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 strike Tiberias.”

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 attended Mass.

“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 lasting peace.”

Holy Land Christians

Due to the attacks, the group of 30 Catholics curtailed their touring of the north and joined a July 19 dinner in Jerusalem 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 historically.

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.

Father Tiso, 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 border.

“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 taking responsibility.”

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.

Father Tiso 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

from Jerusalem.

Wire reports contributed

to this story.p>