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Christians pray for halt to wall in Bethlehem

Nov. 5, 2011 2:43 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 10, 2011 8:03 A.M.)
By: Charlotte Alfred
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- "We are here to pray and shout for justice," the priest told congregants, leading a communion service on a windy hillside of Beit Jala, overlooking lands locals fear will soon be cut off behind Israel's separation wall.

Around 30 people on Friday huddled around the altar in the orchard by the Cremisan monastery, which locals say will be annexed to Israel by the wall being built south of Jerusalem.

Organizers unfurled a banner on the Beit Jala hill facing the Israeli settlement of Gilo reading "We live here, we exist here."

In September an Israeli committee approved a plan to build 1,100 new homes on Gilo's southern slopes, toward the Cremisan compound.

The presidential adviser on Christian affairs, Ziad al-Bandak, addressed the mass, wishing the prayers of Muslims and Christians will be heard and the wall confiscating local land will be removed.

"Our prayers and struggle may bring peace to the land of peace," al-Bandak said, sending greetings for a happy Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival that begins Sunday.

"I hope we gather more often to pray for peace, love, and forgiveness for those who do not want peace," he added.

Beit Jala Catholic priest Ibrahim Shoumali, who led the mass, said the prayer service would be held every Friday "to protest the building of the wall."

Its path in the Beit Jala area "will confiscate lands belonging to Christian people and the Christian church," he said.

"We will protest in a non-violent way, which is through prayer," Shoumali said.

Israel is constructing some of the last segments of its wall on lands west of Bethlehem, including the monastery area, and al-Walaja village. Building began in 2002, and the route has been the target of regular demonstrations by border towns whose land is cut off by its path.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the separation wall was illegal and "tantamount to annexation."

Israel says the wall is necessary for security purposes after a number of Palestinian attacks within Israel during the second intifada. When the 435-mile barrier is complete, however, 85 percent of it will have been built inside the occupied West Bank.

Al-Walaja, which is fighting the path of the wall in the courts, will be entirely encircled by cement blocks if current building continues.

Israeli bulldozers have razed agricultural land and olive groves to make way for the wall, locals say, and on Thursday loud explosions rang out through Bethlehem in the latest land-clearing exercise.

Beit Jala residents say they fear the wall will cut through the monastery, one of the last open spaces in the Bethlehem area.

The Salesian sisters at Cremisan, who run a school for local children, have lodged an appeal against the seizure of their educational compound.

All routes proposed by Israel's army will "shutter the nuns' mission," the Society of Saint Yves, who are representing the sisters, has said.

“We want to build bridges, not walls" the director at Cremisan Sr. Fides protested, the statement said.

In late October Israeli forces issued a military order to confiscate 37,000 square meters of private land from near the monastery.

At Friday's mass Patrice Chocholski, a Catholic priest in the French city of Lyon visiting Beit Jala, said, "I feel there is less hope in this place than there was 20 years ago. But there is always hope. So we have come to pray for mercy and justice."

Jenny Baboun contributed to this report.
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