From Gaza, pain and weariness in the voice of a pastor

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — I have not been able to reach Father Jorge Hernandez, the Argentine priest of Gaza’s Holy Family Parish, for some days now. In the morning yesterday I spoke with one of the Sisters of Mercy who have moved in with the priest together with the severally disabled children they look after. She told me they were fine, caring for the children and since it is the sisters’ policy not to give interviews to the press, she suggested I try to call Father Hernandez in the afternoon for more details about their situation.

Father Jorge Hernandez, a member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, celebrates Mass at the Gaza parish in 2011.  (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Father Jorge Hernandez, a member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, celebrates Mass at the Gaza parish in 2011. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

But when my call went through to his cell phone today — a phone call into the heart of war — I could hear the deep pain and weariness in his voice, something I had not heard in our previous conversations at the start of the fighting.

This afternoon, following the worst of the fighting in Gaza, Father Hernandez was apologetic to me. He could not answer my call, he said. There had been bombings near the parish church, he said, and he needed to attend to the people.

Hopes for a calm Eid al-Fitr holiday July 28 were shattered in the afternoon by heavy Israeli shelling that left 30 people dead, including 10 people — eight of whom were children from the Abu Shafaka and al-Mukdad families — in a park in the Al-Shati refugee camp and others at the Shifa Hospital.

The Israel Defense Forces denied responsibility for the attacks on the park and hospital, blaming them on misfired missiles from the Islamic Jihad, a claim Palestinians deny.

That same evening a number of armed Palestinians infiltrated into Israel through one of the tunnels the IDF says has been the target of their mission to destroy and a firefight ensued, killing one of the gunmen and wounding several of the soldiers. Israeli residents of the nearby communities were told to remain home and roads closed as soldiers searched the area to make sure no armed gunman remained in Israeli territory. A barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas into Israel reached all the way up the coast to the northern city of Haifa.

The more personal side of a patriarch

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered first among equals of all Orthodox patriarchs, arrived in the Holy Land May 23. As he was waiting for his historic visit with Pope Francis, the patriarch visited Bethlehem, West Bank, and led a service at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Several U.S. Catholic journalists traveling with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism got a more personal glimpse of the patriarch, as described by John Feister, editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stops to bless a baby as he leaves his hotel for his May 25 meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem. (CNS/Julie Holthaus/The Leaven)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stops to bless a baby as he leaves his hotel for his May 25 meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem. (CNS/Julie Holthaus/The Leaven)

“One of the interesting moments yesterday happened in the hotel lobby before the Holy Sepulcher meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew,” he wrote.

“We were waiting for our journalist group to assemble and couldn’t help but notice a small group of Eastern Orthodox clergy, along with some camera-laden laypeople. A videographer was waiting, camera in hand, on a nearby chair, not far from the elevators. Something was about to happen.

“The folks with the cameras were American visitors; the priests were part of Patriarch Bartholomew’s party. The elevator doors opened, Patriarch Bartholomew emerged and headed for his waiting caravan, along with American Archbishop Demetrios.

“As Patriarch Bartholomew was whisked through the lobby, he spotted a mother, with two babies in a stroller, coming in the doorway. He split with his group, went over to talk with the mother, and blessed her babies. Then he raced off for the event with Pope Francis. He would drive a few blocks from the hotel to the Sepulcher; the Holy Father was on his way from Tel Aviv by helicopter.

“I ran into the woman a few moments later. ‘What a thrill!’ she exclaimed she headed down the hallway.”

Heads up: Don’t read this blog if you’re hungry

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When Casa Nova head Chef Elias Akroush, 33, learned that Pope Francis would be lunching with five Palestinian families at the pilgrim guesthouse where he directs the kitchen, he knew he would turn to his best friend, pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, to help him with the dessert.

Both men are Catholic, and while this is the first time Akroush will serve a pope, Kortiatis also prepared a desert for St. John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The two friends started working together May 24 to prepare the meal that will feed 70 people and fit the customary request of the pope: that the food be simple and representative of the local cuisine.

Akroush said he wanted to make a special meal for “the best pope,” with fresh local produce highlighting the areas’ herbs and cheeses.

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

The two men finalized the menu two weeks ago: a first course of cracked wheat patties stuffed with cheese and herbs, a farmer’s salad of tomatoes, onions, the traditional za’atar herb spice blend, olive oil, and figs stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, almonds and walnuts. A date sauce will be served on the side.

