BETHLEHEM – Graffiti painted along the Separation wall, charged with political and social messages, have always been a form of protest against Israel’s unjust measures. Near the Emmanuel Monastery in Bethlehem, an icon of the Mother of God emerges on the 8-meter high concrete wall, revealing with its beauty the failure of communities to love one another.
Made at the request of the local faithful and some internationals, the icon of Our Lady who brings down walls was written on the Separation wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 2010. The purpose of their request was clear; an icon that could bring along hope that the wall would come down some day.
Pope Benedict XVI, an inspiration behind an icon
According to Ian Knowles, the iconographer who wrote the icon, the inspiration behind Our Lady originated from a speech that Pope Benedict XVI had given at a special assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in 2010. During the assembly, His Holiness referred to chapter 12 of the book of Revelation and talked about a woman who is clothed with the sun and gives birth with a cry of pain. He linked how this chapter in the Bible is a prophecy about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East. “That gave me an image of Mary, who is pregnant, clothed with the sun chased by the beast that wants to devour her child”, Ian pointed out.
Before the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land in 2014, graffiti of a giant serpent, that is eating babies, was painted along the wall that leads to the icon of Mother of God. “It is quite prophetic to see this serpent near the icon of Our Lady. In the book of revelation, the woman is chased by the beast, which wants to eat her child” Ian said. “Once the image was complete, it was as though it called out the hideousness of the wall”.
Describing the icon, Ian said “in the icon of Our Lady, we can see that her hand is touching her forehead as if she has an intense pain in her head. The suffering of Christians is something that Mary embraces in her maternal heart so her relationship to Christians here is like the mother who suffers. Also, the fact that her arm and cloak are held open as a place of refuge and safety is an important part of this image.”
The Separation Wall: A violation of basic human rights
Almost 85% of the Separation wall, which saw the start of its construction in 2003, is built in the West Bank. The wall disregards international law and to this day continues to annex fertile lands for settlement expansion and deprives Palestinians of basic human rights, including the freedom of movement.
Looking back in history and in the year 135 AD, Roman Emperor Aelius Hadrian issued a decree by which he forbade Jews to live or to enter Jerusalem as a result of a revolt carried by the Jewish leader Bar Kokhba.
In his book Ecclesiastical History, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea wrote “the whole nation was prohibited from this time on by a decree, and by the commands of Adrian, from ever going up to the country about Jerusalem. For the emperor gave orders that they should not even see from a distance the land of their fathers.” Only on the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar that Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem and lament the destruction of the 1st and 2nd temples.
Looking closely at this decree, one can draw similarities between this ban and the consequences the Separation wall is inflicting upon the Palestinians. Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank are granted permits to go and pray in Jerusalem only during Christmas and Easter. The case is further complicated for Christians in Gaza.
Oh Mother of God! Open in our lives the gate of Hope
Amid the wars, conflicts and injustice that are wreaking havoc in the Middle East and on both, the Palestinian and Israeli sides, resistance, that uses humanity as its anchor, is a right and a responsibility for those who seek an alternative resolution. “In the art of the church, you show humanity with real beauty and grace. The resistance in the icon of Our Lady lies in exactly that. It’s a beauty that exposes the ugliness and evil of the wall,” Ian explained.
The hope of those who requested the icon is seeing that the Mother of God is involved in the agony of those who are suffering. Hope doesn’t mean accepting and surrendering to oppression but rather resisting it and looking forward to living a better future.
Prayer to Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls
Most Holy Mother of God,
We pray to you as mother of the Church, mother of all Christians who suffer.
We beg you, through your ardent intercession, to bring down this wall, the walls of our hearts, and all the walls that generate hatred, violence, fear, and indifference between people and between nations.
You who crushed the ancient Serpent by your Fiat, gather and unite us under your virginal cloak, protect us from all evil and open forever in our lives the gate of Hope.
Bring to birth in us and in our world the civilization of Love that sprang forth from the Cross and Resurrection of your divine Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever. Amen.