By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series
DAY SEVEN: Jan. 11, 2010
JERUSALEM — The formal work of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences with the Church in the Holy Land began today. It includes Bishop William Kenney, auxiliary bishop of Birmingham, England, and coordinator of the group; Bishop Peter Burcher from the Nordic bishops’ conference; Bishop Stephan Ackermann, president of the German bishops’ conference; Bishop Joan-Enric Vives of Urgell (Spain and Andorra), representing the Spanish bishops’ conference; Bishop Riccardo Fontana of the Italian conference; Bishop Pierre Morissette, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference; and a number of staff and media people from the various conferences of bishops.
The purpose of the coordination is to encourage prayer and pilgrimages for the Holy Land as well as persuasion to bring peace to the land and to encourage projects to help in the Holy Land. (continue below)
(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.)
This year’s theme is focused on Jerusalem and the concerns that have arisen which affect the church and Palestinians as well as all in this holy and important city.
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The program began with presentations by His Beatitude Fouad Twal, appointed the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem in 2008, and Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio to Israel, in order to explain the state of the situation in 2010.
Patriarch Twal spoke of the hopes and concerns of 2009. First among the hopeful moments was the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. In his parting words the Holy Father reassured the people that he had come to this land as a friend of Israelis and a friend of the Palestinians. Friends, he reminded them, enjoy being in one another’s company. As a friend the pope reflected on how he is bothered by the continuing tensions. He weeps at the continued bloodshed and suffering. The pope appealed for “no more bloodshed, no more fighting, no more terrorism, no more war.” We can all hope that the pope’s words become realized.
The pope’s visit culminated in the calling of a synod for the Middle East for which the patriarch has many hopes.
The patriarch also reflected upon the vitality of the church here in the Holy Land and the need to give Christians assurances and reasons to stay in their land.
Among the concerns he identified were the emigration of Christians, the war in Gaza, the wall and the continuing tension, the settlements, and the struggles in Jerusalem. These ongoing concerns will need continued attention and effort in 2010.
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Archbishop Franco spoke of the complex and delicate negotiations happening with the Israeli government around the identification of holy places and taxation.
In identifying and agreeing upon the designation of holy places in Israel there has been much discussion. The Holy See distinguishes holy sites in Israel and those in East Jerusalem. There has been agreement on six sites in Israel that can be designated holy places, including the Basilica of the Annunciation, Tabgha, Mount of Beatitudes, Capharnaum, Tabor, and Gethsemane. There is much discussion about whether these holy places only includes the worship site or also the surrounding area. The designation of a holy place is important in terms of the government’s right to use the property for whatever purpose. This negotiation continues.
The second concern is around taxation. The Fundamental Agreement, Article 10, Paragraph 2, says that “… meanwhile nothing should change.” The church is asking that until a final agreement can be reached around taxation that “nothing change.” The church continues its deliberations with the authorities of Israel to reach a consensus. This has not yet occurred.
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Todd Deatherage, director of the Kairos Project, made a presentation to the assembly. The Kairos Project is a Washington, D.C., based project dedicated to educate faith-based leadership on the situation in the Holy Land and to engage the Christian community in efforts to realize peace.
He emphasized again the fact that this situation has regional implications and pressures. The resolution calls for an international solution.
Sixty-two years after the founding of the State of Israel and 43 years since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, tensions still continue and even mount.
He made some painful observations. There are 4 million refugees. There have been 784 deaths to suicide bombers. It is estimated that 1,110 people in Gaza died. Thirteen people in Siderot were killed by rocket fire. Clearly many have suffered. Many human beings have died. When will we find a solution that will bring peace? The human tragedy has been immense.
While there are glimpses of hope, he suggested, it appears the situation is on a downward spiral. The settlements are making a two-state solution less possible. There are increasing settlements in East Jerusalem even with the freeze on settlements on the West Bank. There are divisions among the Palestinians (Fatah and Hamas). Gaza’s situation continues to worsen. There are many reasons to be pessimistic.
He suggested that what might help would be more opportunities for Palestinians and Israelis to interact with one another. This has become almost impossible with the wall.
The international community needs to step forward. He said, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” The international community cannot just sit back and not help these two parties to reconcile. Many efforts are already underway.
He encouraged the participants to help educate our people to the situation. There is much misunderstanding. He hopes we would encourage people to come to the Holy Land to see firsthand what is happening. It is important to help Americans understand that one can be pro-Israeli as well as pro-Palestinian as well as pro-peace.
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Later in the day there was a presentation by the Coordinating Catholic Aid Organization. This included comments by representatives from Caritas, Pontifical Mission of the Catholic Near East Society, the German Association for the Holy Land, the Society of St. Yves, which provides legal aid to Palestinians, and our own Matt Davis representing Catholic Relief Services.
Much help is available but the problems are immense. Just in commenting on the protecting of the human rights of Palestinians, the Society of St. Yves deals with issues of family unification (a man from Jerusalem who marries a woman from the West Bank has to petition to have her live in Jerusalem and, if given, she cannot drive or get a job but only live in Jerusalem), housing demolition, land confiscation, and freedom-of-movement permissions.
The group mentioned that there are now 45,000 Christians in the West Bank out of a population of 1.2 million and another 3,000 Christians in Gaza. Care must be shown the Christians so these numbers do not diminish even more. They need opportunities. The occupation needs to end.
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The final presentation of the day included observations by the consul generals of Germany and France. Both painted a cautious if not pessimistic assessment of the situation. This was based on the increasing settlements in East Jerusalem, the division among Palestinians, and the deepening crisis in Gaza.
Again there was a call for people to come together, for both Israelis and Palestinians to acknowledge what happened historically and to approach each other with mutual respect. Unless this can happen a resolution of the situation seems less and less likely.
I felt almost paralyzed by the complexity of the situation and the growing pessimism that anything can change. Yet as people of faith we approach our world not as naïve optimists but as people of hope that trust that our God in whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe can lead us to a way of peace.