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BY MICHELE CHABIN Middle East Correspondent
JERUSALEM — Thirty Catholic school teachers
got a first-hand look at the conflict between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah
militants based in South Lebanon during a mid-July visit to Israel.
While they were on the visit, Pope
Benedict XVI declared July 23 a Churchwide day of
penance and prayer for peace in the Middle East.
He said he was particularly concerned about the “defenseless civilian
population unjustly stricken in a conflict in which they are just victims.”
The teachers, who were in Israel from
July 14 to 19 to learn about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as part the
Anti-Defamation League’s Advance Bearing Witness program, heard Katyusha rockets landing while they toured holy sites in
the north of the country.
“We were in the Galilee and had
already visited Tabgha and Capernaum,
where we were walking in the footsteps of Jesus,” recalled Sister of Charity of
the Blessed Virgin Mary Joan Nuckols, a teacher at
Savior College Preparatory in Phoenix. “During lunch (in the foothills of Mount Gilboa), we heard rockets
Later in the day, the group
learned that six rockets had hit Tiberias, next to
the Sea of Galilee.
Due to the attacks, the group had
to bypass Tiberias and take a back road to the Church
of the Beatitudes, built near the site of the Sermon on the Mount, where they
“We were praying for peace at the
church as fighter jets flew over,” Sister Joan said at the end of the
trip. “It was a bit surreal — a real
roller-coaster of a trip.”
“It has not been easy to process,”
concurred Father Francis Tiso, associate director of interreligious affairs at the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops. “This is a land of contradictions. It is the Holy Land, but it is also a place where deep feelings run
so deep and holiness can be hard to find.”
Despite the fact that tensions
between Israel and Lebanon were high even before the educators
boarded their plane to the Middle East, “one
of the trip’s surprises was the fact that we found ourselves under attack,” Father Tiso
said. “We were spending the day in the Galilee,
trying to think about Christ and the great Jewish heritage of Tiberias and Safed [another
northern town that came under attack]. Some of us saw the missiles land and
fires break out. Suddenly, you find yourself in a war.”
From his vacation spot in Northern
Italy, Pope Benedict expressed his concern for all those who live in northern
Israel and are forced to live in shelters as well as for “the great multitude
of Lebanese who, once more, are seeing their country destroyed and had to leave
everything behind to seek safety elsewhere,” he said on a day dedicated to
prayer for an end to the Middle East conflict.
Before praying the Angelus July
23, the Holy Father called on people to pray for the “beloved people of the Middle East” so that they may be able to “abandon the
path of armed confrontation and build, with the bravery of dialogue, a just and
Holy Land Christians
Due to the attacks, the group of
30 Catholics curtailed their touring of the north and joined a July 19 dinner
rather than going through with a scheduled stop in Safed.
For Steve Werle,
a history teacher at the Academy of Holy Angels in Lichfield, Minn.,
the war underscored the fact that in the Middle East
“things are so close together geographically and so deep spiritually and
Werle said he was especially moved by the
plight of Holy Land Christians, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically over
the decades, largely due to the region’s frequent wars.
“We met with Archbishop Elias Shakhour, and he told us how difficult it is to be a
minority in Israel,” Werle said of the archbishop of the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church in the Holy Land.
The group was also welcomed by
Archbishop Antonio Franco, the newly-appointed papal nuncio. He discussed the
problems facing the faltering Christianity community, which now comprises less
than 2% of the populations in Israel
and the Palestinian Authority.
Despite their brush with violence,
Sister Joan called this, her first visit to the Holy Land,
“a beautiful journey.”
“It’s been amazing seeing how
Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, continue to carry on their business” despite the
conflict. Because of the war, she said, “we have said additional prayers for
peace. At home, I will listen to the news with different ears and see it with
different eyes. I think the situation is much more complicated than the
American press shows. We in the U.S.
need to be more aware of the internal situation here. We need to know not only
Arabic, but Hebrew as well.
“Most of all,” Sister Joan said, “we need to facilitate dialogue between all the parties.”
Pope Benedict invited all people
to take part in a day of prayer and fasting, but he told journalists
July 21 the invitation was directed “above all to Muslims and Jews.”
He also said the Vatican will
leave diplomatic bargaining to other nations “because we do not get involved in
politics even if we do everything for peace.”
“Our purpose is simply peace, and
we support everything that can facilitate and lead to peace,” he said, just
days before Rome
was to host a July 26 international summit on the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
Representatives of many Western and Arab nations were to attend.
one of the group members who donated blood to Israel’s national bank in order to
shore up the country’s dwindling reserves during this time of crisis, said that
Catholics have much to contribute to suffering people on both sides of the
“For me, giving blood was a
powerful symbolic statement showing solidarity with people who are in despair.
We had just been to Yad Vashem,
the Holocaust museum, and this was a concrete gesture of solidarity to say that
the Holocaust cannot happen again.”
As Catholic educators, Father Tiso said, “we are all very carefully listening and
processing what we have seen, on a spiritual, emotional and thought level, and
If the educators learned one thing
during their Holy Land visit, “it is that this
situation isn’t a mono-rail; it’s a multi-rail,” Father Tiso
said. “The war has given clearer urgency to prayer and reflection.”
The Pope’s charity arm, the Pontifical
Council Cor Unum, announced July 22 that it was
sending immediate aid in the Pope’s name to people fleeing the latest violence
in Lebanon and Israel. Money
collected will be directed toward purchasing bedding, water, food kits and
medicine for those displaced by the conflict.
expressed the hope that Israelis and Lebanese, Jews, Muslims and Christians
will find it in their hearts to listen to one another.
“In my own work, I’ve seen the
importance of dialogue among the different religions,” he said. “Let us pray
for an end to this conflict.”
Michele Chabin writes
Wire reports contributed
to this story.