Rana Khoury, attending the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women as a Global Partner, is an impassioned ambassador for her Palestinian community.

But Khoury lives in what she describes as “an open-air prison.”

Khoury is a Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Bethlehem in the West Bank (or occupied Palestinian territories). There, the wall of separation built by Israel prevents Khoury and her neighbors from visiting Jerusalem — just six miles away.

When her work takes her to nearby towns in the West Bank, travel often takes more than two hours; before 1992, it might have taken 40 minutes. But now, she and other Palestinians are not allowed to follow the most direct route because Israeli settlements and Israeli-only roads block the way. Though these settlements and roads are built on Palestinian land, Palestinians are denied access to them.

Khoury works at the International Center of Bethlehem, where her ministry is with women and young people. Khoury said 51 percent of Palestinians are 19 years old or younger. She works with people in despair, who have no jobs, little freedom and little opportunity. For Khoury, the challenge is to give them hope in the midst of despair.

Khoury said that 60 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories live below the poverty line, behind a wall that is 25 feet tall.

“Much of the stress of the situation has to do with movement restrictions,” she said. “People can’t move around freely, they can’t access resources. They can’t access employment. The situation causes much despair.”

Khoury spoke passionately about the need to offer hope to her community.

“We do this through job training, the arts, health and wellness programs, education and psychological counseling — working with mind, body and spirit, we help people envision a future when the wall will come down,” she said. “We encourage them to own their future, to shape their future, to prepare for their future.”

Khoury works with Palestinian Christians, reminding them that they are the oldest Christian community in the world.

“The tragedy is that many are leaving,” she said. “[The situation] is too much for them. They are leaving their ancestral homes.”
Khoury wants to preserve Palestinian culture.

“We are ‘living stones,’” she said. “Palestinian Christians are a living heritage from the time of Jesus.”

Khoury said she believes it is important to affirm the people’s cultural identity.

“It often gets lost in the politicization of this situation,” she said. “It is important for women, especially. They are the keepers of culture.”

Khoury acknowledged that the occupation is violent and that one might wonder how people can live in such a situation.

“There is no option but to prevail,” she said.

When asked what people can do to help, she said, “Share stories of hope. Stories of hope help us know that change can be made. Women can help by visiting, learning about the situation, praying and supporting initiatives that aid those suffering from the occupation.”

Khoury encouraged women to connect through church networks, and learn through alternative sources on the Internet.

To read more stories from the 2009 Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women, visit the Gathering Web site.