by Eugene Fisher
Dr. Fisher: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?
Brendan: My first overseas assignment was working as a branch manager for Standard Chartered Bank in Brunei during the time of its independence from the UK back in 1982 – 1984. At that time Brunei seemed to be quite an isolated place and there was an interesting mix in the population of Malays, Chinese and indigenous people from the interior with none in the absolute majority. The Government taking full control was largely Malay led by the Sultan of Brunei and despite the conditions for conflict and tension in the community all elements of the society seemed to rub along largely in harmony. This was I believe helped significantly by the large wealth of a small country and population where the wealth ‘trickled’ down therefore all had an interest in the status quo.
Dr. Fisher: What is most satisfying about your work in the Holy Land?
Brendan: It is difficult for me to identify one element of my work which is the most satisfying as the overall work of the charity has gripped me. Our mission is to secure a resilient and enduring community for Christians in the Holy Land, therefore Friends of the Holy Land is different than most foreign agencies working in the Holy Land in that we support the needs of individuals and families directly through our office in Bethlehem and our local partners in Gaza, Israel and Jordan. Naturally therefore, it is always most satisfying to meet beneficiaries personally and see the difference we have made in their life. Another area of my work that gives me a lot of satisfaction in speaking to groups of Christians in the UK.
Although everyone has some idea of the ongoing conflicts in Israel and Palestine which get sporadic coverage in the national press when violence occurs; very few people have a knowledge of the day to day life of a Christian in the area and are surprised at their struggles to survive. Moreover, it seems to me that for many audiences that I speak to, the ‘Land of the Bible’ is a mythical place frozen in time from their weekly bible readings, they do not relate it to the reality of today.
When I have a lay visitor from Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nazareth with me at these events one of the most common questions that is asked of my Arabic guest is “when did you convert?”. This question may be posed to a person who can trace his family back to the original shepherds who received the message of the birth of Christ in Beit Sahour. I find it satisfying to help Christians in the UK understand and engage with the founding communities of our faith – the ‘Living Stones’.
Dr. Fisher: What do you feel can be done to bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together in constructive dialogue?
Brendan: So many world statesman and politicians have attempted to do this that I feel most underqualified to have an opinion. I would also emphasize that Friends of the Holy Land is a non-political and non-campaigning charity and I do not hold an opinion as to the best political solution. I guess my view is that there are too many people in positions of power on both sides whose ‘formula for life’ and identity depend on the existing conflict situation which has been in existence now for 4 generations and so constructive dialogue is too complex. I also feel that there are not enough of the regular population of the three Abrahamic faiths living outside the area that have a real experience of the Holy Land or an interest in a solution. I feel the way to change this is to encourage all Christians to visit the Holy Land to see for themselves. I feel it should be an obligation for all Christians to visit the land and sites where Jesus was born, walked, pursued his ministry, died and was resurrected at least once in their lives. Ninety percent of what you read in the bible happens within 100 miles of Jerusalem and yet I meet many priests who have never visited these sites. Schools make trips to Lourdes and Fatima but typically not to Bethlehem and Nazareth. If more regular people visited and put a spotlight on the unsustainable conditions that exist as a consequence of the fears of both communities there, then I believe there would be intolerable pressure from ‘Joe public’ on the leaders of both sides to work together constructively. Afterall the Holy Land is a legacy for all Christians of the World. How can we contemplate a time when there are no active Christian communities worshipping in the Church of the Holy sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Annunciation and they become simply ‘museums’ or sites of historical interest? Christians today make up around 1% of the population of the West Bank and are emigrating if they can.
Dr. Fisher: Can they work together to solve common problems and help those in need?
Brendan: Absolutely at the individual or micro level I believe that the large majority of the Muslims, Jews and Christians all seek the same peaceful life and I have seen evidence of them working together as a community myself.
Dr. Fisher: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic has upon your work?
It has put a great deal of additional demands on our work. The local economies of the main Christian centres of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth rely heavily on tourism, which was stopped completely in March 2020, after a record year for tourism in 2019. For example 40% of the population of Bethlehem work directly with tourists – in hotels, bars, restaurants, shops, taxis, coaches etc.., and of the rest a further 40% work in sectors that support those activities – souvenir craftsman, food supply, cleaning contractors, maintenance workers etc.., These people have been largely unemployed for almost a year. In the wider West Bank – Ramallah, Nablus etc.., the industries have been hit by the slow down in business with their biggest partner Israel and the intermittent lockdowns have prevented day workers from crossing the border to work in Israel. Israel itself has suffered record unemployment. There is a certain difference in the experience of the two populations as citizens of Israel have received some income support from the Israeli Government whereas the Palestinian Authority does not have the financial capacity to offer any form of income support. The economy of Gaza was already disastrous before the pandemic so conditions have simply deteriorated. We have been most fortunate to have generous and committed supporters in the UK so we have been able to increase our grants by a factor of around 50% so far this financial year whilst at the same time maintaining our support for all our existing programmes for health, education, family support and employment needs; we have scaled back our housing renovation work. The problem we see is that travel is not only a government to government issue but a confidence issue of the traveller. Experts in the field of pilgrimage warn that it could be 12 -18 months before tourism to the Holy Land returns to any where near 2019 levels and requests for our support are rising every day.as the unemployment crisis persists.
Dr. Fisher What is your favorite prayer?
Brendan: I need inspiration to help me go forward every day and meet the challenges that I face personally and the charity faces, so among my daily prayers is my favourite to the Holy Spirit –
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.”
Dr. Fisher: Is there a prayer that Jews, Muslims and Christians can pray together?
Brendan: A prayer from the World Council of Churches that has been used for some time is
“Eternal God, Creator of the universe, there is no God but You. Great and wonderful are Your works, wondrous are your ways. Thank You for the many splendoured variety of Your creation. Thank You for the many ways we affirm Your presence and purpose, and the freedom to do so. Forgive our violation of Your creation. Forgive our violence toward each other. We stand in awe and gratitude for Your persistent love for each and all of Your children: Christian, Jew, Muslim, as well as those with other faiths. Grant to all and our leaders attributes of the strong; mutual respect in words and deed, restraint in the exercise of power, and the will for peace with justice, for all. Eternal God, Creator of the universe, there is no God but You. Amen.”
Lastly, as we begin Lent your readers may wish to know that we have just published Holy Week Voices from the Holy Land, a unique spiritual prayer resource with 15 contributors from the Holy Land drawn from across the main Christian denominations including HB Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa.
Written at the time of when the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in Lent 2020, the book creates a unique reflection on the ways in which Christ’s living presence has been experienced in two times of extreme crisis two millennia apart. I am delighted the book includes forewords by both H.E. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and The Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. I see this very much as an ecumenical prayer resource which could be used for individual reflection or by groups in parishes and other settings. At a time of the continuing challenges of Covid-19 in Lent 2021, here is a ready-made Christ-centred resource which speaks so powerfully to this particular moment in our shared journeys.
The cost of the book is £7.99 plus postage and packing. Purchases of the hard copy of the book can be made in the shop on our website, by calling to our office 01926 512980 or by email to: email@example.com. You can visit our online shop at: https://www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk/shop/lenten-book to purchase a hard copy as well.
The book is also available electronically at the same price, £7.99, using Issuu. You can browse the first chapter of the book before you buy here:
https://issuu.com/fhloffice/docs/hwv_digitalbook_cmyk?fr=sMjY0ZDI3MDk0MTU Once you have bought the book online, this software allows you to open the book and flick through it page by page for ease of reading. It also allows you to download a copy to your pc or device.