Although I shared her fears, I told her: “It is as unsafe there as it is here in Manila where burglars, rapists and robbers who kill abound. It is as unsafe there as in our hometown Mindanao.” I reminded her about her admonition for me not to visit her homeland Sulu because I may be shot or kidnapped simply because people don’t like the way I look at them.
Owing to her pleadings, I even pre-terminated a lucrative public relations contract with a Mindanao politician as the job would require me to visit Sulu and other troubled places. “Money is not everything. You have a playful little boy and smart two older sisters to return to,” she said in asking me to discontinue my PR deal in Mindanao.
Brushing aside fears, we made plans and proceeded with our two-week sojourn to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, Egypt and with a side trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in UAE to visit our cousin Marvin and Joan Mateo and to have some rest-and-recreation (R and R) on our way back. We decided to follow our gut-feel base on deep trust in God/Allah. After all, there was temporary peace in the area then.
Thank goodness, everything went uneventful and the closest encounter we got with paranoid Israeli soldiers in the Jordan-Israeli border was Ann getting stripped-searched by a female immigration officer who suspected that the expensive stone mosaic Ann bought in Jordan and wrapped in bubble plastic was some kind of a weapon.
We noticed soldiers all around, most of them kids carrying high-powered weapons. However, they were all smiling and seem at peace.
There was no tension during our visit to the Holy Land and so our tour guide Abed – a Muslim-Palestinian – told us we were lucky because that would mean we’ll be allowed entry into the Palestine-controlled Bethlehem to visit the Church of Nativity, a basilica located deep into Palestine territories. The Basilica, originally commissioned in 327 AD by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, stands over the site that is still traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
We were admonished not to take pictures of both the Israeli and Palestinian border guards because that would put us in great trouble and stop what could very well be the highlight of our trip – to kiss and pray over the 14-pointed silver star marking the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. Near the star in this basilica, considered the oldest church in the Holy Land, is a grotto with a manger – a replica of the one Jesus was born into – and an altar dedicated to the Wise Men who came from the East under the guidance of a star bearing gifts to Baby Jesus.
Our hearts beat with excitement as we passed through the controversial mammoth concrete walls dividing the two warring nations and into Palestine. What greeted us were the graffiti on the walls, the tarpaulins of Palestinian politicians and smiling; and waving children and old man in this bombed-out country.
As the bombings and rocket-firing has commenced between Israel and Hamas-controlled Palestine, resulting in mostly Palestinian casualties of more than 20 people and the injury of dozens more on both side early this week, we can only utter of prayer as we realize how close we were to danger in our stay both in Palestine and Israel.
My wife Ann’s fears were not misplaced after all – the war came about 20 days after we left Palestine and Israel. Latest news indicates that a commercial center in Israel had also been hit by rocket attacks. Israel is mobilizing its 75,000 reservists, most of whom were clearly just barely out of their teens. Israel’s forces are preparing to invade Palestine’s Gaza strip.
As we watch CNN and BBC for the latest news the Holy Land, we can only utter a prayer for these two places, more so for the smiling man, women and friendly children who waved and greeted us tourists as we passed by them.
We also pray for the millions of tourists and pilgrims like us from all over the world who may be in fear as they get warnings of possible bomb and rocket attacks and their movements restricted to sites far away from the Gaza strip. Unfortunately, most of the Holy Sites like the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem are located near the border with Palestine. It is presumed the border crossings by civilians and tourists between the two countries are stopped.
Likewise, we pray for OFWs working both in Israel and Palestine and whose only sin is being poor. One OFW already died and many others injured in the bomb attacks in previous years, forcing Israel to build the defense wall.
Most of all, we pray for our tour guide Abed who lives in West Bank, Palestine but crosses over to Israel on a temporary pass to work. His life and work is disrupted as well by the war. How will he feed his old parents?
War is hell. Let us pray for world peace.