The second course will consist of penne pasta with a tomato sauce as per the pope’s request, then Akroush will serve the Argentine pope a beef fillet with grilled vegetables and herbs and a baked potato.

“This is all that we farm in Palestine,” he said. “I am not afraid of serving him meat. I know he is very humble.”

Dessert will be homemade baklava rolls prepared by Korfiatis with crisp filo dough stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon, rosewater, sugar and honey, then soaked in a special syrup of water, honey and lemon. On the side there will be three different flavors of his friend’s homemade Italian gelato ice creams: chocolate, pure milk, and a special pistachio flavor Akroush developed with a master ice cream maker from Italy.

“For me it is a big honor to make the dessert plate for Pope Francis,” Korfiatis said. “It is a very unique day for a cook, and it is a very unique person visiting us.”

Korfiatis said he hoped he would have the chance to shake the pontiff’s hand.

Akroush said he was not nervous preparing the meal. The only difficulty, he said, was having to keep things simple.

“Everything is under control. Though it will be difficult, it will be done with love and pleasure. It is a way for the pope to know how much we care for him and how much we love him,” said Akroush.

Survey: Christians would leave Holy Land’s cities

By Judith Sudilovsky

BEIT JALLA, West Bank — Nearly two-thirds of Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem said in a survey that they would emigrate if given a chance, Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella found.

Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said he was shocked that 62 percent of Christians indicated they would like to leave.

A similar survey in 2007 reported that only 26 percent of respondents said they wanted to exit the area.

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Respondents cited a lack of employment as the primary reason for wanting to leave. Christians also identified the region’s difficult political situation, steep economic challenges, restrictions under Israel laws, measures that affect opportunities for a normal life, lack of quality education and lack of housing as other factors involved in their desire to leave, according to the survey.

“One problem Christian Palestinians always come back to is the absence of a political solution. It is clear the overwhelming majority of Christian Palestinians think the lack of advancement is a problem,” said Sabella, who presented the results at a press conference on May 16 in Beit Jalla.

He noted that as a community Christian Palestinians are committed to their faith and see it as part of their identity; 46 percent regularly attend Sunday Mass.

“Sunday Mass is a major event for most Christian families. It helps their identity and recreates the traditions of faith we have inherited from our forefathers,” he said.

Regarding the pope’s May 24-26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land May, 48 percent said they expected the pope’s visit to lead to improvement in interfaith relations with an additional 26 percent hoping it would lead to unity across denominations and Christian churches. At the same time, 47 percent do not expect the visit to have any influence on the region’s political situation.

Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, said there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem prior to Israel’s independence in 1948. The number has fallen to 8,000 today.

Tight security, traffic jams concern Israelis, Palestinians

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Pope Francis’ Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem will be the only opportunity for local faithful to participate in the papal visit.

Pilgrims filled Manger Square for Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 13, 2009. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Pilgrims filled Manger Square for Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 13, 2009. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

While there is room for about 9,000 people in the square, locals are wondering about the need for tickets to attend the Mass.

Despite the complaints, Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jalla and a spokesman for the pope’s visit, said tickets are necessary to maintain order.

The precious tickets have been distributed throughout different geographical areas, including about 1,000 in Galilee, where both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI celebrated large-scale Masses. Church officials also requested permits for about 600 Christian families from Gaza to attend.

One of the families from Gaza will be lucky enough to lunch with Pope Francis after the liturgy. Another will be present at the Presidential Palace during a courtesy visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Of note is that the Gaza parish has a unique connection with the pope: both Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor, and one of the sisters serving the parish are from Argentina.

Palestinian Christians also will be faced with what they called a “possible curfew” in Jerusalem during the pope’s visit. Some have sent a letter voicing their concerns to Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, papal nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

The Vatican’s Fides news agency reported that some members of St. Savior Parish in the Old City of Jerusalem wrote to the nuncio opposing any steps that would prevent them from greeting Pope Francis in the streets.

“We see attempts by the Israeli occupation to impose a curfew on the streets, including the Christian Quarter, during the visit,” the letter said, according to Fides. “The curfew is yet another attempt by the occupying power to deny our existence. It is unacceptable for the pope to pass along the narrow streets of the Christian Quarter, yet find it devoid of any signs of life and the faithful. As local church communities we are the hosts of the Holy Fathers in our city. We do not want to be excluded from a historic religious event, and want to offer our good will and cooperation towards the visit’s success.”

Some Jewish residents of Jerusalem have been grousing about the expected traffic jams and travel delays they will encounter when the pope arrives. As has become his custom, Pope Francis has requested not to travel in a security vehicle but rather in a simple car.

