Men with Dolls - Situation of Christians in the OPT and Israel

John Aves
Tuesday, 30 December, 2003

You will be able to see a man carrying a doll on Tuesday afternoon, the 6th of January.  There is nothing particularly strange about that, as fathers do the same thing all over the world, buying the toys or even playing with them for the benefit of their children.  But the reason this father is carrying the doll is quite different than that of most other fathers in the world.  He is the Father Custos, the Chief Franciscan in the Holy Land.  The doll he will be carrying on the feast of the Epiphany represents the image of the baby Jesus.

But this image is not that of the Christmas baby but rather a child seated on a throne holding an orb and sceptre. On this day of the Epiphany it is carried in procession to the place of Christ’s birth where, on the site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the three Kings are said to have knelt in homage.  The Franciscans have been given a special responsibility in looking after the Holy Places since 1347 and the carrying out of these ceremonies is one of their responsibilities.

For the non-believer it is just a harmless piece of religious mumbo jumbo.  For the believer, on the other hand, it is a profound statement of where true authority, dignity, and power are to be found.  But for me, an Anglican priest working for a few weeks in Deheisha Refugee Camp, there are other images of Christ on my mind.  Being surrounded by people displaced from their homes in Israel, often just a 40-minute drive away, since 1948, I see Christ reflected in less ceremonious ways.  I see Christ in the fathers, desperately proud of their well-cared for children but also angry and sad because they can never show them the sea or their city, Jerusalem, only six miles down the road.  I see the image of Christ in the young men without work, their anxious faces prematurely lined with age.  They appear listless and bored because they are virtually imprisoned in this small town, the security needs of the state of Israel through the use of walls, fences, watchtowers and checkpoints trumping their individual freedom.  I see Christ also in the smiling children playing in the crowded alleys, fresh with the memories of tank incursions, house-to-house searches and the 21 from Bethlehem who have been killed since 2000.  I can also see Christ, it has to be said, in the face off the young Israeli officer who told me what a nice city Leeds is. He seems trapped with so many other soldiers in patterns of humiliation and bullying, his eyes telling me he would rather not be here.

Christ is not just found in the great liturgies but also in the victims.  But more than that, Christ is found in the patient dignity of these people, a dignity that confronts me over and over again here at the Ibdaa Centre.  The Ibdaa Centre was founded in 1995, the word meaning "to create something out of nothing."  I help as a volunteer with English conversation but there are also dancing programmes, computer training, basketball and football teams for children as well as classes for woman, a handicraft co-operative and leadership classes.  "Education is our only weapon," says their director.  To use the words "Palestinian terrorist" as a blanket description of many ordinary, good and kind people is simply false and wrong.

Michael Prior has written of the different ways believers have come to the Holy Land as pilgrims.  Protestants are uneasy with two thousand years of liturgical devotion at the shrines, preferring the unmediated presence of the Garden Tomb or the village scenes by the Sea of Galilee.  For the Orthodox, the issue of place is not as important, as the whole country becomes an icon by which we can step into eternity.  For Roman Catholics, the holy places help them appreciate the reality to the biblical texts as part of their piety.  But Prior writes: "there is the need to be confronted in the Holy Land by the God who is to be found in the moral issues posed by the suffering of the people."

Last year in Norwich Cathedral on the feast of the Epiphany, I saw the Lord Mayor and Sheriff offer gifts to another image of the child in the cloister crib.  The meaning derived from this image can be simply one of men kneeling before dolls.  However, it can also provide us with a more profound method of recognizing the Christ who is found in the refugees who surround me here today and in the needy of the world who are your neighbours.  Pray that my friends here, who compose with others nearly a third of the world’s refugee population (Badil Resource Centre 2003) and have been waiting in camps like this for over fifty years, won’t forever be forgotten by the rulers of this world.