JERUSALEM — Ordinarily, the guesthouse at Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, which is located just a few minutes’ walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other important Christian sites, would be packed with foreign pilgrims.
But since the war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon broke out in mid-July, the guesthouse has also served as a refuge for residents of northern Israel fleeing Lebanese rockets.
More than 1,600 rockets have hit Israeli population areas during this period, killing tens of civilians and soldiers. Israel’s military operation, which began after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the border, has claimed the lives of hundreds of Lebanese residents, the majority of them civilians.
“People from the north of [Israel] are fleeing the violence, and they feel safer in Jerusalem,” said Legionary Father John Solana, Notre Dame’s director. “We’re doing our best to help them.”
The Notre Dame Center, an institute of the Holy See administered by the Legionaries of Christ, is one of several Christian institutions in the Holy Land that have extended their hand to many of the 147,000 Christians who live in northern Israel.
“Thousands of Christians have fled south,” Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Catholic Church in Israel told the Register.
Archbishop Chacour said that rockets “do not discriminate between Jews, Christians and Muslims. All are deeply traumatized. Many children cannot sleep at night. But the difference between our villages and towns is that they — unlike nearby Jewish towns — do not have bomb shelters. We are protected only by the mercy of God.”
The archbishop expressed deep gratitude to the many Christian institutions, particularly in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, “which have not only welcomed our communities but reduced their prices very, very much. People are staying in hotels and convents, and I opened a school for all citizens of Israel, including Jews, near Haifa.”
The Notre Dame Center has hosted dozens of northern families, the majority of them Christians who hear about the guesthouse through friends or family.
“We’re giving every family at least a 25% discount, and we’d like to be able to do even more, but we don’t have the financial resources,” Father Solana said. “There were a few days when we had 70 northern families.”
Father Solana said that most of the lodgers had returned north “because they could not afford to stay in a hotel, especially when they are unable to work due to the war.”
Notre Dame has not turned anyone away, despite the high cost to its limited operating budget.
“When we learned that a family was living in a car in our parking lot, with a baby no less, we of course invited them to stay, free of charge,” Father Solana said. “They stayed for five days, then moved on.”
Even the paying guests say they are grateful to have a place to stay far from the fighting.
“We are sort of refugees,” says Hanna Shalash, a Catholic father of two young children whose family has spent the past two weeks at Notre Dame’s guesthouse. “A bomb fell right near our house, so we fled from our home and from our lives. It’s not the kind of suffering experienced by the Lebanese people, but it is not a normal life.”
“We are spending money all the time,” said Shalash, during a meal at the center’s dining room. “I’m an accountant, so we are fortunate. Many others cannot afford to leave the war zone.”
So far, Catholic humanitarian organizations say they have received only a handful of requests for assistance from Christian Israelis, who as citizens of Israel are receiving the same aid as all other citizens.
“We have not had too many requests,” said Claudette Habash, director of the Caritas Jerusalem. “We are providing financial assistance to a parish priest in Nazareth who has a few families into his convent. He needs to pay for their food, their water and some other needs.”
Archbishop Chacour says that many more requests for assistance will likely come in as the fighting up north continues.
“Our community has very, very big problems,” the archbishop said. “I froze all of our diocese’s development projects to have money for the people who really need it. Farmers have been unable to collect their fruits and vegetables and are now destroyed. People aren’t working. Many fled with little more than the shirts on their backs.”
Said Archbishop Chacour, “I appeal to all Catholic organizations to help us.”
writes from Jerusalem.