inhuman arrogance that sees oppression as a possible, especially advantageous, policy. The destruction we witness every day is the destruction of our humanity, of the possibility of growing in the “humanum” that unites us. Until we begin to listen to the stories of others, until there are spaces of encounter, there will be no possibility of change, of peace, and of a future for this land and for every land.

Comboni Missionary