Posts Tagged ‘Holy Land’

Holy Land of Suffering and Hope

Friday, January 15th, 2010

By Stephen Colecchi, Director, Office of Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bill O’Keefe of CRS and I are accompanying Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the Vice-President of the United States Conference of Bishops, on a pastoral visit to the Holy Land. Our travels have taken us to Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and briefly through the airport in Jordan. Contrary to public perception and usage, Jesus walked through places in all of these countries and together they comprise a land made holy by his presence.

What can you do to help bring peace to the Holy Land?

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Upon leaving the Holy Land last week, Pope Benedict XVI expressed this plea: “No more bloodshed, no more fighting, no more terrorism, no more war. Instead let us break the vicious cycle of violence, let there be lasting peace based on justice.”

Both/And, Not Either/Or

Friday, May 15th, 2009
Boys climb olive trees in the courtyard of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. Below the tree is a post saying “May peace prevail on earth.” Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Boys climb olive trees in the courtyard of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. Below the tree is a post saying “May peace prevail on earth.” Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

“No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured,” said Pope Benedict on the last day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, where even buying a candy bar can be a politically-charged decision (should I buy it in Palestinian East Jerusalem or Israeli West Jerusalem?), sometimes it feels like you’re not allowed to be a friend to both peoples. If you’re friends with one side, the unspoken assumption goes, you are de facto the enemy of the other.

By simply putting the word “friend of” before both Palestinians and Israelis, the pope was saying it doesn’t have to be that way.

A Palestinian man I will call “Yusef” lives in Jerusalem; he was raised Orthodox and became an evangelical Christian. More than anyone I have met on this trip, he embodies what the pope was expressing. Raising a disabled son he describes as “God’s gift to us,” Yusef refuses to give in to despair or hatred. His own life has been made harder—financially and in terms of family ties–by the Separation Wall the Israeli government has erected, but he speaks kindly of Israelis, including the Orthodox Jewish woman who gives his 4-year-old physical therapy and helped him walk. He asks, “How can I say I love God if I hate my brother?”

“The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome,” the pope said when visiting the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Friday. Yusef is young, and his troubles are not even memories yet—they are part of his everyday life. Yet he is healed inside himself.

“I am not right or left. I look straight ahead, and there is God,” says Yusef. “I look into God’s eyes, and I what I see is mercy.”

‘A Role to Play in the Growth of Holiness’

Friday, May 15th, 2009
Young massgoers, Precipice in Nazareth, May 14, 2009

Young massgoers in the crowd as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass on Mount Precipice in Nazareth, May 14, 2009. Photo by CRS staff

If earlier parts of Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land had edges of tension, Thursday’s Mass in Nazareth was relatively short on controversy. Thirty thousand people strong, it had the feel of World Youth Days: the gasp as the popemobile enters, the waving banners, the cheers of “Long live the pope!” Teenagers spent the night or arrived hours early at an amphitheater on Mount Precipice, overlooking the city where Jesus was a teenager too. Some of the children and teens had painted their faces gold and white, the Vatican colors; many wore T-shirts made for the day. The adults sat sedately; the young people moved restlessly, adjusting their papal-insignia scarves, leaning expectantly for a glimpse of the pope, or hoisting their flags higher.

In the crowd were Palestinian Christians of all ages and denominations—an announcer welcomed “Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants”—along with a hefty share of foreign pilgrims: the flags of Italy, England, Lebanon, Spain, and many other countries flew. Reflecting on St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Pope Benedict drew on a theme every nationality could relate to: the family. Growing up in Nazareth, Jesus taught his parents and Mary and Joseph taught Jesus, Benedict said. In the same way, children today “have a role to play in the growth of holiness of their parents.” In a crowd of young people on the mountaintop, visuals backing up Benedict’s words were all around me.

Trapped–on Both Sides of the Wall

Thursday, May 14th, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Several dozen Gazan Catholics were permitted to leave Gaza and cross the Wall to attend. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ the well-worn Robert Frost quote goes, and that something was me on Wednesday. Wandering around Bethlehem’s eerily empty streets in the heat, I was unable to leave the city after a day of papal events because a very large slab of concrete was blocking my way.

My CRS colleague and driver had misplaced his cell phone and we’d gotten separated during Pope Benedict’s Mass at Manger Square in the morning. In the afternoon, after seeing Pope Benedict bless babies at a Bethlehem infant hospital, another colleague and I roamed on foot from one checkpoint to a second one. The checkpoints are places where people can cross the 25-foot-high Separation Wall to get to Jerusalem, which is theoretically twenty minutes away. The streets had been closed off and were deserted; no taxis were anywhere.

Palestinian mother with child

A Palestinian woman and her daughter outside the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem. On May 13, the pope briefly visited the hospital and blessed several infants. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

“Towering over us … is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall,” Pope Benedict said at a nearby refugee camp at the same time we were wandering. As my coworker looked for Wall personnel to see if any doors were open, I stood next to the Wall and stared up at its gray bulk. It definitely towered.

