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Priest Offers Mass Daily at Destroyed West Bank Olive Orchards

09 Sep 2015 – By Judith Sudilovsky

BEIT JALA, West Bank (CNS) — Since hundreds of olive trees were uprooted to make room for a separation barrier through the Cremisan Valley adjacent to this largely Christian village, Father Aktham Hijazin, Annunciation Parish priest, has been celebrating Mass daily behind red-and-white police tape.

The tape — and the border police who patrol the area — prevent some 56 Palestinian landowners from reaching their land.

A dump truck rumbles by, kicking up dust, just a few feet away from where the priest has set up his makeshift altar: a small table covered by a white cloth with three olive tree saplings at its base.

On 6 September, as Father Hijazin celebrated Mass for a handful of local landowners and a small Swedish group, the sound of the trucks occasionally drowned out their voices. Later, coughing slightly, the priest held up the consecrated Eucharist, first toward the worshippers, then facing the destroyed orchards.

In April, the residents celebrated the Israeli Supreme Court decision, which seemingly blocked a plan to build the separation barrier. But just three weeks later the Ministry of Defense sent a letter to the private landowners’ attorney and the Beit Jala municipality, announcing its intention to build the wall.

Despite several legal appeals requesting to see the wall’s new route, the court declined to issue an injunction, and on 17 August bulldozers and tractors began uprooting hundred-years-old olive trees and clearing dirt paths.

Attorney Raffoul Rofa, executive director of the Society of St. Yves of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who represented the Salesian Sisters affected by the construction, said a gap is expected to be left open in the barrier around the monastery and convent — at least initially — until a solution is devised to allow the institutions to remain in contact with the Palestinian side.

“Everybody expected them to come up with an alternate route for the whole wall, not just for the convent and monastery, but our expectations were not accurate” said Rofa. “Basically we won [the sisters’] case, but those who lost are the landowners. The Latin Patriarchate believes the people here are very important and will not be left on their own, so we are still involved in the case.”

Meanwhile, Palestinians say, Israel is creating space for more settlements while legal appeals are still in the works.

A protest by residents during which they tore down a military gate closing off the land was met by tear gas and beatings 23 August. Since then, local Christian leaders have been holding the daily Masses.

“People were getting angry and began to protest and demonstrate,” said Father Hijazin. “We as a church decided to come here and do daily worship. This is the third week we are holding Masses, and it will go on indefinitely.”

Sometimes priests from the local Greek Orthodox and Lutheran churches join Father Hijazin.

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Tags: Palestine Israel Holy Land Christians West Bank