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. 

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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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Holy Land journey: Challenges for the church in Lebanon

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 THREE: Jan. 7, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Today was planned to be focused on learning more about the life of the Catholic Church in Lebanon as well as the place of interfaith dialogue in this land so rich with diverse expressions of faith.

* * *

We left rather early for Harissa to meet with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. Traffic in Beirut is not unlike traffic in Tucson or most cities, a nightmare. Congested streets coupled with very aggressive drivers make for quite an adventure. Horns bark as cars cut in and out seeking to get an inch up on another car in order to turn into a lane or make a U-turn from anywhere at any time. We had an experienced driver who seemed to delight in the battle. Honk and move is the strategy. Pedestrians beware.

The nunciature was moved during the war from central Beirut to Harissa, which is located outside the city in the suburban area. We drove along the ever-present turquoise blue sea glimmering in the early morning sun. Mark pointed out to us the Armenian compound as we passed and the Maronite and Greek Orthodox Centers high up on the mountain. Like Tucson, Beirut has its mountains on which many homes and structures have been built. However in the city there is little open space or gardens. The city and its environ are dense with homes and businesses.

We climbed the road leading to the nunciature and entered a beautiful garden space. A religious woman greeted us with a warm welcome in several languages and escorted us in for a brief wait until the nuncio, Archbishop Caccia entered. He is a very young man, new to Lebanon. His family is from Milan and he served in the diplomatic corps in Tanzania and in the Secretariat of State in the Vatican before being named to this challenging and complex responsibility. He was ordained by Pope Benedict XVI as archbishop in September and arrived in Beirut in October.

The group with Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. (Photo courtesy Bishop Kicanas)

He said — at times depending on whom he is talking to — that he tells people he has only been in Beirut for a very short time, just a few months, and, at other times, that he has been here a year since he arrived in Beirut in 2009 and it is now 2010.

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Holy Land journey: A full day seeing the needs of Lebanon

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 TWO: Jan. 6, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The day began with a hearty breakfast which readied us for what was an informative, engaging, moving and powerful day.

* * *

It began with a visit to the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, begun in 1994 to respond to a few Sudanese refugees who faced tough conditions and needed special care. A life-size picture of Mother Teresa greets you on the wall as you enter the office.

Women read and watch TV at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center in Beirut in 2008. (CNS/Norbert Schiller)

It means so much to see the church aligned with the poor and the marginalized. Caritas Lebanon and Catholic Relief Services work hard to be present to those struggling and in need of support to assist and to empower them. I feel that same pride with programs in our diocese like Dioceses Without Borders, a cross-border effort to link the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, Mexico, and the dioceses of Tucson and Phoenix in addressing the needs of our community, and the Kino Border Initiative in Ambos Nogales, a Jesuit-born initiative which is serving migrants crossing into the United States and those sent back across the border. This concern for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is what the church should be about.

In Lebanon, the Migrant Center reaches out to serve people, mostly women, from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sudan, Somalia, Madagascar, Bangladesh, Iraq and, of course, the Palestinian territories. When Caritas Lebanon first got involved it had only one office and three people being served. This year there are 10 offices serving 110 people. They also serve a detention center with 500 people housed in a former garage, a bleak place where people struggle to retain their human dignity.

In this file photo from 2008, