Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being an LDS woman in Palestine

Someone requested that I share my thoughts about being a Mormon woman in Palestine.

First, I feel I need to explain where Palestine is, as I still see people confused about it.  Palestine and Israel are the same place.  Some think Palestine is by Israel and there is conflict going on between the two. That is not true. 

The below map shows what happened in Palestine over the years: 

My country Palestine ceased to exist in 1967. Before 1948 Jews in Palestine lived mostly in the white areas, but everyone in the country was allowed to travel freely. Both people lived together side by side. In 1947 the British gave part of Palestine to the Jews so they can make it their home. In 1967, the Jews occupied the whole country of Palestine and it became what we know now as the State of Israel. The flag changed, the currency changed and everything changed. My country, Palestine was not recognized anymore. It was no longer valid to say I am 'Palestinian'. There was no such thing.  I still refer to the country as Palestine, some refer to it as Israel, but the bottom line is, it is one place. What you call it depends on whose side you are on.  Actually, our church district here which was called the "Israel District" was just changed a short while ago to the "Jerusalem District" because the LDS church does not take sides.  

We (the Palestinian Arabs) still live here in Palestine/Israel under Israeli occupation. We are not citizens of the State of Israel, nor do we have the rights Israelis have. During the wars also half of my people became refugees (lost their homes and land). Some are not allowed to return back to Palestine even for a visit. Those of us that still live here have little human rights. (Read my blog post on human rights written in June, 2014 for more info: Palestinian Human Rights). This is the reason of the conflict. Not the Hamas rockets nor the attacks on Gaza.  We, the Palestinians living here, are fighting to have the basic necessities of life: Running water, freedom to travel, the right for a just trial, the right to raise our flag, the right to live in safety...etc.

Most Arabs/Palestinians in Palestine are now allowed to live only in the green areas (see the map above). This is 8% of the original land of Palestine. This 8% as you can see in the picture above is not connected sometimes. It is actually often surrounded by walls and checkpoints. (a 20-foot concrete wall, as you see in the picture below of me at the entrance to the Bethlehem checkpoint). 

Those living in Bethlehem, like me, are not allowed into Jerusalem and other 'white'/Israeli areas. I was actually born in Jerusalem, but am not allowed to go there. Nor am I allowed to travel to the Galilee, Nazareth and other holy sites. I am not allowed into the only airport in my country (Tel-Aviv Airport). I can only leave the country by land through Jordan. 
Palestinians living here don't hate the Jews nor do they hate the Israelis, but we do hate what the Israeli government is doing to us. It is unjust, unfair and basically not human sometimes.  Anyway, maybe that is enough on politics. Let me share my story...

I was raised as a Christian in a town called Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem. Despite the fact that I was Christian, I did not understand many essential gospel principles.  Christians are a minority in my country, like 2% or so. But, the town where I grew up was mostly Christian (80% Christian).  There is a limited portion of those Christians, however, who attend church and practice Christianity.  For some, their religion and what church they belong to is more of a culture than a belief. I belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church because my parents did.

Living as a Palestinian was hard. As a teenager I went on demonstrations against the Israeli occupation. I saw many from my people get shot, beaten, arrested or killed often for no reason. I was even shot at when I was 14 years old by an Israeli settler.  We were under curfew (house arrest) a lot during the first and second uprising.  My life as a Palestinian was so miserable that I often wanted to die.  I saw many relatives and friends lose their faith in God as they witnessed the injustices and pain all around them.

I received a scholarship to BYU to obtain a Master’s degree in 1994. I was discouraged from going to BYU by many friends and family members. Yet I felt the Holy Ghost prompting me to go.
I joined the LDS church in Utah in 1996 and returned back to Palestine that year.  Joining the church brought into my life a kind of peace and joy that I had never before experienced. I did not know what peace was and what it was like to be really happy. Those were new feelings that came into my life.

I faced some persecution when I got back home. It was mostly because being different was not acceptable. Sometimes people in my town would refuse to associate with those who belonged to ‘different’ religions like Jehova’s Witnesses and others. Even though quite a few Christians don’t practice Christianity or understand basic principles of what their own church believes they still want everyone to belong to the same church they do.  I did get critical remarks from people, especially from family members, often. “Are you going to Heaven because you don’t drink tea? How can you betray your family and destroy their reputation in town? How can you let the Mormons brain wash you? I thought you were smarter than this!...etc”

When I returned home from BYU I was not aware of any other members in the Bethlehem area. I was the only member of the church in my family and the only LDS woman in the whole area. The only branch at the time was the Jerusalem Branch that met at the Jerusalem Center. Since Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed into Jerusalem, attending church services was challenging.  I had to sneak into Jerusalem to go to Church.
Sometimes I would manage to get through the Israeli checkpoints and other times I would climb hills and walls, hide from soldiers and take back roads to get to church.  The trip would take 2-3 hours each way.  As time went by, getting to church got harder and harder until it became almost impossible and very dangerous (I got shot at and almost arrested sometimes).

