Martin de Jong
5 April 2012
Halfway through her visit to Aotearoa New Zealand, Claudette Habesch, chief executive of Caritas Jerusalem, visited heartland territory: Hiruharama – or Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. This pilgrimage with Caritas staff from the Holy City to one of our own wāhi tapu gave Claudette an insight into some of the turbulence Aotearoa New Zealand experiences. Martin de Jong reports:
The day is calm, clear and blue as we meet at Upokongaro, though broken branches, leaves and debris litter the roadside from a ‘weather bomb’ that passed through two days earlier.
Pā Gerard Burns leads us in a karakia asking God’s blessing and protection on our journey, as well as the protection of Suzanne Aubert who founded New Zealand’s Sisters of Compassion at Hiruharama in 1892.
Then we wind our way for an hour and a half round the steep hillsides plunging down to the Whanganui River, dodging occasional slips that remind us of our precarious presence here.
At the pōwhiri on Patiarero marae at Hiruharama, 19 of us are welcomed by a group of tāngata whenua led by Ron Hough of Ngāti Hau.
Pā Gerry introduces Claudette as a wahine toa – a strong woman from Jerusalem in the Holy Land – and acknowledges the turmoil of the place from where she comes.
Later in discussion inside the wharenui Whiri-Taunoka, Claudette says she feels at home. She acknowledges her own holy mountain at Jerusalem and holy river – the Jordan.
‘It seems to me we have so much in common.’ She draws other parallels between the two Jerusalems. People are leaving both places – ‘but the Church is still there’.
Of her own homeland, she says, ‘The Church is there and we will not leave. We must stay, and we must keep witness, because this is where the Church was born.’
Tearfully, she explains that she can visit her old home in West Jerusalem, from which she and her family were evicted in the 1948 war, but she cannot go back to live there.
‘Israel oppresses us, controls our life … they have erected a wall that helps Israelis acquire more land from the West Bank.’
So many resolutions have been made in the United Nations against Israel’s actions, but not one of those resolutions has been implemented. Israeli settlements continue to be built illegally in the West Bank.
She said the Palestinian side has already made many concessions. ‘We have agreed to have 22 percent of historic Palestine, but we say that East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine – so that means we recognise that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.’ This is something no Western power has done.
And though the Palestinian Authority is ready to have a State on 22 percent of historic Palestine, at the moment Palestinians have only 9 percent, due to the encroachment of Israeli settlements and Israeli control over large parts of Palestinian territory.
‘I believe we, the Palestinians, are the only people who can give peace to Israel,’ Claudette says. ‘My message to you is a message of hope, a message of love, to all human beings. When any life is lost, either Palestinian or Israeli, it is tragic.
We are all children of God, and life is a precious thing.’
She presents Ron and the community with a peace lamp from the Holy Land, ‘a lamp with a peace message, and a prayer for peace in Jerusalem.’ It is made in the only remaining all-Christian village in the West Bank – Taybeh – sustaining the livelihoods of 16 families in the area.
In the dialogue that follows, Ron notes similarities with the experience of Māori in Aotearoa: dispossession of land, social conditions that lead to high unemployment and high imprisonment for Māori, and people moving away from the area.
He explains that while much of the land around Hiruharama is still owned by Māori, negotiations between multiple owners means it is often hard to use and develop the land.
‘Sometimes people feel it is easier to lease it out and move to the city to work’. He is trying to address the loss of employment and people from the area through ventures in fish-farming and the dredging of river stones to sell to the local council for road gravel.
In the evening, Sr Makareta Tawaroa of the Sisters of St Joseph uses stones and string to explore in a graphic, interactive way the geological and human story of the Whanganui river. This includes the loss of food sources such as eel, through destruction of fishing weirs and changes to the river flow.
The farewell after breakfast the following day includes a blessing in Arabic and in Māori.
‘It has been wonderful for me to be here,’ Claudette says. I’ve found people that have a heart, and that can understand and share the pain.
‘Being with you here, has strengthened me and given me hope because around the world, there are good people who pray and work for peace.’
Images: Walking to the meeting house
Claudette Habesch speaking in the wharenui Whiri-Taunoka. Fr Gerard Burns is in the background.
A hongi from the tangata whenua welcoming the visitors to Patiarero marae
Ron Hough of Ngati Hau welcomes Claudette Habesch
An Easter message of hope from the Holy Land
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand