JERUSALEM — The bishops who attended this year’s meeting of the “Holy Land Coordination” said the winds of political change sweeping the Middle East add new urgency to the resolution of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mandated by the Holy See, the Coordination has met every January in the Holy Land since 1998 to express their “solidarity with the local Christian community and share in the pastoral life of the local Church,” as noted in a final communiqué issued at the close of their visit. The participants — bishops from the United Kingdom, Europe and North America — focus on prayer, pilgrimage and forging bonds with local Christians and the pastoral life of the local Church.
During a Jan. 12 press conference to mark the close of the four-day gathering, the bishops, from the U.S. and Europe, said “a negotiated agreement is urgently required.”
“We echo the words of Pope Benedict to the diplomatic corps on Jan. 9, when he expressed his hope that dialogue ‘will be maintained, and that it will lead to lasting peace that guarantees the right of two peoples to dwell in security in sovereign states and within secure and internationally recognize borders,’ the bishops said in a statement.
The bishops called on political leaders around the world “to show courage, resolve and creativity” so that peaceful coexistence can be realized.
Although peace is always at the top of the Holy See’s agenda, the bishops said the recent uprisings and violence in Middle East countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria — what some are calling the “Arab Spring” — could soon affect Israelis and Palestinians, whose peace negotiations are essentially deadlocked.
“The “Arab Spring” is a reality which has many different aspects, some positive, some negative for Christian Communities and there is great uncertainty as to what will happen in the coming months,” said Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool. “What happens in Damascus cannot but have an effect on what is happening in Bethlehem and what happens in Egypt must touch Gaza.”
Four Intensive Days
During four intensive days of meetings, which were held in the presence of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal and the apostolic nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, the focus was on outreach.
The bishops made parish visits to the West Bank city of Nablus, Jerusalem and Gaza, and made formal visits to the headquarters of other Catholic rites and Christian denominations. They met with Palestinian and Israeli officials and decision-makers and held an interreligious dialogue with Muslims, Druze, Jews and Baha’i.
The bishops made a special effort to travel to the Gaza Strip, where they celebrated Mass with the 300-member Catholic community on the feast of the Lord’s Baptism. There are only 2,500 Christians remaining in Gaza living alongside 1.5 million Muslims.
The bishops brought messages of support from their dioceses and respective bishops’ conferences. They received first-hand accounts about the hardships Gaza’s Christians face due to Israel’s economic and security blockade, which makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to exit Gaza. They also expressed their vulnerability as Christians in an Islamic society governed by Hamas, which the U.S State Department considers a terrorist organization.
“What I want to say to you is You are not forgotten,” Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England, told the Gaza parishioners.
Archbishop Franco, the nuncio, said in his homily that in celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord that “the universal Church, led by the Holy Father, shares its faith with you in this Church in Gaza and is united with you as you go through particularly difficult times.”
Witness of Faith
While the bishops travelled to the Holy Land to learn from and lift up a Catholic community weakened by war, economic distress and emigration, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said he and his fellow bishops were in fact strengthened by the faith of the local people.
“When I visited a Syrian Catholic Church, I was touched by their songs and prayers,” Bishop Kicanas said. “Even during times of great difficulty, their faith sustains them. Even so, Bishop Kicanas said, Palestinians and Israelis “are weary and anxious for a resolution to the conflict.” If the decades-old conflict isn’t resolved soon, he warned, “the frustration and anger will only mount, and that will be troublesome.”
Bishop Kenney said he was “more and more depressed” by “encroachments” of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He believes that the presence of Jewish communities in the lands Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War is complicating the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
At the same time, the English bishop distinguished between “extremist settlers” and the many financially strapped Israelis who live in the West Bank and eastern parts of Jerusalem not for ideological reasons but because housing is much more affordable there.
“The price will be paid by the poor, not the powerful,” Bishop Kenney said of the potential uprooting of settlers.
While peace and solidarity were at the core of the bishops’ visit, they also tackled administrative matters with Israeli officials.
“We are making progress on the issue of municipal taxes” Jerusalem officials are demanding for Church-owned real estate, “and general tax problems,” said Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Patriarchal Vicar for Israel. Bishop Marcuzzo said the Israeli government is now considering ways to compensate the Holy See for Church-owned land Israel has confiscated over the years, for various reasons.
“The same land will not be returned, but there is progress on the issue of compensation,” Bishop Marcuzzo said.
After seeing the challenges facing Holy Land Catholics and the dynamics in the region, the bishops vowed to intensify their efforts to pray and advocate for a solution that gives Israelis and Palestinians both freedom and security.
“Having seen and heard, it’s now time to share this [information] with our fellow bishops and the larger community,” Bishop Kicanas said. “At the same time, we must engage in prayer for peace.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.