For these reasons being a Palestinian Mormon was somewhat hard--persecution and restrictions preventing me from attending church services and being with other members. Yet being a member of the church helped me find real happiness and peace. During the 12 years when I sneaked in to go to church I felt happy. I felt the Holy Ghost comfort me and strengthen me. I was lifted by my Heavenly Father and often literally carried to church as I saw miracles happen to help me get to church. By joining the church I had become a different person and saw things through different eyes. I was able to forgive and love the Israeli soldiers and that feeling was liberating. I was able to let go of anger and hate and thus was able to have personal peace. I believe that this is the only way to peace in this country, forgiveness, love and respect for others.

After 12 years of sneaking into Jerusalem to go to church, I was blessed with a job with the UN in Jerusalem. That job provided me with the proper papers so I can enter Jerusalem freely.  A few years after that, we were all blessed when a branch of the church was organized in Bethlehem.
There are now 4 main branches of the church in Palestine/Israel: Jerusalem, Galilee, Tel-Aviv and Bethlehem.  The Jerusalem branch is mostly constituted of BYU students and faculty with very few local members.  The locals struggle due to the complete turnover every semester when all the BYU students leave.  The Galilee branch is very small and many members live far from the meeting house and thus can’t attend services due to the unavailability of public transportation on the Sabbath.  The Tel-Aviv branch as well contains few local members of the church. The majority are in Tel-Aviv area because of work for a short time.

Because of the current restrictions on Palestinians, Palestinian members like me cannot travel to any of the other branches (unless they have an Israeli citizenship—very few). So, all Palestinians living anywhere in the West Bank or Gaza belong to the Bethlehem branch (even if they live 15 minutes away from one of the other branches).  I go to church at the Bethlehem branch. Our Branch covers the entire West Bank and Gaza areas. Because of the separation wall and checkpoints, the distance members have to travel to get to church is often far. We have members that live 4 hours away, some 2 hours, some 1 hour from the meeting house…Those members are often the only LDS people in their town. Visiting and home teaching is a challenge especially as many members in our branch are poor and don’t have cars. Because of that members often don’t have the support they need from other members and from the church. Most members in the Bethlehem Branch, like me, joined the church in other countries and returned home to Palestine as members. 

Another issue we have is that we don’t currently have strong Palestinian members of the church in our branch. Thus, the branch president is usually American.  This produces two main issues. First is the language, as our Branch President can’t communicate with many members without the help of a translator.  Second, our branch president has to follow BYU rules which prevent him from traveling freely to Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities. He is not allowed to visit members in their home. This has nothing to do with safety issues as Bethlehem is much safer than Jerusalem (in case you were wondering). There are reasons that BYU has that I am not aware of.

If you live in the West Bank, living your faith and keeping the commandments is different for you. You are alone, often the only one in your town, and you are the only representative of the church in your area. A lot depends on you; how you act, how you live and what you choose to do every day is essential.
Here we don’t keep our faith, our faith keeps us going. As the support is lacking from a strong church organization and from strong church members, our hearts and minds often turn to God. Heavenly Father is someone who is always there for us. I have been able to find strength and have found support from the Lord often during difficult times in my life. He has literally carried me and I have felt His loving arms often surround me.
What we really need in the Bethlehem Branch are strong members who speak Arabic. We need especially people who hold the priesthood that are willing to serve. We need those who can be good examples on how a husband should treat his wife and how to be a good father. We need those that can live in Bethlehem, get to know the people and culture and serve to strengthen the members here. We need visiting and home teachers that are willing to travel far distances to visit people.  I don’t see that happening unless we start getting missionaries who live here and speak Arabic. The church signed an agreement with Israel regarding teaching Jews. However, as part of that agreement we are not allowed to talk about the church to anyone (Jew or non-Jew).  I have had many friends who are interested in our church and I wish I could explain to them and teach them.  I hope that someday we would be able to teach Palestinians and non-Jews living in Palestine the gospel.  I don’t think that breaks our agreement with the Israeli government, but of course this requires study and effort. Palestinians have been through a lot, they are humble and ready to be taught the gospel. We should seek recognition as a church here and start teaching the Palestinians.  This is my dream…


  1. Thank you for sharing. I hope your dreams of the last paragraph soon come true. It is unfortunate that BYU Jerusalem Center students and faculty are no longer allowed or encouraged to interact with the Latter-day Saints in the West Bank. Some of our fondest memories are of Sacrament meetings in Bethlehem in Odeh's house and Christmas Eve at your house in Beit Sahour.

  2. Hi Sahar, Thanks for sharing. I appreciated the time you took to take me around Beit Sahour/Bethlehem--important insights on the region and conflict. Be safe, be well. Ned

  3. This was really enlightening - thank you for sharing. I will pray that your hopes and dreams for yourself. the Church and your people are realised and also for your safety.

  4. Hello, thank you for writing this. I don't know very much about the situation there, I try sometimes to learn it, but it is very hard for me to take it in. So thank you for the clear explanation. I find it interesting that which Palestine fights for they were unable to give to you in your choice. All I know now, is that I will be praying for the members of the church and for growth in Palestine I am LDS, and LOVE what you say about your faith carrying you. I am also the only member (active anyway, but they don't typically claim it) of the church in my family and grew up that way, and I live in SLC, UT. My faith has carried me through difficult times as well. I also love what you say about more male examples of how women should be treated, via righteous priesthood holders. I recently read a blog post of a woman sharing stories of women in horrible situations all over the world, her point was to shame other women who say they don't need feminism. (a bit odd when the point of feminism is to stop women from being shamed) My response as a woman who does not need feminism was also a call for the gospel in it's place. Although I wish I would have written as eloquently about it as you did. Again, thank you for your words, and my prayers will be with you and your wish. Amy in Salt Lake City (technically West Jordan right now, if you know where that is.)

  5. Sahar- I was Robin Dailey (now Perry) in Jerusalem and was grateful for your good example during my time there. I have kept as up to date on the conflict as I could, but after reading your blog today have realized just how little I really do know because of skewed media reports. Happy to receive another side of the story. When I do hear news of Jerusalem, I think of you and the many other people, Israeli and Palestinian, that I came to admire and respect. Praying always for peace in Jerusalem, and, like you, for a chance to bring more people the hope that the gospel can bring...

  6. Hello Sahar,
    I'm truly grateful to have read about you and how your life is as a member of the church in your difficult circumstances. Now that I know you and the other members faithfully staying strong, I will pray for you all. Know that you are not alone! As your sister in the gospel I care about you. Keep your powerful testimony burning bright and I know our Father hears all of our prayers and your dreams will come true. You are a Pioneer and an inspiration to many around you and around the world!
    Sister Liesl Webb
    Mesa, Arizona U.S.A.

  7. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. I learned a lot from what you stated. This is information that we in the US never hear. Please continue to speak of your plight I feel that is very important.

    Shannon Russell
    Vancouver, Washington, USA


    Most land was occupied by others before the current occupants. While no place on earth looks safe now even the US please go somewhere safer. Only Obama would let rockets hit his country and not respond aggressively. Palestine is not a place it is a people.

  9. I have a lot of sympathy for the Paletstinian people, but I have zero sympathy for Hamas. Their charter is evil. From the Hamas charter, article seven:

    "Moreover, if the links have been distant from each other and if obstacles, placed by those who are the lackeys of Zionism in the way of the fighters obstructed the continuation of the struggle, the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah's promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:

    "The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews." (related by al-Bukhari and Moslem)."

    Palestinians chose Hamas as their leadership, and now they are reaping the consequences of continuous attacks on Israel. Hamas is a jihadist death cult.

    Hamas charter, article 8: Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.

    Hamas does not want to live in peace, but to exterminate the Jews. The death of children is good for them - it garners sympathy for Palestinians and anger at the Jews. And they have died for the sake of Allah - so "win-win-win." I don't believe most Palestinians are intentionally human shields, but Hamas does not really care if if they die. They would stop attacking Israel if they wanted peace. They would use the resources they receive for infrastructure and growth instead of weapons if they wanted peace.

    Please sister, get out if you can. The elected leadership of your area are Islamo-Nazis.

