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A presence to accompany vulnerable communities

31 March 2015

They are there every day, each month of the year – as they have been for the last 13 years. They have become a natural element in the chaos of life in Israel and Palestine. Their presence is appreciated. They provide safety and stability. Their sole weapon is a pen, or a camera. They see and listen; they analyze and report back.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) has existed since 2002 and contributes to curbing violence and promoting respect for international law. Their presence is an expression of practical solidarity with vulnerable groups – both Palestinians and Israelis. The author travelled to the Holy Land in March 2015 with a high-level delegation representing WCC leadership of the Central Committee.

EAPPI is a concrete response to an appeal to the World Council of Churches from church leaders in Jerusalem in 2002. They wrote in a letter: “We would respectfully request protection of all people in order to assist the re-establishment of mutual trust and security for Israelis and Palestinians. Further, we would call on all peace-loving people from around the world to come and join us in a manifestation for just peace”.

The World Council of Churches took the appeal to heart, and together with local churches and churches in Europe and the US they created the accompaniment programme, which is based on presence in the country and on analysing and reporting back on events there.

“Over 70 churches, ecumenical bodies and specialized ministries in 22 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America actively participate in the programme. Almost 1,500 accompaniers have participated. We will soon receive the 58th group,” says Manuel Quintero Pérez, coordinator for EAPPI at the WCC.

The accompaniers are recruited locally. Since the beginning, there has been incredibly strong support and commitment among member churches. An accompanier must be at least 25 years old but not yet 70, have experience working with people, and speak English fluently. Three recommendations are required in order to be accepted. The assignment is three months long; accompaniers work on international teams and live in places such as Hebron, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Solidarity visit to the Holy Land

In conjunction with the World Council of Churches’ solidarity visit to the Holy Land in March 2015, we meet around ten different accompaniers. We meet one team in Jericho, a Norwegian and a Swede who constitute one of the teams stationed in the city. They explain that the day before, they were alerted that the army was demolishing homes. They received the information via text message and promptly proceeded to the area. The trips are long, and it is sometimes difficult to find their way. They arrive and meet a Bedouin family with many young children; the family has been asked to leave the area and sit out in the scorching heat and glaring sun with no shelter. They plead to be allowed to take the children to a shady area but are denied their request. The accompaniers stay with the family, give them water and try to talk to the army for the sake of the children. But their home is levelled to the ground; everything they own is destroyed, including food, clothing and school books. The children go to a school that the UN established in the area, and the school books are a requirement for attendance. No school books, no school.

When we meet the family the next day again with the accompaniment team, the hard-hit family greets the team warmly. They readily open up and tell us about the previous day. They show us the rubble of what was their home yesterday. Now, nothing is left.

“By all means, we want to talk about it. Talking helps us process the traumatic events of yesterday. The fact that the World Council of Churches is focusing on accompaniers brings hope for the future – someone cares, someone is there as support in this mangled and tattered part of the world,” says the father of the family.

This is one life story among thousands, perhaps millions, of life stories. The accompaniers are tasked with seeing, analysing and reporting back.

Accompanying schoolchildren or the elderly

“They are trained by the sending organization in their home country before going to Israel and Palestine. Communication and advocacy are a fundamental part of our work,” says Quintero.

One of the accompaniers we meet explains that the work is extremely multifaceted and challenging, but that he gets a great deal out of it: memories and life-long friends.

He explains that the working day begins at 6 or 8 in the morning, depending on what is on the agenda for the day. Some people accompany schoolchildren through the checkpoint so they can arrive on time smoothly, without harassment. Others accompany the elderly to hospital, while others still are present in trouble spots with tensions between different groups; respond when homes are destroyed by the army.

“Sometimes I feel like what I’m doing isn’t enough. There are many practical things to deal with, and everything takes so long. Sometimes a visit at the checkpoint takes five hours. I feel a deep responsibility to be on site. I know my presence means a lot to the Palestinians in the village.”

He stresses his feelings of guilt at not having time to report as intended.

“I always prioritize personal meetings first and foremost. I'll try to catch up with some newsletters before it’s time to go home in four weeks. Hopefully, I can go around and talk about what I’ve experienced here.”

The accompanier continues, “This time has changed my life forever. I’m not the same as when I first arrived here. I’ve gained a new perspective on life. I’ve seen so much evil. Sometimes I feel powerless and despondent, and in those times, my colleagues on the international team are invaluable. Together, we can process the impressions, inspire courage in one another and not give up, but let our hope for a just peace live on.”

The accompaniers show us the 9-metre high wall that cuts off the area and renders transports between different places difficult. Sometimes the various checkpoints shut down completely. Sometimes, getting through requires journeying long distances. The accompaniers talk about a woman who needed to seek urgent medical care, but she did not get through the wall at the right place. She was forced to take a detour, and the strain was too much. She died before reaching the hospital.

An expression of practical solidarity

It has been 13 years since church leaders wrote their letter to the World Council of Churches appealing for a practical presence. One of the initiators was the Lutheran bishop.

“The presence of the accompaniers in the area means a great deal for the vulnerable. They create security and provide hope that someone cares,” says Dr Munib Younan, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in the Holy Land and Jordan.

Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, the associate general secretary of the WCC for public witness and diakonia, considers the accompaniment programme an essential part of the task of giving a voice to the voiceless.

“The accompaniment programme is a relatively new way to carry out advocacy, in part through concrete and practical presence, and in part through personal analyses and ongoing reports within the global programme. But above all, each accompanier is tasked with writing newsletters, blogging, tweeting and using social media to reach out with their experiences. This means that through the various accompaniers, different countries can follow reports from the people they have posted in the area.”

Phiri says that through the accompaniment programme, member churches take responsibility together for working for just, sustainable peace in the area. Obviously, the efforts of the accompaniment programme alone are not enough, but they complement discussions with government representatives, among religious leaders and with the UN.

The World Council of Churches works extensively in the region, together with church leaders and the Middle East Council of Churches.

By Marianne Ejdersten, director of communication at the WCC

WCC member churches in Israel and Palestine

Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel

WCC leadership focuses on peace-building and inter-religious initiatives during a solidarity visit to Israel and Palestine (WCC news release of 12 March 2015)

Statement on Economic Measures and Christian Responsibility toward Israel and Palestine

WCC Video EAPPI