On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Opening up our hearts and minds

He was trained in the Aramaic prayers and marked out as a promising candidate for the priesthood and was ordained as a deacon.

But as fate would have it, Gabriel is today using his knowledge of the Bible not to preach from the pulpit but to guide pilgrims instead. Leaving school at 16 to join the British Army in 1942, this colourful character runs a profitable tour agency.

I met Gabriel during my recent trip to Jerusalem with other Malaysian pilgrims. We were invited to his house, located on the lower slopes of Mount Scopus.

Among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, he is a highly respected man with plenty of stories to tell.

Two days after Israel was created in 1948, Gabriel and his family were forced out of their home in Bethlehem at gunpoint.

He had to take refuge at a church with about 50 other families before his family fled to Madaba, an old Arab town in Jordan. That traumatic experience proved too much for his father who fell ill. It was nearly 19 years later that the family was able to return to Bethlehem but the house they used to live in at the Musrara Quarter had been destroyed. And Jerusalem had become a divided city.

In Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, the Khanos lived next door to Khalil Iskander Shahin. Khalil became famous and rich after he bought the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest and largest collection of Bible manuscripts.

Gabriel might have been in a similar situation but he was not so lucky. He too went to search for the scrolls in one of the caves but gave up after seeing thousands of bats. He also could not stand the stench of guano. Unfortunately for him, a search party later found more scrolls in the cave that he had turned his back on.

Today, Bethlehem, where the Church of Nativity is located, has become a compulsory stop for Christian pilgrims. It is under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority.

Despite the past, there is no sense of bitterness at all in Gabriel, a man who has seen much. Over tea and sweet Arab cookies, Gabriel shared his experiences with the Malaysians, praying that the Palestinians and Israelis would live in peace soon.

The peace process had just started when we arrived and there appeared to be much optimism in the Holy Land. Many believed that peace would be a reality finally.

For Gabriel, who landed in prison once after his many brushes with the law, there is only human tragedy – not national or political tragedy. There is only human frailty because we cannot forgive. Most of us are also quick to be angry.

He feels that many people, especially those in the West, cannot understand the plight of the Palestinians, contributing to Arab antagonism and racial and religious prejudices.

Similarly, he is unhappy with those who sympathise with the Palestinian cause only from a religious angle, forgetting that there are Palestinian Christians who share the same sentiment. There were also Jews I met during the trip who support the Palestinian cause.

Gabriel's English wife, Delia, has written a book about her husband and the Palestinian issue, in the hope that Christians would understand their problems better, describing the Palestinians as God's chosen people too.

After I finished the book last weekend, I thought about the timing of my trip to the Holy Land. It was a time when the peace process had started and I felt very blessed that I had the opportunity to "feel and see" the Bible coming alive.

More than that, like the Malaysians in my group, we had the opportunity to meet Palestinians like Gabriel and our tour guide, an Arab Christian who holds Israeli nationality.

Like most Malaysians, some of us had assumed that all Palestinians are Muslims and all Jews hate Palestinians. As we walked through Jerusalem, our eyes, minds and hearts opened.

Politicians sometimes want us to see things their way for their own interest, but all of us are just ordinary people. Regardless of our faith, we only want to live simple but peaceful lives.