My problems, of course, were pretty minor. We walked for 20 minutes or so, and true to Bethlehem’s biblical reputation, a good angel found us. Though the street was closed to outsiders, a man who was perhaps a neighborhood resident happened to drive by, and immediately agreed to drive us to a place where we could meet a cab. We waited at a crossroads, eating some almonds I had bought at Manger Square as thousands of people flowed away from the Mass site. Eventually the cab arrived and we took a detour to an alternate checkpoint.

What was an inconvenience for us today wasn’t just related to typical Israeli policies; special security rules had been put in place for Benedict’s visit. And I have certainly spent some time waiting in line at metal detectors in America: at museums, theaters, airports. Yet the Wall represents something different.

Better minds than mine have mulled the Wall endlessly—the families it separates, the farms and businesses it undermines, the fear it breeds. Better minds have also discussed its pros, or rather its single, near-unanswerable pro: it may keep terrorists out of Israel.

On Wednesday the Wall did not keep out a swarm of loud, cheering Gazans. Ninety-three Gazan Catholics were permitted to leave their territory and come to Bethlehem for Pope Benedict’s Mass. During his sermon, the pope spoke directly to “pilgrims from war-torn Gaza” and spoke of the “suffering you have had to endure.” Referring to blockade that forbids Gazans to leave their small strip of land, the pope went on to say in English, “I pray this embargo may be lifted.”

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square as massgoers chant “Viva il Baba! Viva il Palestina!” [Long live the pope! Long live Palestine!”] Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Catholic Relief Services has tried to help West Bank people affected by the Wall and Gazans affected by the blockade. We give food to families who once farmed land they now can’t access. We create jobs, like making cheese or building agricultural roads, to give work to those whose livelihoods have been compromised by access restrictions. We built a youth center in Aida camp, where the pope visited, so children who could no longer walk to nearby fields had a place for activities.

We also help Israelis hurt by violence. After the Lebanon war of 2006, we gave money to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help Israelis displaced by shelling on the Lebanon border.

We can provide stopgap help. But the larger questions about the Wall remain. How do we keep people safe from terrorism? Aren’t a lot of inconveniences worth it to save lives? How do we create a secure homeland for Israelis, who deserve to feel safe in their country? What if the Wall is working, and people are walking down the streets of Jerusalem today alive because it exists?

No one has a good answer to the dilemmas raised in the Holy Land, but Pope Benedict seems sure that walls are not it.

Catholic Relief Services partners with the Bereaved Families’ Forum, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the conflict. Instead of turning in on themselves and building new barriers, they have let the walls in themselves crumble, and stepped over into new land. Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose 14-year-old daughter died in a suicide bombing, crosses through the Separation Wall to visit the Palestinian friend he made through the group. Rami often says, “There are two kinds of people the Wall can’t keep out: those who want to kill, and those who want to make peace.”

Wednesday at the refugee camp, Pope Benedict urged everyone trapped by one side or the other of the Wall to do what the Families Forum has done: “To remove the walls we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors.”

Jerusalem the Golden

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Latin Patriachate co-cathedral

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Latin Patriarchate co-cathedral in Jerusalem, May 12, 2009. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.

“Good energy there,” my CRS coworker commented as we left a church celebration for Pope Benedict today. The young Palestinian seminarians, elderly nuns, and magenta-robed prelates in the church were clearly thrilled to be seeing the pope in person. Praying and singing hymns in several languages, the congregation waved gold-and-white Vatican flags as they waited for Benedict to arrive. Sometimes the seminarians—many in their teens—would spontaneously break into the chant of “Benvenuto Benedetto!”

Benedict began his day with much-scrutinized visits to the Dome of Rock, which Muslims hold sacred, and the Western Wall, sacred to Jews. Perhaps it felt like a homecoming to be among his Catholic flock in the grand Co-Cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate, nestled in the cobblestoned Old City of Jerusalem.

During his brief visit to the cathedral, Benedict praised contemplatives for their sacrifices. He bent to bless several wheelchair-bound nuns at the front of the church as the sea of gold flags waved.

He also asked the Catholics there what many popes have asked before: to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. In a small way, his own visit was proof that it is possible. Though tensions between religious groups are a hallmark of the Holy Land, I was struck today with how calmly the city’s Muslims and Jews—that is, the overwhelming majority of its citizens—put up with the road closures, traffic jams, and security blockades the pope’s visit entails. Benedict’s pilgrimage means changes to school schedules and less business in certain areas, but aside from some resigned grumbling, most city dwellers seem to take it in stride.

There was more good energy at today’s Mass in the Kedron Valley, right outside the Old City walls. Another coworker, a Palestinian who was raised Orthodox but now practices Catholicism, took two of her daughters to the Mass. One daughter was celebrating her twelfth birthday. She told her mom she wanted to be there, and spent the afternoon getting sunburned with thousands of other mass goers as she waited for the pope to arrive. The 16-year-old daughter was part of a girl scout marching band that welcomed the pope, and spent the morning getting her hair done so she’d look her best for it. My coworker was happy too. “It’s a blessing to have the pope come and say Mass here,” she says. “And it’s a special place—the Kedron Valley is where Jesus will come again.”

