While they commemorated 20 years of a programme that has given children and adults an added sense of security, they lamented that today’s circumstances in the Holy Land mean that accompaniment is still needed now more than ever.
Nearly 100 guests gathered at Hotel Imperial in Jerusalem to meet, greet, and listen to local stories. Among the guests were heads of churches, member churches, ecumenical partners, Ecumenical Accompaniers, and Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel national coordinators.
The event was opened by His Eminence Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantina and WCC acting general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca. Among the speakers were also Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel national coordinators; Ecumenical Accompaniers; Bishop Ibrahim Azar, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land and Jerusalem; and Rt. Rev. Dr Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land.
Sauca shared expressions of both joy and concern during his reflections on the occasion.
“The worldwide ecumenical fellowship has always sought to be in active solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East, who are living in continuation of an unbroken line of faithful Christian witness in the multi-religious contexts of their countries, making vital contributions to the vibrant diversity and development of their societies,” said Sauca.
“Upheavals, violent extremism using religion as justification, ongoing military occupations, discrimination and systematic violations of human rights, economic crises and corruption, absence of the rule of law, and other factors have contributed to an existential crisis for all in the region.”
Sauca noted that this is particularly affecting vulnerable communities, including Christians who are facing displacement and mass migration.
“We affirm that the best means of averting this threat is equal rights, inclusive citizenship, justice and dignity for all, without religious or racial discrimination,” he said.
In 2002, the WCC founded the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in response to a call by church leaders in the Holy Land.
“The WCC, whose member churches represent about 580 million Christians worldwide, answered the call,” he said. “Earlier in 2002, residents of the small village of Yanoun were driven out of their homes by high levels of settler violence.”
Israeli and international peace activists took action and decided to live in the village of Yanoun, hoping that the village residents would find it safe to come back. “Due to the protective presence provided by these activists, the residents of Yanoun were able to return,” Sauca recalled.
This success served as inspiration and in 2002 the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel was born. WCC member churches have since recruited over 1,800 Ecumenical Accompaniers from 25 countries to serve 3-month terms in placements around the West Bank.
Working closely with local communities, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, and international agencies, the programme has maintained a constant presence in the region ever since.
Anniversary greetings from far and wide
Those who have worked with and supported the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel over the years took time to offer greetings and share memories about the programme.
Bishop Dr Munib Younan, former president of the Lutheran World Federation, said that the idea of the programme is to “promote justice, peace and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel—and in the whole world.
Younan added: “We have only to trust this God of justice. That’s my hope to the world.”
Salpy Eskidjian, Office of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process, said that the situation on the ground in Palestine and Israel has not improved as they hoped 20 years ago—but has only changed.
“The presence—as long as the member churches and as long as the local community feels it’s important—I would pray that the international, wider global ecumenical family would continue that protective presence,” she said. “It is really a joy that brings thankfulness and gratitude.”
Over the years, many photos depict Ecumenical Accompaniers serving as a peaceful protective presence for Palestinian children walking to school.
Eskidjian added that she hopes the programme continues to grow and continues make a difference in people’s lives.
“My hope is a place where the two peoples and all faith communities would live together in peace,” she said.
Sara Speicher, deputy general secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication, also recalled the days when the programme was first conceived. “The idea was first of all seen as and welcomed by the heads of churches and local Palestinian and Israeli groups as a tangible sign of the WCC’s concern but also hope that this accompaniment would show some solidarity, that it would give some security, and that it would raise awareness.”
Sam Bahour, managing partner, Applied Information Management, Palestine, said ecumenical accompaniment is a lifesaving and life-changing experience. “This is saving lives because many times a foreign presence will be a deterrent for the Israeli occupying power or the illegal Israeli settlers to interfere with our daily lives.”
Rev. Dr Owe Boersma, Referent Ecumenical Networks & Organizations, Bread for the World, said he considers the programme a success in exposing people in different contexts to the reality of the occupation and to work toward the end of it.
“Unfortunately, the jubilee of 20 years coincides almost exactly with 55 years of occupation,” he said.
Manuel Quintero Perez, former Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel coordinator, recalled the verse in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12 that speaks about suffering.
“When somebody suffers, the whole body suffers with it,” Perez said. “It was most excellent that WCC responded by organizing this programme, thereby allowing churches from many countries to be part of the suffering of the churches in the Holy Land,” he said.
In the land where Jesus was born, we have so much hatred, Perez continued, and peace is a long-term process. “My only hope is that the ecumenical community will continue working with people there to find that solution.”
WCC general secretary-elect Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay shared reflections as well.
“Despite the hardship of Palestinians in the Holy Land, and that of the youth in particular, God remains the only constant in everything, and is the compass that guides us to our aspired goal,” he said. “Whatever we do in the struggle for justice, our concrete action should be seen as directed toward social transformation.”
In other words, there needs to be a vision of an alternative society, Pillay suggested. “What does this mean in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict?” he asked. “We have to continue on our joint pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation, and unity.”
Carla Khijoyan, WCC programme executive for Peace Building in the Middle East, said that the occupation is not only illegal but unethical as well. “And just as there are moral dimensions of this conflict, there is a moral imperative for us as churches and Christians for how we respond,” she said, adding that serving as an Ecumenical Accompanier “is a lesson of resilience and resistance, of hope and dignity and integrity—a lesson that changes us forever.”
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