Holy Land journey: Glimpses of hope amid the frustration

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY EIGHT: Jan. 12, 2010

JERUSALEM — This is the 10th year of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in the Holy Land. For the first time, representatives from all the Catholic communities in the Holy Land are present for our meeting. This includes the Latin Patriarchate, the Maronite Rite, the Melkite Rite, the Armenian Rite, and all the rites that are in union with the Holy Father.

This morning we began the day by celebrating Mass with the Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, which includes Jerusalem, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. Exarch Paul N. Sayah was the main celebrant of the Mass. He is a fellow runner.  Again the singing at Mass in Arabic was very moving, as we had experienced in Jibna.

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The day began with a presentation by Daniel Seidermann, a lawyer of Jewish ancestry who spoke about the struggle over the Old City in Jerusalem and its historic basin.

(Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

He emphasized that some characterize the struggle in the Holy Land as a conflict about land and territory. But it is much more than that. In fact the Old City is just one kilometer in size but here in this small space three narratives — the Jewish, Muslim and Christian — live all in the same secular space. The struggle is for these three great religions to find a way to live in harmony and peace.

Holy places for the Muslims, Jews, and Christians are physical embodiments of faith and need to be respected by all.

Seidermann is concerned about plans in Israel for Jerusalem that could seriously affect the balance between the faiths and people that exists in this complex city. In addition he reminded us that what happens in Jerusalem can affect the whole region, so it is critical that peace prevail.

He believes that some in Israel intend to establish Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state. The plans for Jerusalem, he asserts, will affect Christian holy places and Palestinian homes and property. The plan is supported by settlers who see this area as sacred to their faith, which it is, but that this planning is being done oblivious of the claims of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. He cited the Mount of Olives as one example.

As I have listened over these past few days, it is clear that everyone has their perspective about which they feel strongly. There are arguments to be made about every position but there is little dialogue between these various narratives that could correct misunderstandings and misperceptions.

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Later in the morning I joined a small group of bishops representing diverse episcopal conferences and the apostolic nuncio to meet with the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Danny Ayalon, former ambassador to the United States.

He received us graciously and we had a chance to discuss a number of important and difficult questions that the church faces in the Holy Land. He was very reassuring that he felt, in a reasonable time, many of these concerns could be addressed.

We emphasized the concern of our conferences that the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Vatican, which has never been legally ratified, would be confirmed soon. It was on the basis of this Fundamental Agreement that the Vatican began diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet the agreement needs to be finalized and ratified. The issues of discussion involve recognition, respect and protection of holy places, protection of land, and taxation.  Each of these difficult issues between the state and church need to be resolved soon. The process has taken far too long.

He expressed confidence that this could happen.

We also discussed the situation in Gaza and the concern of our conferences for the protection and safety of the people there. We explored the question of visas especially to scholars and religious workers who come to the Holy Land to assist the church here. None of these issues lend themselves to easy solutions but prompt solutions are necessary.

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The afternoon was spent at Bethlehem University, where we were graciously received by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, who along with the Vatican began this critically important initiative in 1973. Since that time countless Palestinian students have received their college education and begun to take their place in significant positions in the West Bank and Gaza.

The university has been described as a beacon of hope, and that is exactly what it was for me. After several days of hearing the troubling and ominous views of where the Palestinian/Israeli situation is moving, this experience filled me with hope.

Two professors at the university, Vera Baboun and Raphaela Fischer Mourra, gave moving reflection on what the university has meant to them. Raphaela’ s father, a German, was killed in Beit Jala by the Israeli military while he was attending to the medical needs of a person.  This traumatic event is not unlike what so many Palestinians and Israelis have experienced in losing one of their loved ones in an act of violence.

She came to Bethlehem University “to realize my dreams.” She went to Georgetown University in the United States to study for an advanced degree in journalism and now has returned to teach.  Her story inspires hope.

(Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

We had an opportunity in small groups to talk to some of the Palestinian students. One was studying administration, another, chemistry, and a third, accounting with a minor in business. They began by describing some of the difficult experiences they face. One described how her grandfather in Aboud (a city on the West Bank) had lost his land and olive trees so that settlers could protect their settlement. Another reflected on the frustration of having to seek permission to go from one area of his country to another. One lamented that after all this time, in her 21 years of life, she has never known what it is like to live in peace.

They described how they have little opportunity to interact with Israeli young adults. They see Israeli’s as dangerous. When they go to Jerusalem they feel like strangers. They sense that they are seen as dangerous. They meet young Israelis who are soldiers and sometimes they are treated like animals by these soldiers, as if they are extremists. Yet extremism and terrorism hurts them as well.

They expressed the desire that people would come to Palestine and meet them and see they are not terrorists but people like anyone else who have dreams they want to realize. They want to help their community.

I could only feel how tragic it is that the situation keeps young Israelis and Palestinians from meeting one another as a way of breaking down these stereotypes that keep one another at arm’s length.

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(Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

I also felt a burst of hope in visiting the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jala where young men are studying to serve as priests. It was encouraging to hear them sing, to listen to their desire to serve people, to hear their enthusiasm.

They are being called by the Lord to minister to a suffering people in a struggling land. How needed is the preaching of the Word and the message of hope they will bring.

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At the same time we are in Jerusalem, a group of university leaders from the United States are being hosted by Catholic Relief Services in an effort to explore ways that United States universities can link with universities in Israel and the West Bank to cooperate. We had dinner together this evening and will join them again in Hebron tomorrow. I was impressed to hear their desire to discover ways that they can be an occasion to assist people in the Holy Land to realize their dreams and, perhaps, find ways to bring dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Their visit is an effort to see what could be helpful and they are meeting with administrators, faculty, and students at the Bir Zeit University, Hebrew University,and Bethlehem University and others to explore possibilities, again a sign of hope.

Bishop Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, visited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend an international meeting of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He was a guest blogger for us during the trip.

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