Revolution in Relationships
Perceptions of the Holy Land are often polarized between Biblical stories of 2,000 years ago and the modern media’s reports of violence and conflict. Between these poles are the Israelis and Palestinians of today: Christians, Jews and Muslims, who live here now. Every year the Holy Land Co-ordination, a group of Bishops from Europe and North America come to bear witness and walk in solidarity with the local Church. The Coordination was set up by the Holy See in 1998 and for the past seven years, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has organised the visit, led by Archbishop Patrick Kelly.
The purpose of the visit is to support the Church and Christian communities in the Holy Land: firstly, as they seek never to be silent in the face of injustice and violence, secondly to do this in such a way that they are always faithful to the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth on that hill in Jerusalem called Calvary.
This aim can be summarised by three ‘Ps’: Prayer, pilgrimage and persuasion. Prayer, both from Christians around the world for the Mother Church and from the Mother Church for Christians around the world, underpins this solidarity. Pilgrimage is encouraged not only for Christians to visit the Holy Stones and the Living Stones of this land, but also to help the local economy of the Palestinian Territories, where the security situation and subsequent economic hardship has forced many to leave. Persuasion comes from the determination of Bishops to speak out against the underlying causes of the conflict wherever possible in an attempt to bring about a just peace. And it is important to remember that the suffering is there on both sides.
Fear on one and anger on the other. Part of the bishops’ role is to bridge that divide.
Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the Vatican diplomatic corps on 8 January said of the Middle East:
“In order to put an end to the crisis and to the sufferings it causes among the population, a global approach is needed, which excludes no one from the search for a negotiated settlement, taking into account the legitimate interests and aspirations of the different people involved… The Israelis have a right to live in peace in their State; the Palestinians have a right to a free and sovereign homeland. When each of the peoples in the region sees that its expectations are taken into consideration and thus feels less threatened, then mutual trust will be strengthened.”
This year, the Bishops met with Shimon Peres, the Israeli Vice Premier, and also Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the PLO and President of the PA, to listen to their political vision and also to put forward their hopes for a better future for all. The views of the Bishops are based on their experiences and encounters with many different people during the visit. And it is always important to remember that against the difficult political backdrop, it is the encounters with local people that most mark the Bishops.
This year, the Co-ordination visited Gaza for the first time. The devastation wreaked by the conflict was clear, with destroyed buildings near the security barrier and a population of 1.5 million dependent on foreign aid. Gaza City is the most densely populated area in the world, with few jobs and a high birth rate which has led to a situation where the population is overwhelmingly young. And yet, amid this desperate situation where there is a community of 3,000 Christians, the first encounter with Palestinians in Gaza was a joyful greeting from the pupils of the Holy Family School, run by the energetic and charismatic Fr Manuel Musallam. Singing and dancing, the pupils showed that amid suffering and despair, there is joy and hope.
Another striking feature was the presence of Muslim Sheikhs and Imams who accompanied the delegation throughout our visit to Gaza. This inter-religious element was continued as we journeyed North to the Galilee, where communities of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze live side by side with no need for separation walls and barriers. While problems exist, the beautiful land of the Galilee is reflected by an open Spirit among those who live here. Pastors such as Fr Emile Soufrani, an Arab Melkite (Greek Catholic) priest, have devoted their life to encouraging understanding between the young of all religions. In addition to running a Catholic school in Nazareth of 1,500 pupils, half Christian, half Muslim, he has started an exchange programme where those of all religions can travel to other countries to see how living together is possible. Most famously, and recorded in the book ‘Un Arabe face a Auschwitz’ he took a group of young Jews and Muslims to the concentration camp in Germany to foster greater understanding and awareness between the groups.
As Fr Soufrani told us:
“We are all humans; we are all Israelis here and it is our responsibility to understand each other. There are many who come with their political analysis, but whatever happens politically, we will still live here. The challenge is how to live in Israel as a Christian. It is our responsibility to take the initiative and not merely blame the other. We do not need political analysis; we need pastoral support and vocation.
“The Catholic Church can do something that goes beyond politics. We are not just non-violent; we are pro-peace. The first thing we must do is see the light of God in the other. We need a revolution in relationships and that is where Catholics can show the way. Our vocation has to be reconciliation, in ourselves and, through dialogue, with others.”
With these gifts we travelled down to Jerusalem for the conclusion of the visit. Political encounters with Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Chairman of the PLO and President of the PA Mahmoud Abbas followed, but in accordance with the aims of the Co-ordination political pressure is but a small part of the visit. The media may focus on political solutions, but prayer and pilgrimage remain the bishops’ primary focus.
“Coming on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a blessing for all who come. It is not just about visiting the Holy stones where Jesus was born, undertook his ministry, died and was resurrected, but also meeting the living stones,” said Archbishop Kelly.
This was perhaps best summarized on the last day, before the press conference and flights home, at a mass in the Catholic parish in Ramallah, the town where the Palestinian Authority’s politicians meet. In a moving homily, Archbishop Kelly thanked all we had met while making clear the challenge for all Christians in the Holy Land, in words that echoed Fr Soufrani, the ‘priest of Nazareth’.
‘The difficult part in your position is living out a Christian witness. The challenge is to bear your cross, without anger or revenge. Where there appears to be no hope, there is God. We cannot guarantee a political solution, but we can guarantee that we will walk with you and we are certain that God will say let there be life and light.
“Last Saturday we were met by school children in Gaza who were singing and dancing. This said clearly to us that sorrow, death and sadness will not have the final word.
“Rejoice in the Lord. We go home blessed by all of you. Praise to you for the gifts you have given us.”