Many people have commented on the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land. But on a day like today—seeing crowds cheer and pray and laugh—it was hard to feel bleak about their future.

Healing Words: Pope Benedict in the Holy Land

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
A man spray-paints a message of welcome to Pope Benedict XVI

A man spray-paints a message of welcome to Pope Benedict XVI on the wall of a stage meant for the pope to speak from. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. Here she blogs about the day the pope arrived in Jerusalem, May 11.

Pope Benedict surprised many commentators when, just minutes after stepping off his plane in Tel Aviv, he called for a homeland for both Israelis and Palestinians. Many expected, and applauded, his strong denunciation of anti-Semitism. But few expected him to bring up the issue of Palestinian statehood so quickly.

Two hours after his brief speech on Monday, I was in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. “Refugee camps” in Bethlehem aren’t tent cities in the desert—they are urban areas, usually run down, and made up of Palestinians who were displaced in the 1940s from villages in what is now Israel.

Today, the Palestinians at Aida were putting the finishing touches on the stage and school areas Pope Benedict will visit on Wednesday. One middle-aged man—his actions clearly sanctioned by camp organizers—spray-painted the words “POPE You Are Welcome in Palestine” near the Separation Wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem. “Palestine” is not a country that everyone recognizes. The pope prays that someday people will.

Catholic Relief Services cares about this issue because without a statehood decision, people suffer, stay poor, or grow poorer. Politics is never the only reason for poverty, but political tensions definitely contribute to it in the Holy Land.

Groups like CRS can offer short-term help, like food or temporary jobs. A few years ago, CRS helped fund part of a youth center at Aida camp. Girl scouts were practicing on drums in the center today, getting ready for a papal procession down the camp’s streets on Wednesday. Building the youth center provided jobs to Palestinians in an area where work is extremely hard to find. It’s getting harder because of Israeli access restrictions sparked by fear of Palestinian attacks.

But Pope Benedict was not speaking of temporary solutions; he spoke of a political solution that could bring about an end of fear on both sides. He spoke of trust—the trust one person has when he knows the other person won’t hurt him. With that to build on, peace is possible.

Waiting for Wind: Pope Benedict in the Holy Land

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
Kite flying in Jerusalem's Old City

Kite flying near the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. Here she blogs about Sunday May 10, the day before the pope arrived in Jerusalem.

Sunday was a pretty good day for kite-flying in Jerusalem, but not perfect. Clear blue skies and a decent wind, but something contrary in it wouldn’t always cooperate. Outside the walls of the Old City, the kids would hold their kites high, test the wind, jump up, and hope for the best. About half the time the kites made it, and when they did, they soared gloriously over the walls.

Everyone here is testing the wind, too, wondering if and how Pope Benedict’s visit will change things in the Holy Land. Some Christians, focusing on the pope’s pilgrimage instead of political issues, are just glad he’s here to share in their faith lives. “It’s wonderful to be where Jesus performed his miracles,” said my cab driver, a self-described evangelical Orthodox Christian. Other people here—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—aren’t sure they’ll be heard when they speak of their pain: the family members they’ve lost, the sacrifices they’ve made, the wounds they carry because they live here.

Peace means something different to everyone here, but everyone still wants it. The pope will hear pleas for safety, for work, for freedom, for a future. Everyone will be holding their breath, seeing if a peace process that has been stalled so often might take off again. Seeing if peace will fly.

Hospitality Lifts Tired Holy Land Traveler

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009
West Bank

A Palestinian family living in tents in the hills of Susya in the West Bank participates in the CRS Food for Work program. Photo by Liz O’Neill/crs

Communications officer Liz O’Neill recently visited CRS programs in the Middle East. She submitted this report on her initial impressions:

I wasn’t really in the mood for a conversation. My first journey to the Holy Land had begun more than 20 hours earlier at Dulles International Airport. Except for a catnap on a hard bench during a layover at Heathrow airport, I hadn’t slept much. I was hungry and tired. I decided to attempt sleep once again. That is, until the strangers sitting beside me suddenly decided they wanted to chat.

Our conversation started as a slight annoyance. It ended with a display of what everyone around me already seemed to know about—the tradition of Arab hospitality.

Gaza Aid Update

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

With fighting continuing in the Gaza Strip, our prayers are with our colleagues in Gaza and Israel.

A morning press release updates information about our response:

“As the conflict in Gaza and Southern Israel continues, Catholic Relief Services will provide 500 war-affected families in Gaza with desperately needed food and other humanitarian relief supplies. With a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and $100,000 from its American donors, CRS will distribute food, hygiene items, blankets, candles, and other essentials.”

Here is the complete press release.