Holy Land journey: Struggling to find the way to peace

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY SIX: Jan. 10, 2010

JERUSALEM — Steve, Bill, and I, along with Tracy McClure of Vatican Radio, Marwin Mazur of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and Father Paul Lansu of Pax Christi International, left early to drive to Jibna near Ramallah on the West Bank to celebrate Mass with the Christian community there. We had hoped to celebrate Mass in Gaza but we were not given permission to travel there.

Father Firas Aridah, a Jordanian, is the pastor of the community in Jibna called St. Joseph. He has been there a little over a year. Steve Colecchi knew him when he served as pastor of Aboud.

Father Firas Aridah gives Communion to Palestinian Catholics during Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Parish in Aboud, West Bank, in this 2007 file photo. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

He is a vibrant, energetic, passionate person who from first meeting shows a deep love of his people and a desire to speak up for them when necessary. When in Aboud he came to the United States to testify before the Congress on the building of the security wall around Aboud. He remembered the challenges he faced and the frustration of not being able to curtail the building of the wall.

The town of Jibna is about 50 percent Christian and 50 percent Muslim. The parish has a school up to sixth grade which serves Christians and Muslims alike. (continue below)

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(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is on a trip to Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend an international meeting of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He has agreed to be a guest blogger for us during the trip.)

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Bishop Kicanas during Mass Jan. 10 in Jibna, West Bank. (Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Many came for the 10 a.m. Mass, which I celebrated along with Father Lansu and Father Firas. Again I wish I had learned Arabic, but Father Firas translated what I had to say as well as to offer some of the Mass in Arabic.

It was the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, a fitting day to remind the people of the dignity they have as daughters and sons of God which no one can take from them. Likewise this feast assures us of God’s promise to be with us always even in moments of suffering and oppression.

I was impressed by how well the people sang. Active participation is alive and well in Jibna.

After Mass we gathered in the hall for a chance to meet and share some coffee and refreshments. People seemed genuinely pleased to welcome us and we were honored to share this time with them. (Editor’s Note: Click here for a photo gallery courtesy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.)

After the reception Father Firas gave us a slide presentation on the situation in Israel/Palestine reflecting on the building of the wall, access roads, and the confiscation of lands on the West Bank. He commented that only 54.5 percent of the land in the West Bank is now being used by Palestinians, even though it is Palestinian land. Nine percent of the West Bank was used for the wall, 8 percent for settlements, and 28.5 percent for Jordan Valley settlements. 

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Msgr. Manuel Musallam is shown in a 2006 photo. (CNS/Marylynn G. Hewitt, Michigan Catholic)

We went to visit Msgr. Manuel Musallam, who served in Gaza as pastor for many years. He is now living with his sister in Bir Zeit near Jibna. He was pastor of Gaza during the most recent war. He, too, is a priest with passion who holds your attention by the force of his conviction.

He reminded us that the way to peace is justice, charity, and development, not force or humiliation. He commented that the making of peace happens between people, not just leaders. There is a need to create opportunities for Jews and Palestinians to have contact and come to know each other as persons. With the restrictions that governments place on people, such engagement is almost impossible, although it happens at some times.

He expressed his frustration and embarrassment that in the past there was an occasion when the apostolic delegate to the area representing the Holy Father was not allowed into Gaza. He was upset our delegation was not able to secure permission to enter. He indicated his confusion why religious people seeking to pray with people cannot be allowed to enter Gaza.

He lamented the division among the Palestinian people into Fatah and Hamas, the two political parties that have even fought one another. He felt that Yasser Arafat was the compass for the people but that they have not yet found a leader that can draw them together.

He became even more intense talking about the one and a half million people now in Gaza who are closed in by the blockade from Israel and Egypt. They have no life. They are treated as less than human.

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Before we left we drove through the Palestinian camp at El Jalazun, where there are 14,000 Palestinian Muslims now living right in the midst of Jibna. They have more freedom than in other countries. There is no wall around the camp and they can come and go. But they must remain in the camp if they want to keep their refugee status. They were drawn there by the many conflicts during which they lost their homes and were displaced.

This magnificent city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land still immersed in struggle cries out to the world to help them find a way to peace. That was our prayer at Mass and must be our daily prayer.

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