Letter from Jerusalem: Staying safe in an all-out war

JERUSALEM — “Please don’t go down south. It is not safe there,” my friend in Gaza urged me when I called him to say I would be joining an organized press tour of the Israeli border with Gaza.

The irony of his words was not lost on me.


Journalists touring southern Israel crowd into Masudi Dayan's house a day after it was shelled. (Judith Sudilovsky)

For 11 days he and his family have sat in their home in the midst of an all-out war trying to keep safe from Israeli shelling. My mild-mannered friend has gone from Internet surfing and listening to music to learning how to huddle away from the shooting and bombs outside his windows.

Once again it seems that the whole world of international journalism has descended upon Israel. Right now, though, the only images coming out of Gaza are from local Palestinian journalists and the Israeli Defense Force photographers.

Even the big names can’t get inside Gaza. Israel has kept foreign press out of the Gaza Strip since even before its military incursion despite a Supreme Court order that it allow small groups of journalists in whenever the crossing is open for humanitarian aid. So the closest the media can get to Gaza right now is on Israel’s southern border.

Private Israeli groups have taken the situation in hand, providing briefings, press tours of southern communities and meetings with local residents who have been affected for eight years by the shelling from the militant group Hamas from Gaza. I decided to experience one of these tours for myself.

At Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Dr. Ron Lobel told us how in normal times the hospital receives some 10 Gazan patients a day for treatment. Some Gaza patients still remain at the hospital, unable to return to their homes, not knowing if they have home to return to.

Manal Shaheen, who had come with her infant son to the hospital weeks ago, was in the labor ward waiting to give birth to her fifth child as the bus load of journalists crowded around her. Along with another female journalist, I decided to remain behind in the waiting room for this particular interview, but a French-Moroccan journalist reported back that Shaheen broke into tears when asked in Arabic about the situation in Gaza. Her husband could not find food for the children, she said, and many of her neighbors had been killed in the fighting.

In the southernmost Israeli town of Sderot we had to duck into the safety of the police station corridor when the Red Alert early warning signal sounded in the middle of a briefing by Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, alerting the town to incoming missiles. Three missiles rained down on the town.

A day earlier a similar rocket had landed on the home of 76-year-old Masudi Dayan. She was slightly injured but her home was destroyed.

Two Qassam rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel are displayed for journalists after they fell in the town of Sderot. (Judith Sudilovsky)

The remains of two Qassam rockets fired by Hamas into southern Israel are displayed for journalists after the rockets fell in the town of Sderot. (Judith Sudilovsky)

Around town, journalists were camped out with folding picnic chairs, cups of coffee and satellite setups at almost every corner. Some journalists were reverting to trading off interviews with each other for lack of anything better to do.

I was only able to reach my friend again this morning. He told me things had been a bit calmer for them overnight — he had ventured out safely to buy some food and water for the family.

Lent is just around the corner

With the Christmas season almost over, it’s time to start thinking about Lent. Yes, time flies.

Let the stars shine!


This nebula, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, is about 170,000 light-years away and represents a dazzling region of celestial birth and renewal. (CNS/NASA, ESA, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has obviously started out with a big bang — even here in the Vatican.

You can read here some of the events the Vatican has planned for the yearlong, star-studded celebrations.

Vatican astronomer U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno has already published his first post for the Cosmic Diary — in which more than 50 scientists from around the world detail what it’s like to be an astronomer.

In case you missed it, you should also read Brother Guy’s fascinating posts he wrote for the CNS Bible Blog back in October. There are five posts: God’s omnipotence, In the stars we see God, Aliens!, Stars are not to be worshipped, and A tragic world without stars.

Pope Benedict XVI has also been promoting a greater appreciation of the heavens. He gave an early greeting in December to all those participating in the Year of Astronomy and highlighted how the church and many of his predecessors embraced celestial studies.

The pope’s homily on the feast of the Epiphany was, in part, a homage to the world’s astronomers.

He said he saw signs of there being “a new flowering” of Christianity’s special view of the cosmos thanks to the many scientists of faith who, “following in the footsteps of Galileo, do not renounce reason or faith,” but understand the two mutually enrich each other.

Many in the church are hoping the pope’s pronouncements supporting Galileo and the Vatican’s participation in the Year of Astronomy (which marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations of the cosmos with a telescope) will help dispel the nagging myths that the church is hostile to science or still holds a grudge against the 17th-century Italian astronomer.


The Whirlpool galaxy and the Companion galaxy are seen in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. (CNS/NASA)

I recently asked Brother Guy for his thoughts about the lingering misconceptions. In an email, he said the Galileo affair is “too murky and too complicated to ever be explained easily.”

He also thinks no one speech or event can overturn these well- entrenched misunderstandings.

However, he finds astronomers tend to be more open to the role of religion and faith. One reason, he said, may be because gazing skyward often inspires people to ponder the big questions, such as who made the universe and why we are here.

Another is the active presence of Vatican scientists in the field. They work alongside other top-notch astronomers, are well-respected, and “give encouragement to those astronomers who practice a religion, while breaking down prejudices among those who do not,” Brother Guy said.

“Benjamin Button” pro-life and pro-death, but in a good way?

I’ve been catching up on movies lately.

Mostly I’ve been renting films that I missed last year (“The Visitor,” “Dark Knight,” “In the Valley of Elah” — all definitely worth the rental, though a bit depressing to watch in close sequence). In theaters, I appreciated “Frost/Nixon” for the entertaining back story on the first political scandal I followed in the news, and I am anxious for more friends to see “Doubt” to be able to discuss it.

So I was interested in this take on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” that I saw in the Catholic New World, the Chicago archdiocesan newspaper, by Sister Helena Burns, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a pro-death movie. Let me explain. We’re all terminal. We’re all dying. And “CCBB” says that’s OK. Death isn’t glorified or dressed up pretty (because, as one of the Fathers of the Church said, “death is a cosmic obscenity”). Death is just is what it is, a member of the human family. Not banished, not locked up, not thrown in the river. Death has its place at the table of life and is mentioned, talked of, thought of, expected, accepted.

“CCBB” is also a pro-life fairy tale. The characters are in each other’s keep. They take care of each other whether they’re white or black, young or old, healthy or deformed. Irregular babies and messy old people all belong and are loved by someone.

She goes on to flesh out those points, making the film sound like I’ll move it from “maybe” to the “must see” list.

Order of Canada medal: high honor that not all accept

Two Canadian nuns who work in health care and the pro-life founder of Canada’s Reform Party were among people honored last month with the Order of Canada medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The Western Catholic Reporter in Edmonton, Alberta, has the story reporting that the two nuns accepted the award despite the recent controversy over the medal after abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler was named a recipient last July. Several recipients, including Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, returned their awards in protest.