Holy Land journey: I leave with fears and hope

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY TEN: Jan. 14, 2010

JERUSALEM — The last formal gathering of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land took place this morning. At that session the participating bishops from Europe, Canada, and the United States signed a formal communiqué summarizing this year’s experience. The statement titled “The Courage to Achieve Peace in the Holy Land” reflected what we saw and heard during these days. It expressed the deep concern we felt about the deepening tensions we observed, yet the hope that peace can be achieved if justice for all is realized. (Editor’s Note: Click here for CNS story.)

My episcopal motto, Justice Begets Peace, has come to mean even more after my experience this year. Violence, extremism, oppression, injustices only fuel tension and heighten enmity. The words of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the statement express well the only way to peace, justice for all. My prayer is that Israel and Palestine will heed his wise words spoken as a friend.

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Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem at final news conference. (Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Before leaving for home, I had an opportunity to visit the Catholic Relief Services office in Jerusalem, headed up by Matt Davis.  I have come to hold great respect for the incredible and important work CRS is doing around the world. It makes me proud to see their presence among the poor and their commitment to serve the littlest and weakest among us. They witness what it means to be Catholic.

This witness has become even more striking during the tragic and devastating events that are taking place right now in Haiti. CRS is on the ground providing needed help and support for the countless numbers in Haiti who have been affected by the earthquake.

In a similar way here in the Holy Land, the offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza reach out to those in need. The meeting with the staff further brought home to me the dedication and commitment of CRS personnel, both their international and local staff.

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Holy Land journey: A creative initiative; the sadness of Hebron

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY NINE: Jan. 13, 2010

JERUSALEM — Two experiences highlighted our gatherings today. The first was an opportunity to spend some time with the Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Archbishop Paul N. Sayah. Our conversations covered a wide range of important issues.

One of the valuable and creative initiatives he has taken was a program entitled “Encounter” which he organized with a team of associates that included a rabbi, an Anglican priest and a group of lay people. They invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people to come together both here and in England to dialogue with one another in order to break down stereotypes and come to know one another as people.

Archbishop Sayah cited a study done by the University of Haifa which looked at attitudes of Israeli young people toward Palestinians. The results were striking, although not unexpected. The young people saw Palestinians as threatening and unlikeable. Were one to ask the same questions of Palestinian young people, the answers would probably be quite similar.

These stereotypes only further divide these two peoples and make it so difficult to reconcile. Programs like Encounter can make a world of difference. Some of the young people’s comments after their extensive dialogues and opportunities to participate in conflict management experiences proved that attitudes can change by engagement.

Archbishop Sayah has much wisdom to share about the experiences in the countries where he serves. I learned much. And he treated us to a fabulous Lebanese meal that made us wonder whether we would ever eat again.

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The afternoon was spent in Hebron. This proved to be the most difficult experience of the trip. I remember visiting Hebron many years ago. My recollection was that of a bustling city. I remember the crowds of people around the tombs of the patriarchs which is so central to this town. The city pulsated with life. Stores flourished with business.

Now the central areas of Hebron are like a ghost town. The shops are all closed and shuttered, the streets abandoned. On the walls of the stores are written in Hebrew harsh words toward Arabs. Soldiers with automatic rifles and local Israeli police are everywhere in the section titled H2, where around 35,000 Palestinians live amid four small settlements within Hebron and one on the outskirts. There is one army solder for each settler, about 750 in the town.

The only vehicles we saw in the center of town were military vehicles often accompanying a settler’s car.

An Israeli policeman stops a tour group, including Bishop Kicanas, center, on a street in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Bishop Kicanas was visiting Hebron with members of B'Tselem, a human rights organization operating in Israel and the West Bank. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

While we were walking through this abandoned section, an officer told us we could not be here because we were more than 10 people. We were 11. Our guide asked, “Why?” We were told that is the law. Our guide, who knew the law, questioned the officer further. “It is not against the law, we can be here. We are just walking.”  An argument in Hebrew ensued but in the end, without any reason, we were told to move on. It is frustrating when an authority can make up a law to suit their needs.

The history of Hebron includes tragedies wrought upon the Jews by Arabs and vice versa. Many have suffered on both sides and now a strong military presence separates the two peoples. In some areas of the H2 sector Palestinians are not able to drive but only walk. On other streets they are able to do neither even though they may live along the street.

We visited a Palestinian family that experienced stone throwing as well as an individual settler firing his gun at them. The settlement from which they came is located just above the Palestinian family’s home. This conflict situation was videotaped by a Palestinian. The tape made clear what had happened and who was at fault. Had there been no video of the conflict, the Palestinians could have been blamed.

Such videos of incidences of human rights violations are being taken by a number of trained Palestinians in order to make clear what has taken place and who is at fault. This protects Palestinians who can be blamed for instigating the situation. This video program developed by a Jewish human rights group might help others to learn about the difficult and frightening situation faced by Palestinians, at times, in Hebron.

Bishop Kicanas looks at a camera with a Palestinian boy in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Shops on the street had been closed by order of the Israeli military. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Clearly there are no winners in this situation. Jews have suffered. Palestinians have suffered. Jews feel threatened. Palestinians feel threatened. Jews strike out at Palestinians and Palestinians strike out at Israelis. But all the force in the world will not lead to peace and reconciliation.

