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United Methodist missionaries share Middle East dangers

3/7/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report. *Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York office.





When the latest round of Israeli bombs fell on Bethlehem at 5:10 a.m. on March 7, the impact knocked a sleeping Sandra Olewine off her living room couch.

The second blast shook pictures off the wall, blew open the front door of the apartment house, dropped shrapnel on the roof and showered glass from a neighbor's home onto her balcony. When the explosions stopped at 5:45 a.m., Olewine, a United Methodist missionary, found that homes and businesses on the street that also contained a Palestinian police station had been ruined.

The Rev. Alex Awad, another United Methodist missionary who serves as a pastor in East Jerusalem and teacher at Bethlehem Bible College, also awoke March 7 to the sound of renewed bombing in Bethlehem. It was a sound that "is becoming the norm here rather than the exception," he wrote in an e-mail to United Methodist News Service.

Despite the danger - to his family, to his congregation, to the college students and everyone else - Awad is thankful that he can continue his ministry. "Our congregation in Jerusalem has not cancelled or missed a Sunday," he wrote. "People have taken chances and made it to church to worship God."

But he expressed sorrow for the Palestinian and Israeli victims of a conflict that has escalated dramatically in recent weeks, as did Bob May, another missionary assigned to the area by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

"I think the biggest effect of the escalation in violence has been the discouragement and frustration of the people," May said.

He has been documenting some of the damage, and photos can be found at www.bobmay.info, his Web site. "Violence and the threat of violence unavoidably dampens our spirits," he told the news service. "It's hard to remain optimistic about the future when you hear missiles firing, see buildings exploding and learn of more people dying. It's hard to keep spiritually and mentally focused when you have to worry about the dangers of bullets and bombs."

The violence also has further weakened the Christian presence in the Holy Land, according to Awad. He estimated that at least 500 Christian families already have left the country.

"As a pastor, my greatest concern is the safety of my congregation," he said. "Any one of our members can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We keep calling on Almighty God to protect each individual, not only in our congregation but also all other congregations. And every Sunday we pray earnestly for peace and justice to prevail in this land."

Awad added that his congregation was encouraged by a recent Sunday visit from two U.S. bishops, Bishop Ann Sherer of the United Methodist Church's Missouri Area and Bishop Clifton Ives of the West Virginia Area.

The personal risk is great. Awad and his wife Brenda spend hours crossing the checkpoint in Bethlehem, a few miles from their home on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Their 17-year-old son, Randy, attends the Anglican International School, located in one of the most dangerous areas of West Jerusalem. Basem, their 22-year-old son, commutes to Ramallah, where he works for a United Nations project.

"Of course, our suffering doesn't compare to the thousands of Palestinians who are fired on or prevented in cases of emergency from even getting to a hospital or doctor," Awad noted.

Despite the obstacles, Bethlehem Bible College is experiencing its highest enrollment ever. Although there has been property damage, no student or faculty or staff member has been injured by a bombing. "Often the students come terrified to class as a result of bombing, but they continue to come," Awad said. "We miss very few teaching days."

The Christians that do remain are crowding into the churches. "The Christian communities have used their skills and resources to minister to the physical and emotional needs of the communities, thus bringing glory to God through their good deeds to both Muslims and Christians," he said.

But Awad added that the "overwhelming majority" of Christian leaders in the Holy Land are dismayed with the Bush administration's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "They are frustrated by what they perceive as Bush giving the green light to Sharon to crush the Palestinians, or perhaps Bush's lack of courage to stop Sharon," he explained. "Such a policy will only prolong the conflict, causing more death and suffering on both sides."

Olewine criticized the United States for blocking the call for an international protection force. "How many Palestinian and Israeli lives might have been saved if an international body could have created space between them, allowing for security for both and the return to the negotiating table?" she wrote in her March 7 e-mail.
May noted that hope is a tenuous commodity these days. "People do not need an intensification of violence to further depress and discourage them," he said. "I'm afraid that when all hope is gone, then everyone has lost."

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