Beit Sahour, West Bank, Palestine, November 2010
Raised near Bethlehem, only a few blocks away from the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Sahar Qumsiyeh intimately knows places that are considered holy by many religions. However, this significant area is marked by conflict and war, and as a Palestinian, Sahar faced barriers (both figurative and literal) to joining the Church. In this interview, Sahar describes how her introduction to the Church and understanding of the gospel enabled her to overcome the feelings of anger and frustration that accompanied her life in this turbulent region.
How did you convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
After receiving my undergraduate degree in math at Bethlehem University and teaching at an elementary school in Bethlehem for a year, I received a full scholarship for a master’s degree at American University in Washington, D.C. I was really excited and planning on going there, but then I saw an advertisement offering scholarships to Brigham Young University for Palestinians. Even though I already had a good scholarship to the American University, I decided to apply to BYU and was accepted to a program for a master’s degree in statistics.
Everyone, including my family, told me not to go to BYU. I had also heard strange things about the Mormons, which made me discouraged. Despite this, I had a feeling that I should go there, and although I didn’t understand why, I couldn’t walk away from that feeling. So I ended up attending BYU. I was scared, but I went and felt at home.
I wasn’t really interested in the Mormon Church, and the thought of joining the church never crossed my mind. I was raised Christian—my family is Greek Orthodox—although over the years, my parents lost interest in religion. I personally lost faith in God; because of many injustices that I had witnessed in Palestine. I thought that God must hate Palestinians because we were oppressed and the situation was really bad. I said my prayers, but didn’t think that God would listen or answer.
At BYU, one of my friends invited me to church and I went, but it was very different from what I grew up with and I wasn’t interested in returning. But then it was General Conference, and my friends told me that they were going to listen to the prophet speak. I thought it was really strange that the Mormons believed there was a living prophet on the earth. I called my mom and said, “Mother, do you know what the Mormons think?” But I was curious and I decided to listen to what the prophet—at that time President Hunter—had to say. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he referred to my land as “Palestine” and that was a really big deal to me. After the Israeli occupation, Palestinians lost our identity and few people around the world recognize that we have the right to a land or a country; a lot of people call this country “Israel.” My country, Palestine, doesn’t even exist on a map. The word “Israel” shows up in its place. So hearing an American call my country “Palestine” meant a lot to me.
After conference, I asked a friend to tell me about the Church. She told me everything: she started with the creation of Adam and told me all the details of the restoration. Other people in the room said that she was confusing me by telling me everything at once, but it all made sense; when you hear it all at once, it is simple and perfect. I started to show interested in the Church. One of my friends gave me an Arabic Book of Mormon and told me to read 3 Nephi 11 and pray about it. I thought that didn’t make sense to pray about a chapter in a book, so I decided to read the entire book instead. It took me a few months to read but I knew it was true; I didn’t have to ask Heavenly Father if it was true. I started going to Church and I decided to get baptized.
If other people had tried to convert me, I likely would have walked away. But my BYU friends just left me alone. That was good because I took my time to learn about the church on my own.
How did your family react to your decision to be baptized?
When I told my family, they said that the Mormons had brainwashed me. They said I was crazy to even think about getting baptized. Their reaction was very difficult for me, so much so that I decided not to go through with the baptism. But I attended a friend’s baptism and I knew that was what I needed to do. I was finally baptized on February 4, 1996.
I have now been an LDS church member for more than 14 years. Over the years, most of my family has accepted my membership in the Church. But my mom still tries to convince me to leave the Church. Others in my family think that I’m lost and confused, but they don’t say anything about it anymore. They know that I’m happy and they’re fine with that. I was so miserable in Palestine before I went to BYU. After joining the Church, I was scared to go home; I thought I would be unhappy again and I thought it would be difficult because my family wouldn’t accept my membership in the Church. But I have been happy, even through difficult situations and even though my family tried everything possible to encourage me to leave the Church.
What has been your experience as a member of the Church in Palestine?
It was really difficult being a member of the Church when I returned to Palestine after being baptized in Utah. There were two other members of the church in the Bethlehem area, but at the time I didn’t know them. I felt very alone. Also, I couldn’t go to church much of the time, because I lived in the West Bank and the Israelis imposed travel restrictions on Palestinians living in the West Bank. I wasn’t allowed to enter Jerusalem and I often had to sneak into Jerusalem to get to church. Yet I had the Holy Ghost with me and that helped a lot; having that joy and peace inside took care of everything.