For many years Hebron was a model community where Jews and Arabs lived alongside of one another, shared their community together and benefited by one another’s presence. Many Jews fled after the first massacre by Arabs many years ago. The settlers want to recover their lost lands. More recently a number of Arabs were massacred by a Jew. Since then harsh measures have been put in place against Palestinians because the Israelis feared that there would be revenge by the Arabs.

Now the city of Hebron is like a ghost town, a town under siege. The tragedy of the situation torments you. There must be another way for human beings, people of faith as Jews and Muslims can live together.

When we were in the tomb of the patriarchs we saw a number of Jews in prayer while at the same time we could hear the imam announcing the call to prayer. These peoples are peoples of faith. That faith can lead them to reconciliation. That needs to be our prayer. That certainly is our 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.

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.

* * *

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.

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Holy Land journey: Trying to unravel this complex situation

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.

* * *

Archbishop Antonio Franco, Patriarch Fouad Twal, Bishop William Kenney. (Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

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.

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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)


(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.)


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. 

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Holy Land journey: We arrive in Jerusalem

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY FIVE: Jan. 9, 2010

JERUSALEM — Steve Colecchi of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bill O’Keefe of Catholic Relief Services and I left Beirut early to fly to Amman, Jordan, and then from Amman to Tel Aviv. It is complicated because Lebanon does not have relationship with Israel so you cannot fly direct. When we entered Lebanon, each person’s passport is checked for an Israeli stamp which could be at least somewhat problematic. For that reason we had to have two passports in order to travel to Lebanon and then to Israel.

With all the complications, our transit went very smoothly. After long security lines and careful screening, our two flights got us to Tel Aviv, where a CRS driver met us to bring us by car to Jerusalem, about one half hour from Tel Aviv. (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.)


I am always amazed at how much development takes place in Jerusalem from year to year. The countryside on the road up to Jerusalem is marked by more and more major developments. When we arrived in the Holy City we went to the Knights Palace, the pilgrim residence for the Latin Patriarchate, where we will be staying for the week.

We quickly settled in and Bill and I went for a run around Jerusalem. There is always so much to see as one moves from the Arab center in East Jerusalem to the Hasidic Jewish section of Mea Shearim to the developments in West Jerusalem. Being Shabbat, there was little traffic. Many Jews travel to the Wailing Wall on Saturdays and it is a time for prayer and rest. It was good to see so many families walking together or gathering for prayer. This happens, of course, in Arab communities on Fridays for Muslims and on Sundays for Christians. We worship one God. We pray. If only we could be one in peace.

Franciscan Father Garret Edmunds leads a tour group around the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem in this photo from last year. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Jerusalem draws you in by its history, fascinates you with its many sounds, overwhelms you with its diversity. As I wander through the Old City one cannot help but think how much and how little has changed in the generations who have called Jerusalem home. As a city sacred to three faiths, it is a place of pilgrimage that regretfully has known little peace. Still today you see armed soldiers and feel the tensions that can erupt instantaneously.

We enjoyed an evening dinner at Notre Dame, a residence directed by the Legionnaires of Christ where many pilgrims stay. They began a restaurant for pilgrims that served delicious food. Some of the staff of the restaurant have been trained in hospitality service at Bethlehem University, a marvelous university run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers on the West Bank in Bethlehem. George, our waiter for the night, was working for his first night. While nervous, he cared for us well.

It was good to see Matt Davis, Director of CRS in this country, along with Elias, a Palestinian who works with CRS, and Ian, who is assistant director in his first year in this area. They updated us on the work of CRS, especially in Gaza since the war last year and helped us figure out plans for our stay this year.

Holy Land journey: Misdiagnosis of terrorism, and a visit to my roots

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas (right) of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is on a trip to Lebanon, his ancestral homeland, and to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will 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.)

DAY FOUR: Jan. 8, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Yesterday I was able to connect with a Lebanese American family from Tucson who are visiting for the holidays. Ziad Safi and his wife and baby daughter welcomed us into their family home which looked out over the city, a magnificent view. Ziad’s father built the building in which various members of his family now live on different floors. This is very common in Lebanon.

His mother seemed so pleased that her son was home for a while and certainly delighted to see her grandchild. Family is so important to the Lebanese as to many other cultures. His mother has never yet visited in Tucson. I encouraged her to come and visit when that is possible.

As always there was food and drink offered and much time to chat. Almost immediately you get into the situation in the Middle East. It is on everyone’s mind. We discussed the many Christians who have left Lebanon which results from opportunities elsewhere as well as fear of violence and conflict. Despite living elsewhere they like to return to Lebanon. Many families, especially those in the Gulf states, have built large houses in Lebanon where they return from time to time. The challenge is how to encourage the young to stay and use their gifts for their country.

* * *

On Friday Bill (CRS Baltimore), Mindy (CRS Beirut) and I went running in the early morning along the Corniche, a beautiful open space that runs along the Mediterranean Sea. This old man had a hard time keeping up with the two youngsters but there is so much to distract you the run was fun. Groups of men smoking on water pipes along with fishermen with large poles set out into the sea lined the walk.

Many people were out walking or running along the Corniche. It was a delight. You get to see so much doing a run. We passed the place where Rafik Hariri was assassinated. He had a great deal to do with renovating downtown Beirut through Solidaiire, a company he owned. Like the urban renewal in Tucson this development left many hurt feelings as many buildings were taken down for development, a difficult tension.

* * *

Our business day began with a meeting with Rami Khouri, a professor at American University in Beirut. This famous university is one of the jewels of Beirut. It is well known throughout the world and is distinguished in many areas of study. Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

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