The tour bus full of Christian pilgrims came to a halt. Unlike the usual Holy Land circuit, this group wasn't visiting a historic church or ancient site. Instead, they had come to the east Jerusalem branch of the Israeli Ministry of Interior, where a cluster of Palestinians huddled in the rain.

Douglas Dicks, a Virginia-born outreach worker for Catholic Relief Services, stood in the front of the bus, pointed to the building, and began reading from Matthew, describing Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate. "And when Pilate saw a riot was gathering, he took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility,'" Dicks read.

The tour, billed as a trip along a modern-day Via Dolorosa, illustrated the everyday indignities Jerusalem's Palestinian residents suffer at the hands of Israeli authorities in the city of their birth. It was part of an ecumenical Christian conference on the Palestinian issue that took place here in late February. The conference, "Speaking Truth, Seeking Justice," was sponsored by Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based center for Christian theology. It brought together several hundred Christians from 17 countries to consider anew the Palestinian plight, particularly in the wake of failed Middle East peace talks.

"Palestinians come to the Ministry of Interior building to renew their Jerusalem residency permits, to get permits for their children, to get permission to leave the country and to reenter," Dicks said. Many Israeli practices make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain, or hold on to, Jerusalem residency rights.

On another occasion, about 200 members of the group stood for 90 minutes at an Israeli roadblock at the entrance to Ramallah, waiting for permission to enter the city.

"I thought it was a very powerful statement, for all of us to get out of our buses and remain steadfast in the insistence that we would cross the roadblock," said Don Wagner, a professor at North Park University in Chicago. Wagner is the author of Dying in the Holy Land (Fox Communications), a newly published book on Palestinian Christians.

In the view of key conference participants, the blame for the peace process collapse rests squarely on Israeli shoulders. Israel's recent offers to the Palestinians to relinquish 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, however far-reaching, didn't go far enough, they said. Israel failed to offer a blueprint for a viable Palestinian state or a realistic plan dealing with the claims of 4 million Palestinian refugees living in the Arab world.

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Betsy Barlow, head of the American-based arm of the Sabeel Center and an early supporter of Israel, said she became a critic of the Zionist state after seeing the suffering of Palestinian refugees while she was a teacher in Beirut in the 1950s.

"When I think of refugees, I think of people with names and identities," said Barlow, a retired University of Michigan administrator and Ann Arbor resident. "If we don't live by justice, then we're being led astray."

Related Elsewhere

See today's related story, "Christian Zionists Rally for Jewish State | More than 600 Christians from around the world flock to Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel as peace process collapses."

Previous Christianity Todaystories about conflict in Israel and Palestine include:

Between a Rock and a Holy Site | Muslims have stepped up their efforts to take control of places revered by Jews and Christians. (Feb. 13, 2001)

The Peace Regress | What's behind the current outbreak of hostilities in the Holy Land? (Jan. 11, 2001)

Conflict in the Holy Land | A timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world.

Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and War | Starvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)

Between the Temple Mount and a Hard Place | Palestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)

Messianic Ethiopians Face Discrimination | Sisters appealing decision to revoke Israeli citizenship. (Dec. 4, 2000)

Christmas Plans for Bethlehem Scrapped | Escalating violence cancels millennial celebration in town of Christ's birth. (Dec. 1, 2000)

Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)

Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)

Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)

Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)

How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)

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