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Bethel College students travel to Middle East for interterm

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Student perspective: a land in turmoil By Scott Janzen

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - This past January, seven students in the "Jerusalem Seminar," one of Bethel College’s options for interterm (Jan. 3-27), had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Jordan, Israel and Palestine--the latter being the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, though we did not enter Gaza. Despite its title, the three-week seminar, organized and led by professor of Bible and religion Patty Shelly, took us well outside the walls of Jerusalem--even past the concrete walls of Israel’s expanding "security fence" to Bethlehem, Ramallah and other towns and sites around Jerusalem.

Our trip provided a tour of "the Holy Land" that was physical, cultural and spiritual. We saw historical and religious sites, stood in sacred places and considered the significance of this contested land.

We interacted with people. We spoke both with Palestinians about the suffering and injustice they are experiencing, and we conversed with Israelis about the Golan Heights and their concerns about security. We spoke with Iraqi refugees living in Jordan about what it was like to live under Saddam Hussein and the American military occupation, and also about their view on the upcoming elections.

We experienced firsthand the traditions of Middle Eastern Muslims, Jews and Christians, and we learned about the tremendous efforts of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and numerous other local, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working for peace and reconciliation in that region. It was a well-balanced experience of things old and new, sacred and secular, religious and political.

Our journey began in Amman, Jordan, where our flight from Frankfurt touched down in the early hours of the morning. Through sleepy eyes, we looked out into a foreign culture with new faces and unfamiliar architecture. Around us we heard voices speaking in beautiful--to us incomprehensible--syllables. Contrary to what popular American perceptions of Arab people and nations might lead us to expect, we did not feel endangered, or surrounded by "terrorists." Instead, we were welcomed with wonderful friendliness and hospitality.

During our four days in Jordan, we visited Mount Nebo (where Moses viewed the Promised Land and is buried; see Deut. 34), Madaba, Karak and Jerash. We drove the ancient King’s Highway south to Petra, the incredible city carved in the rocks, as seen in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

In Amman, we also met with Sonia and Alain Epp Weaver to hear about MCC’s work in Jordan, while Peter Dula told us about MCC’s work in Iraq. We also met two Iraqi refugees living in Amman, who told us about their lives during and after the American invasion.

On January 7, we made our way through tight Israeli security at the border and crossed the Jordan River into Israel-Palestine. We drove up (literally up) to Jerusalem and ascended the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of the city.

From there, we looked across the Kidron Valley at the flashing gold of the Dome of the Rock, built where the Jewish Temple once stood upon the Temple Mount. As a Christian, I found it strange to think about Jesus being on this same hill, looking out across the valley at the Temple and the city just days before his crucifixion.

During our two-week stay in Israel-Palestine, we saw Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), Masada, the Dead Sea, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (a community where Palestinian and Jewish Israelis live peacefully side-by-side), Nazareth, Megiddo (Har Mageddon; see Rev. 16:16), Caesarea Maritima, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, the Golan Heights, Caesarea Philippi, Jericho, Hebron (where we met with CPT) and Ramallah, to only name a few.

In Jerusalem, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial), the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Temple Mount. We went inside both the Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the city of David, several churches on the Mount of Olives and far too many additional things to name here.

But perhaps the most memorable experiences were those interactions we shared with the people who live in Israel-Palestine, whether Palestinian or Israeli. We were invited into their homes. We heard their stories--of intense injustice or fear of attack, of reconciliation and hope for the future.

Somewhere in all of this, I found hope. Hearing downtrodden people speak of this hope with firm voices and confident eyes was truly remarkable, and I will never forget it.

We saw the people’s suffering--on both sides. We saw demolished Palestinian homes, and Arab neighborhoods divided by the wall. We saw an Israeli settlement whose inhabitants attack and beat Palestinian children on their way to school. We saw the bus stops and shops where suicide bombings killed many Israeli Jews.

We felt the resentment. We listened to voices in pain from both sides of the conflict. But we heard voices offer hope for the future as well.

I applaud those agencies, whose work is often made possible by American and Canadian dollars, that work for peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, that are trying to bring justice to a situation of injustice and cruelty. May we join them in being peacemakers.

Scott Janzen is a junior Bible and religion and history major from Henderson, Neb.

Other students participating in the Jerusalem Seminar course were senior Andrew G. Gingerich, Albuquerque, N.M; juniors Annam F. Hasan, Halstead, and Hannah Klaassen, Whitewater; sophomores Jodi Enz, Newton, and Shawn Rath, Moundridge; and freshman Jonathan Nathan, Moundridge.

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