Local pastor sees Mideast conflict, deplores Israeli actions

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

"Dear Dad:

Shelling occurred last night again near Bethlehem in two towns, and people wonder why. The Israeli response is no strange, almost mad, and then no doubt they will ask the people here for peace!?"

- e-mail dated Nov. 8 to Paul Beran from his son.

"Helicopter gun ship" is a vague phrase to most Juneau residents, but it became very real to Paul Beran during a recent two-week trip to the Middle East.

Because of his interest in issues of justice and peace, Beran, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, visited Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel from Oct. 10 to Oct. 25. He had not been in that area of the world since he led a tour of Israel 20 years ago. On this trip, he traveled alone by public transportation in an effort to ensure what he witnessed was not censored.

His experiences ranged from the sublime to the surreal.

Three weeks ago Monday Beran, 62, was in a pizza place in Bethlehem about 8 p.m., sitting with his son by a picture window.

"You could see lights of the suburbs across the valley. And all of a sudden, gunshots, and tracer bullets were streaking through the night, tracing the darkness down the street, right outside the window. Later we heard two or three mortars fired by tanks at Apache helicopters."

Beran suggested to his son they move away from the window. At first the son dismissed the idea, but soon they moved to put a wall between themselves and the conflict.

"The night before, Apache helicopters had kept him from getting home on time," Beran said.

His son, also named Paul, works for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. The younger Paul, 28, lives in Bethlehem. He has spent a total of five years in the Middle East and can speak Arabic. Like his father, he prefers to get a first-hand look at conditions there rather than "seeing everything filtered through the media," as his father puts it.

Beran's notions about the Middle East have changed significantly over the course of his life. "When I was in college in the late 50s, I had a professor, a faculty advisor, a Christian who grew up in Iran. He said, 'In Christ it does not make any difference if we are Jew or Gentile.' But, at that time, I disagreed. I said Israel is a chosen people."

"Then my son went over there and came back with first-hand reports of injustice; that further heightened my interest and concern," said Beran, a Presbyterian who has pastored in Juneau three years and headed a Presbyterian mission in Southeast in the 1990s.

Beran used to harbor a feeling the Arab world was "sinister." But during his trip last month "my experience was just the opposite," he said.

He was befriended several times by English-speaking residents. On a bus trip, for example, he met an atomic engineer for Syria who volunteered to show him around Damascus.

In a shared taxi, he met a 26-year-old chef who worked at a hotel. During their four-hour trip, the chef invited him to stay with his family in their apartment in Aman. The chef's mother was a school teacher. There he met a cousin of the chef's father who had been arrested at age 15 by the Israelis and imprisoned for five years.

"For hours, this Sudanese teen-ager was suspended by his wrists over his head so just his toes touched the floor. He was shot," Beran said.

"Several times (the chef's father) said, 'I don't hate the Jewish people, but what is happening is not right. It's not just. And it will destroy Israel.'"

After talking to many people and being cross-examined and intimidated himself at border crossings, Beran could only call the system "apartheid."

"I don't want to be portrayed as anti-Semitic," he said, "but I talked to Muslims in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Jala who discussed the fears of their two-year-old, engendered by Israelis' firing at civilians and civilian homes. The injustice that is going on there is hard to fathom."

He keeps in e-mail contact with others in the Middle East who share their perceptions. He learned the Israelis were not allowing a truckload of United Nations medical supplies into Gaza. "That is deplorable," he said.

To share his experiences, Beran will give a free slide show and talk at 4 p.m. today at Resurrection Lutheran Church. His theme is "A Glimpse Behind the Doors: The Middle East Today."

"Tanks are brought in to confront people throwing stones. We can't just sit still," he said.

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