I grew up a few blocks away from Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem. However, I never felt that site, or others in Jerusalem had any significance to me personally. I believed in God, but did not understand many things about the Gospel. I hated living in Bethlehem and thought I was cursed for being Palestinian, because we had very few human rights and were not treated with dignity. Even though I grew up in the Holy Land, I had to travel across the world to Provo, Utah to get to know my Savior. After I was baptized and returned home, my view completely changed. I felt blessed to be Palestinian and to have the opportunity to live where my Savior lived. Every tree, every site, and every street reminds me of my Savior and what He has done for me. Out of all the places He could have chosen to be born, He chose my little town of Bethlehem.
Can you explain more about the restrictions that made it difficult for you to get to church?
Before 1987, Palestinians living in the West Bank were able to travel freely to any area in the Holy Land. The restrictions imposed by the state of Israel started increasing gradually. At first they stopped allowing us to drive outside the West Bank. Then they stopped allowing taxis, then buses. After that, they started restricting individuals from traveling outside the West Bank at all. Many checkpoints were established on various roads leading out of Palestinian cities. Different checkpoints allowed selected individuals—such as women or men over age 50—to exit their cities (and go to Jerusalem, for example). The restrictions increased until no one was allowed to travel, except for the select few who worked in Jerusalem and were able to get a proper permit to enter Jerusalem. In 2003, Israel began building the separation wall: a 20-foot-high concrete wall that surrounds many Palestinian cities. The wall was designed to control Palestinian movement through designated openings in the wall. Now, permits are given to very few individuals, and the checkpoints that were simply roadblocks 15 years ago are now bigger than an airport terminal. Because all travelers are searched thoroughly, the few who work in Jerusalem have to wait in line at checkpoints for hours each morning to get to work.
For many years, I didn’t have papers to enter Jerusalem—where the Jerusalem Branch (at that time, the only branch in the Holy Land) meets—and it was very difficult to get to church. During the early years, I was able to sneak into Jerusalem by climbing hills and avoiding the checkpoints the Israeli soldiers placed at the main roads leading out of Bethlehem. Later it became more difficult as soldiers and checkpoints were placed almost everywhere. After the separation wall was built around Bethlehem, it became very dangerous and difficult to get into Jerusalem. Even after entering the city, one had to remain cautious, because soldiers would stop people and ask them for their papers.
Do you still struggle to get to church today?
The last time I snuck into Jerusalem for church was in 2007. At that time, the only way to enter Jerusalem was through a small hole in the separation wall. The hole was small—maybe a foot or two wide—and it was located about 90 minutes from my house, so I had to take a taxi to get there. Soldiers usually stood guard on the other side of the wall, so I had to wait for the Israeli soldiers to move away before climbing through the hole. We went through the wall in groups and people were assigned to watch the soldiers and then they signaled to the rest of us when it was safe to go through the hole. I waited for about 30 minutes before the soldiers left, and then everyone squeezed through the hole. Then we had to run to another wall that was about 10 feet high and made of concrete. Someone lifted me up to climb the wall, and then I jumped down the 10 feet on the other side. It was rainy and muddy on the last day I snuck into Jerusalem. That day, I ran and hid behind a building, waited until a bus came, then jumped onto the bus and rode into Jerusalem.
Later, at church, a friend asked me what would happen if I were caught. I said, “I’ve never had to find out. I’ve been sneaking into Jerusalem to attend church for years, and I’ve never been caught.” A lot of times, I felt like I was invisible, because other people would be stopped and caught and I would get through. But that same day, as I was going home on the bus, soldiers stopped the bus. Two people—another man and I—didn’t have permission to be in Jerusalem. They took us off the bus and detained us for an hour. We were forced to sign papers that said, “I was found in Jerusalem on this date.” I was lucky because after we signed their paper, they let us go.
After that day, I was physically and emotionally exhausted from the stress of trying to get to church. For years prior, I sat in church thinking, “How can I get home without being caught?” and it took away from the focus of worship. I had promised Heavenly Father that I would try to go to church every week if I was able to, and I tried every week; sometimes I was able to make it through the checkpoints and sometimes I wasn’t, but I always tried. However, after that last time, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I prayed and said, “Heavenly Father, I am tired. Please provide me with another way to get to church.”
