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Nuns in Jerusalem’s Arab section continue prayer amid turmoil

Nun holds candle East Jerusalem 2012

Ryan Rodrick Beiler | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 10/17/23

A poignant letter from Carmelites in Jerusalem affirms their determination to stay in war-torn Holy Land.

As Christians around the world participated in a day of prayer and fasting for peace in the Holy Land, one community of Catholic nuns who live in the midst of the region’s difficulties say they have rejected offers to help them leave.

The Carmelite nuns of the Pater Noster Monastery in Jerusalem, located on the Mount of Olives site believed to be where Jesus taught the Apostles the Lord’s Prayer, issued a letter that was published in AsiaNews. The letter describes how daily life has changed for them in the wake of Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel on October 7. The community, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this Sunday, said it has lived through many such times of trouble. That might not make it easier, but they feel they have learned one important lesson in regard to the current tensions.

The letter

“This war shows that walls and other constraints or surveillance are useless in the long run. Only justice and respect can lead to peace, hard [to achieve] but lasting,” the unsigned letter reads. “Day after day, we are given the opportunity to grasp the seeds of this through remarkable people, both Jewish and Palestinian.”

The monastery is in Arab East Jerusalem, a neighborhood that remains the “disputed, occupied, annexed” part of East Jerusalem, the letter explains.

The secluded nuns came to learn of the October 7 Hamas attack — which left hundreds dead, and 199 persons from Israel abducted — during their morning prayer and Mass. “The alarm sounded almost continuously over Jerusalem … until about noon,” the letter says. “We heard muffled sounds, the destruction of rockets by the Iron Dome; we realized that it was an attack. Total surprise. This is serious and astounds us: an attack on Jerusalem!”

Operation Al-Aqsa Flood began with a barrage of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, reaching as far away as Tel Aviv. None reached Jerusalem. Militants breached the border with Israel and proceeded to attack villages, kibbutzes, and a music festival in the south of the country. In the end, the death toll topped 1,200. Victims were mostly civilians, including 270 at the music festival. Hamas militants also captured 199 persons whom they said later would be executed one by one each time Israel attacked civilian targets in Gaza in retaliation.

The letter continues:

Fewer alarms sounded in the following days: at such moments, each one of us stays put, motionless, in silence, praying, waiting.

Jerusalem was at a standstill, like on a Sabbath: shops closed, schools closed, tourists and pilgrims suddenly gone, few people in the streets. We heard the sound of fighter planes coming and going from carrying out heavy reprisals in the Gaza Strip. Our city is ‘protected’ by many checkpoints against the ‘enemy’ that has poured into Israel and those who would like to join them.

The Palestinian territories are cordoned off; no one can leave or enter. Many [Palestinian] workers are badly penalized because they cannot come to work from Bethlehem or Jericho.

Isolated attacks continue

The Carmelites said that Palestinians from areas outside of the Gaza Strip are trying to imitate the Hamas attack and that “some individuals” have carried out isolated attacks, including one against the police station next to the post office where the nuns collect their mail.

“Today it is against ordinary Jewish passers-by, or in reaction to the throwing of stones by young Palestinians,” they continued.

“When night comes, in our Palestinian neighborhood, we hear protests and gunfire outside our walls,” the letter reads. The nuns collect tear gas canisters and bullet casings in their cloister and garden the next morning.

This is in sharp contrast to their olive picking at this time of year, a practice they describe in the letter as toilsome “but peaceful and joyful.”

Though they call the murder, wounding, and hostage-taking of Israelis by Hamas “unthinkable,” the nuns say they are “equally filled with compassion for the people of the Gaza Strip who are subjected to intensive bombings, blockade, and mass exodus. Our hearts reach out to the small Christian community [in Gaza] sheltering in the school and the church with its few nuns and seminarians, and a few Muslims.”

Monasteries standing together

The nuns note that Carmelite monasteries in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Haifa are also on alert. “Attack is coming from the Gaza Strip, but now also from southern Lebanon, which is very close to Mount Carmel. We stand together… Embassies offer to repatriate us, but of course, there is no question of leaving!”

“We live with our peoples of the Holy Land, in good times and in bad times. In our small way, we pray for peace and justice, today and tomorrow.”

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