PHOTO: Vivien Sansour
Born in 1942, Aida Qattan is a remarkable Palestinian woman who is a native of Jesus' birth city, Bethlehem. While she still engages her family in most Easter traditions she also recalls a different time when Christians in Palestine were able to enjoy their holiday with much more mobility. This week she is coloring eggs, making ka'k o ma'moul (Palestinian Easter cookies) and preparing for a feast of mansaf to host her family for Easter Sunday. She does not need more than a couple of old cans, some vinegar, red beets, and coloring tablets to make a splendid assortment of Easter eggs. As she places a blue egg in a crate she recalls how in previous years everyone from Bethlehem was able to go to Jerusalem and participate in the tradition of reenacting the welcoming of Jesus from the wilderness. While she was able to go to Jerusalem this year, many people from her community could not go and worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher because they could not obtain permits from Israel. "Going to Jerusalem for us on Palm Sunday is very important. Easter is the biggest holiday for us. It is the most important both religiously and culturally. We live in the land where Jesus lived and where his miracles took place. It is not a commercial holiday. It is a time when families get together and share their joy with the whole community."
Indeed, Easter celebrations in Palestine in general and in Bethlehem and Jerusalem in particular have a special vigor. From Palm Sunday until Easter Day sounds of church bells, drums, boys and girls scouts performing in the streets, and the chanting of hymns create a magical atmosphere that expresses a sense of spirituality that is deeply rooted in a community that is literally thousands of years old. According to Aida, "Jesus was Palestinian. He is one of us. As the followers of Jesus we are the first Christian community and we have lived for centuries in the same towns and villages where he lived."
PHOTO: Vivien Sansour
However, walking in the streets of Bethlehem one cannot help but feel a sense of complexity. Crosses on top of church towers and sounds of bells ringing in Holy Week are juxtaposed against the oppressing image of the concrete apartheid wall that cuts in the heart of the city. The wall, many here say, is turning Bethlehem and its inhabitants into prisoners who have limited access not only to their holy sites but also to their families in neighboring Jerusalem. Aida's son for example is married to a woman from Jerusalem. For Aida to visit him and his family in their home is almost impossible except on special occasions when she is granted a permit to enter for medical reasons. When asked how she felt about the separation wall and the changes that she has witnessed in the last sixty years or so, she nods with a faithful smile and says, "We are suffering the way Jesus suffered. We are carrying the cross and the burden of being an oppressed people. We learn from him to be patient because we know that the way he has risen, we too will rise."
Indeed, Palestinian Christians are continuing to be steadfast in the face of 45 years of Israeli military occupation that has caused their presence to dwindle in the land that has been their home since the beginning of Christianity. This is why Easter celebrations in Jerusalem continue to have a significant communal expression that affirms the living presence of a people. According to sociologist and Palestinian Jerusalemite, Dr. Bernard Sabella, "This affirmation of Palestinian Christian presence highlights the fact that in spite of the dwindling numbers of Palestinian Christians and of the dire political situation, we Palestinian Christians remain part of our society and of the Palestinian landscape and adds variety, steadfastness and hope to it."