Not long after that experience, I started my current job with the United Nations as a database analyst. As a U.N. employee, I have proper papers that allow me to enter Jerusalem for work. Today, I go through checkpoints to get to church in Jerusalem, and they let me in. I am really privileged as a U.N. worker, because I can go through any checkpoint, whereas the people from Bethlehem have to cross at one particular checkpoint, where it’s always busy and you have to wait in a line for 3 to 4 hours. It takes me about an hour and a half to get to church now, depending on traffic and how long I have to wait at checkpoints.
I am currently the Relief Society president in the Jerusalem Branch. Our branch has many members from all over the world: many BYU students, people working at the U.S. consulate and others working in Jerusalem. It is a challenge for us to reach out to the many members in the branch who live in West Bank cities and are unable to attend church. U.S. policy does not allow those working with the consulate from the West Bank into Jerusalem and the B.Y.U. Jerusalem Center rules don’t allow those affiliated with the Jerusalem Center to freely travel and drive their own cars into West Bank cities. Therefore, we have members living in the West Bank who have not been able to attend church services for over 12 years!
How have you found the inner strength to remain in the Church despite such difficult circumstances?
Knowing what it’s like to not have the gospel makes a big difference; I’m so much happier now because of the knowledge I have, so it’s easier to hold on. Heavenly Father has been by my side the entire time and has helped me through everything.
Amidst this conflict, I’ve been comforted many times. For example, one time Israeli helicopters were shooting at houses in my town. The electricity went out and the phones were dead, so we couldn’t call our relatives to find out if they were okay. My family and I went up to the roof to see which areas were affected. I left my family on the roof and went down to my room and prayed and I felt Heavenly Father’s loving arms around me. I knew that He was there and He was protecting the people I loved.
Dealing with the conflict has been a real challenge internally. I’ve seen a lot of injustices done to my people over the years: restricted travel and curfews, friends or relatives arrested or shot for no reason, humiliation, loss of identity, house demolitions. When I was 16 years old and attending Bethlehem University for my undergraduate degree, there was a demonstration on campus and some Israeli soldiers shot a student. The soldiers wouldn’t allow us to take him to a hospital. For two hours, he lay with a bullet hole in his head. That day, I developed feelings of hate towards the Israelis because of what I witnessed them do to my people. After I joined the Church, that hatred kind of dissolved, but I still didn’t love them.
One day when I was trying to go through the checkpoint to attend church, one of the Israeli soldiers told me to go back; he said I wasn’t allowed in. I looked into his eyes and remembered a scripture I read in Matthew that morning in which the Savior said, “Love your enemies.” It occurred to me that I didn’t love the Israelis, and it really bothered me that I could not obey one of the Savior’s commandments. I struggled with that and didn’t know how to overcome those feelings. I came across a scripture in Moroni—chapter 7, verse 48—which talks about charity as the pure love of Christ. It reads, “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love.” I decided that this was the only way to gain love for my enemies; I couldn’t love them through my efforts alone. I needed help from my Savior who had perfect charity for everyone. He was able to love and forgive the very soldiers who crucified Him. If anyone knew how to love, He did, and I knew He could teach me. I decided to ask Heavenly Father to help me because living with anger and hatred damages the soul.
I prayed for this for a long time, and I thought He didn’t answer, because I didn’t notice a particular change. But about a year after I started praying, I was passing through one of the checkpoints and I looked into the eyes of a soldier (who told me to turn back) and felt an amazing love for him. I knew that we were all children of God, and we don’t have to hate the people who do bad things to us; we can just hate their actions, but we don’t have to hate the people themselves. It was a tremendous comfort to me to learn that when Heavenly Father tells us to do something, He provides a way for us to obey His commandments.
The Palestinians and Israelis are seeking to establish peace. In order to do that, they have met at a negotiation table for years. I believe the only true peace has to come from the Prince of Peace himself, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The peace that the Holy Ghost brought into my life after I was baptized has remained with me during days of trouble and conflict. The Savior said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Only He can soften hearts, provide feelings of charity, and supply that peace that my country needs.
At A Glance
Location: Beit Sahour, West Bank, Palestine
Marital status: Single
Convert: February 4, 1996
Occupation: Database Analyst
Schools Attended: Bethlehem University, BS; BYU, Masters, Middle East Technical University
in Turkey, Ph.D.
Languages Spoken at Home: Arabic
Favorite Hymn: “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”
Interview by Barbara Christiansen. Photos used with permission.