International Series: Being an LDS Woman in Palestine
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Sahar Qumsiyeh, who is a Palestinian Mormon woman. You can read more of her writing at her blog: saharqumsiyeh.blogspot.com.
I was asked to share my thoughts about being a Mormon woman in Palestine.
First, I feel I need to explain where Palestine is, as I still see people confused about it. Palestine and Israel are the same place. Some think Palestine is by Israel and there is conflict going on between the two. That is not true.
The below map shows what happened in Palestine over the years:
My country Palestine ceased to exist in 1967. Before 1948 Jews in Palestine lived mostly in the white areas, but everyone in the country was allowed to travel freely. Both people lived together side by side. In 1947 the British gave part of Palestine to the Jews so they can make it their home. In 1967, the Jews occupied the whole country of Palestine and it became what we know now as the State of Israel. The flag changed, the currency changed and everything changed. My country, Palestine was not recognized anymore. It was no longer valid to say I am ‘Palestinian’. There was no such thing. I still refer to the country as Palestine, some refer to it as Israel, but the bottom line is, it is one place. What you call it depends on whose side you are on. Actually, our church district here which was called the “Israel District” was just changed a short while ago to the “Jerusalem District” because the LDS church does not take sides.
We (the Palestinian Arabs) still live here in Palestine/Israel under Israeli occupation. We are not citizens of the State of Israel, nor do we have the rights Israelis have. During the wars also half of my people became refugees (lost their homes and land). Some are not allowed to return back to Palestine even for a visit. Those of us that still live here have little human rights. (Read my blog post on human rights written in June 2014 for more info: Palestinian Human Rights). This is the reason of the conflict. Not the Hamas rockets nor the attacks on Gaza. We, the Palestinians living here, are fighting to have the basic necessities of life: running water, freedom to travel, the right for a just trial, the right to raise our flag, the right to live in safety, etc.
Most Arabs/Palestinians in Palestine are now allowed to live only in the green areas (see the map above). This is 8% of the original land of Palestine. This 8% as you can see in the picture above is not connected sometimes. It is actually often surrounded by walls and checkpoints (a 20-foot concrete wall, as you see in the picture below of me at the entrance to the Bethlehem checkpoint).
Those living in Bethlehem, like me, are not allowed into Jerusalem and other ‘white’/Israeli areas. I was actually born in Jerusalem, but am not allowed to go there. Nor am I allowed to travel to the Galilee, Nazareth and other holy sites. I am not allowed into the only airport in my country (Tel-Aviv Airport). I can only leave the country by land through Jordan.
Palestinians living here don’t hate the Jews nor do they hate the Israelis, but we do hate what the Israeli government is doing to us. It is unjust, unfair and basically not human sometimes. Anyway, maybe that is enough on politics. Let me share my story.
I was raised as a Christian in a town called Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem. Despite the fact that I was Christian, I did not understand many essential gospel principles. Christians are a minority in my country (2% or so). But, the town where I grew up was mostly Christian (80% Christian). There is a limited portion of those Christians, however, who attend church and practice Christianity. For some, their religion and what church they belong to is more of a culture than a belief. I belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church because my parents did.
Living as a Palestinian was hard. As a teenager I went on demonstrations against the Israeli occupation. I saw many from my people get shot, beaten, arrested or killed, often for no reason. I was even shot at when I was 14 years old by an Israeli settler. We were under curfew (house arrest) a lot during the first and second uprisings. My life as a Palestinian was so miserable that I often wanted to die. I saw many relatives and friends lose their faith in God as they witnessed the injustices and pain all around them.
I received a scholarship to BYU to obtain a Master’s degree in 1994. I was discouraged from going to BYU by many friends and family members. Yet I felt the Holy Ghost prompting me to go.
I joined the LDS church in Utah in 1996 and returned back to Palestine that year. Joining the church brought into my life a kind of peace and joy that I had never before experienced. I did not know what peace was and what it was like to be really happy. Those were new feelings that came into my life.
I faced some persecution when I got back home. It was mostly because being different was not acceptable. Sometimes people in my town would refuse to associate with those who belonged to ‘different’ religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. Even though quite a few Christians don’t practice Christianity or understand basic principles of what their own church believes, they still want everyone to belong to the same church they do. I did get critical remarks from people, especially from family members, often. “Are you going to Heaven because you don’t drink tea? How can you betray your family and destroy their reputation in town? How can you let the Mormons brainwash you? I thought you were smarter than this!” etc.
When I returned home from BYU I was not aware of any other members in the Bethlehem area. I was the only member of the church in my family and the only LDS woman in the whole area. The only branch at the time was the Jerusalem Branch that met at the Jerusalem Center. Since Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed into Jerusalem, attending church services was challenging. I had to sneak into Jerusalem to go to Church.
Sometimes I would manage to get through the Israeli checkpoints and other times I would climb hills and walls, hide from soldiers and take back roads to get to church. The trip would take 2-3 hours each way. As time went by, getting to church got harder and harder until it became almost impossible and very dangerous (I got shot at and almost arrested sometimes).
For these reasons being a Palestinian Mormon was somewhat hard–persecution and restrictions preventing me from attending church services and being with other members. Yet being a member of the church helped me find real happiness and peace. During the 14 years when I sneaked in to go to church I felt happy. I felt the Holy Ghost comfort me and strengthen me. I was lifted by my Heavenly Father and often literally carried to church as I saw miracles happen to help me get to church. By joining the church I had become a different person and saw things through different eyes. I was able to forgive and love the Israeli soldiers and that feeling was liberating. I was able to let go of anger and hate and thus was able to have personal peace. I believe that this is the only way to peace in this country, forgiveness, love and respect for others.
After 14 years of sneaking into Jerusalem to go to church, I was blessed with a job with the UN in Jerusalem. That job provided me with the proper papers so I can enter Jerusalem freely. A few years after that, we were all blessed when a branch of the church was organized in Bethlehem.
There are now 4 main branches of the church in Palestine/Israel: Jerusalem, Galilee, Tel-Aviv and Bethlehem. The Jerusalem branch is mostly constituted of BYU students and faculty with very few local members. The locals struggle due to the complete turnover every semester when all of the BYU students leave. The Galilee branch is very small and many members live far from the meeting house and thus can’t attend services due to the unavailability of public transportation on the Sabbath. The Tel-Aviv branch as well contains few local members of the church. The majority are in Tel-Aviv area because of work for a short time.
Because of the current restrictions on Palestinians, Palestinian members like me cannot travel to any of the other branches (unless they have an Israeli citizenship—very few). So, all Palestinians living anywhere in the West Bank or Gaza belong to the Bethlehem branch (even if they live 15 minutes away from one of the other branches). I go to church at the Bethlehem branch. Our Branch covers the entire West Bank and Gaza areas. Because of the separation wall and checkpoints, the distance members have to travel to get to church is often far. We have members that live 4 hours away, some 2 hours, some 1 hour from the meeting house. Those members are often the only LDS people in their town. Visiting and home teaching is a challenge especially as many members in our branch are poor and don’t have cars. Because of that members often don’t have the support they need from other members and from the church. Most members in the Bethlehem Branch, like me, joined the church in other countries and returned home to Palestine as members.
Another issue we have is that we don’t currently have strong Palestinian members of the church in our branch. Thus, the branch president is usually American. This produces two main issues. First is the language, as our Branch President can’t communicate with many members without the help of a translator. Second, our branch president has to follow BYU rules which prevent him from traveling freely to Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities. He is not allowed to visit members in their home.
If you live in the West Bank, living your faith and keeping the commandments is different for you. You are alone, often the only one in your town, and you are the only representative of the church in your area. A lot depends on you; how you act, how you live and what you choose to do every day is essential.
Here we don’t keep our faith, our faith keeps us going. As the support is lacking from a strong church organization and from strong church members, our hearts and minds often turn to God. Heavenly Father is someone who is always there for us. I have been able to find strength and have found support from the Lord often during difficult times in my life. He has literally carried me and I have felt His loving arms often surround me.
What we really need in the Bethlehem Branch are strong members who speak Arabic. We need especially people who hold the priesthood that are willing to serve. We need those who can be good examples on how a husband should treat his wife and how to be a good father. We need those that can live in Bethlehem, get to know the people and culture and serve to strengthen the members here. We need visiting and home teachers that are willing to travel far distances to visit people. I don’t see that happening unless we start getting missionaries who live here and speak Arabic. The church signed an agreement with Israel regarding teaching Jews. However, as part of that agreement we are not allowed to talk about the church to anyone (Jew or non-Jew). I have had many friends who are interested in our church and I wish I could explain to them and teach them. I hope that someday the church would consider teaching Palestinians and non-Jews living in Palestine. I don’t think that breaks our agreement with the Israeli government, but of course this requires study and effort. Palestinians have been through a lot, they are humble and ready to be taught the gospel. We should seek recognition as a church here and start teaching the Palestinians. This is my dream.