On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Learn to forgive those who hurt us

I had just returned to Jordan after spending eight days in Jerusalem and other religiously significant areas.

With the approval of the Malaysian Immigration Department, my church members and I managed to enter Israel. Our journey, led by two pastors, also took us to Jericho, Nazareth and Bethlehem – towns that came under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority.

In Bethlehem, I met Sibly Kando, the grandson of a Palestinian shopkeeper, Khalil Iskander Shahin, who first bought the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest and largest collection of manuscripts with references to the Bible.

Sibly, who runs a souvenir shop selling Christian items, was pleased to meet us because we were only the seventh group of pilgrims to enter his shop over the last five years.

"It has been really hard for all of us because pilgrims and tourists stopped coming when they heard of all the trouble," said the 35-year-old trader.

Sipping tea with me, he talked fondly about his famous grandfather. Khalil was jailed for 10 days after buying the scrolls from a Bedouin shepherd boy who discovered them at the Qumran Caves in 1947 near the Dead Sea.

"I hope such stories will attract more pilgrims. The peace process must succeed. Ordinary Palestinians and Israelis don't care about the politics; we just want to earn a living like everyone else," said Sibly.

We travelled to Jerusalem, the focal point of our trip, where we met Jews and Muslim and Christian Arabs. Listening to them helped me understand their hopes and frustrations.

Jerusalem means "city of peace" but it is a hotly contested city despite being just a mass of white stone dwellings.

It is a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is holy for the Jews because their Temple, destroyed in 70AD, was thought to be here.

For Christians, Jerusalem was where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose from the dead while for Muslims, Prophet Muhammad was closely associated with the city and because of its over 1,400 years of Islamic history.

In Palestine-controlled Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, we were the only ones staying at the huge hotel. It has been like that for years – the conflicting sides paying a high political, economic and social price.

Tourism has collapsed, depriving the Palestinians of visitors to many of the biblical towns, while Israel has had to pour money into its security system, resulting in a lowering of the standard of living.

Huge amounts have been spent to build Jewish settlements in areas that Israel confiscated from the Palestinians. Now, these settlements have to go if the peace process is to succeed.

The economy contracted from an 8% growth in 2000 to just 1% three years later as foreign investments dried up. Health service, social security and education budgets for the Israelis were severely cut as a result.

While Palestinians have grappled with unemployment for years, the Jews are now facing a situation unknown before in Israel. In 2003, about 19.2% of Israelis were living below the poverty line.

The wall erected along the West Bank has also been a costly and unproductive project, attracting much criticism.

Our tourist guide Jeries Farra, an Arab who speaks passionately for his brethren in Palestine, said the community could do with more pilgrims.

"Besides Americans and Europeans, the largest number of Asian pilgrims are from Indonesia and South Korea. Please come again," he said.

Jeries, who taught himself Bahasa Indonesia, harbours hopes of visiting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore after meeting Christians from the region.

He sings the tune from the hugely successful commercial "Malaysia – Truly Asia" and had once signed up for a Superstar Cruise from Singapore via Malaysia to Thailand.

But his visa to Malaysia was rejected. Jeries is an Israeli citizen of Arab descent, a Christian who supports the Palestinian cause.

That is hardly the standard picture of an ordinary Israeli, who is usually perceived to be Jewish and practising Judaism.

We must pray for the wall in the West Bank to come down, just like the Berlin Wall. I would like to meet Jeries in Malaysia one day, and show him how Malaysians of different faiths live together in harmony.

Lest we forget, we must always learn to forgive those who have hurt us as much as we learn not to hurt others. That should be the spirit of Easter.