Israeli police have said that security precautions will be tight during the visit.

 

In their words: Hopes for Pope Francis’ Holy Land visit

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis has emphasized that the main purpose of his May 24-26 visit to the Holy Land is ecumenical, but many in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories are hoping he will use his diplomatic savvy to make some strong political statements. Here, in their own words, are what some people are hoping for:

A Syrian refugee in Jordan uses are to help process memories. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A Syrian refugee in Jordan uses art to help process memories. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“We hope he will say a word of faith to the Christians, that he will address us with his words to encourage us like his pope predecessors. The second word (we hope to hear) is of justice and peace, addressing the political situation. We are waiting for a word of justice for Israel and Palestinians alike, and then we will pray as well. He will make out of this wish a prayer for all, Jews, Christians, Muslim and Druze and all who live in the Holy Land so this Holy Land will truly become the Holy Land, a land of holiness, of security and peace and reconciliation to all those who live here.” — Jerusalem’s retired Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah

“Everything is political here. We would like for the pope, who is also a high political figure, to use his diplomatic capacity in a situation when the peace process is almost completely halted … so that world governments will respect international law which should be … a point of reference for the process.” — Hind Khoury, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center executive board member and former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem affairs

“All Palestinians are waiting to welcome the pope. We need a message of justice, of peace of encouragement of hope for the future. We are living in a difficult situation politically with nothing going on but (Israeli) settlements, and with no near perspectives for peace. … We need … the pope is to strengthen us and to encourage us.” — Father Jamal Khader, Beit Jalla seminary rector, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

“We hope the pope will bring peace and stability to our troubled region. We long to see Syria return to normal. We Christians want to find encouragement from the Holy Father being in our midst.” — Abu Reda, Syrian businessman from Damascus living in Jordan

- – -

Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak in Al-Um-Kundun, Jordan.

19th-century frescos uncovered in Jerusalem Catholic hospital

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem revealed 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader-inspired art. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem led hospital administrators to discover 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader era- inspired images. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Riding on the wave of interest of all things Catholic prior to Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, the Israel Antiquities Authority invited journalists to take a peek at a series of fascinating 19th-century frescos depicting the city’s Crusader history discovered at the St. Louis French Hospital.

The hospital is located next to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center where the pope will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Normally the hospital does not allow journalists to walk around its halls in order to protect the privacy of patients.

The frescos were discovered in the course of reorganizing  a storeroom. In addition, a water pipe had burst in the building earlier, loosening the modern plaster and paint on a wall revealing 19th-century paintings.

“When we got everything out we saw this beauty-filled room. We are blessed to be in a place like this, so full of history. We have to maintain it for the people who come after us even if we don’t have money to fully restore it,” said hospital director Sister Monika Dullman as she showed a journalist around.

She noted that even though the narrow doorways of the hospital are sometimes unsuited for wheelchairs and hospital beds, it is unthinkable to widen them because it would mean destroying some of the paintings.

In the wake of the discovery, conservators with the Israeli Antiquities Authority assisted the sisters in cleaning and stabilizing some of the paintings. The conservators told the sisters the paintings are in the style characteristic of monumental church decorations of the 19th century, with close attention to small details and motifs from the world of medieval art.

The building itself is a two-story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque style, and is named for St. Louis IX, king of France and leader of the seventh crusade (1248-1254). The hospital it houses was founded by French Count Comte Marie Paul Amedee de Piellat, a Catholic who visited Jerusalem many times in the second half of the 19th century.

De Piellat built the hospital between 1879 and 1896. He considered himself to be a descendant of the Crusaders. He chose to build the hospital at the historic area where the army of the Norman King Tancred camped before brutally breaching Jerusalem’s walls with his allies.

Also an artist, de Piellat decorated the walls and ceiling of the hospital with large paintings portraying Crusader knights in their armor and brandishing swords alongside the heraldry symbols of the French knights’ families. He added the symbols of the Crusader cities, symbols, military orders and monastic orders.

The count later went on to build the Notre Dame Center as a hostel for Christian pilgrims.

When the Turks took over the building during World War I, they covered the frescos with black paint. At the end of the war the count returned to the hospital and devoted the rest of his life to removing the black paint. He died in the hospital in 1925.

Hospital administrators said they have no intention of turning the facility into a tourist attraction, preferring that the “humble and quiet sacred work” of caring for the sick continue undisturbed.

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