    1. I don't justify violence and neither do I defend Hamas. Yes, Hamas wants to destroy the state of Israel. If you see the situation here, you would also want to destroy what the State of Israel has become. I don't hate Jews, nor Israelis. I have good friends who are Israeli. Defending human rights and standing against what Israel is doing does not make me a Jew hater. There were thousands of Jews who protested against Israel's actions in Gaza. Here is one example (feel free to google more):
      I think what people forget is that this is not a Hamas/Israel fight. It is a fight for Palestinian human rights. That is the reason the rockets started and the whole struggle started. To eliminate it, Israel must treat Palestinians the same way it treats Jews.

  10. Presently as the prophet Micah has testified the heads of Jacob and Israel seek to build up Zion by blood. They need to return to the Lord and keep his commandments and see that the people all receive inheritances in the land of promise. That they join together with the Palestinian people as here in America as one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all. See to it that all are given covenants and deeds that cannot be broken into the hands of the poor and needy among them. Killers should be brought to justice and jailed but the peaceful and humble people should be able to live in peace and goodwill one towards another.♡

  11. Sahar, so many Mormon women here love Palestinians already and would love to come be missionaries or do whatever needs to be done. As soon as the church opens it up, we'll be there! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

  12. Thank you for sharing your faith and the struggles you have gone through. My heart goes out to you dear Sister. There is very little for us in the U.S. to read that is fair and unbiased. The one book I have read from the human perspective is Leon Uris "The Haj." If you have read it, I would like your opinion on its portrayal of the depicted Palestinian family.

  13. Dear Sister Qumsiyeh,
    My heart goes out to you. I spent a semester at the Jerusalem Center three years ago, and I so wish I had become better acquainted with you and the other members there. I so admire your dedication to the gospel. You are such an example to me. I surely hope that the situation changes to allow the freedoms and peace that we all want for the area. You're amazing! I sure hope that somehow a mission will be possible there in the near future. I hope they'd let me go on a second mission there! I love the people I met there. Thoughts and prayers are with you Sister Qumsiyeh.

    Much love,
    Adam Farnes

  14. Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate your kind support. I would like to emphasize that I am not trying to defend Hamas, I am defending innocent civilians in Gaza (and also in Israeli areas). This is why I want this to stop. I am, however, condemning the State of Israel for what it has done to my people for over 50 years. (taking away our nationality, land, water, freedom, rights) Fighting for the human rights of Palestinians does not make me anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish. You all have to understand that! Even Jews are fighting for Palestinian human is time the world woke up and saw how the State of Israel is treating the Palestinians living there. I don't want the state of Israel destroyed, I just want to have freedom and basic rights. Please google more videos like this one about Jews standing up for what is right:

  15. I echo the other comments and thank you most sincerely for making the effort to share this amazing information. May God continue to watch over and bless the Saints in Palestine. May you have peace and happiness, despite living in a very imperfect world.

  16. Can you share books? Prayers to you and yours and your situation!

  17. My brother Mazin wrote a good book "Sharing the land of Canaan". Another good one is "the Ethnic cleansing of Palestine" (I can't remember the author, but something like Pape?)

  18. I have for a long time thought that Israel and many Jews have a very short memory of the 1939-45 conflict and how they were treated then, judging by the way the State of Israel is treating the Palestinians, denying them so many basic rights we in England enjoy. We all need to see beyond the propaganda pumped out in the press and seek to learn the real unbiased facts. In my work many years ago, I met an elderly retired man working his allotment in Shoreham. He told me he was a Palestinian who as a little boy in Palestine remembers Zionists coming onto his family's land entering their home and forcing them out and off of their land at gun point, never to return. They literally seized the land at gun point. He told me he had been a Government minister in one of the Arab countries, but I cannot recall which one now. Neither side is free of guilt, but it really annoys me that the Yanks & Brits will not enforce the various UN resolutions passed regarding the ongoing conflict. (see Dear sister Sahar, I admire your courage faith and determination. May God bless you and your people for the goodness of their lives. Stay true to the faith. Please keep safe, things as we know will change in time. Trevor Hinkley. Hove Sussex.

  19. This is really incorrect. The British Mandate for Palestine included both Israel and Jordan. The San Remo treaty gave Jordan to the Palestinians and Israel to the Jews. Jordan refused to accept Arab refugees from Israel, and thus you have the current mess.

    1. That is not true. Jordan was one of the few counties that accepted Palestinian refugees. Now there are maybe 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan.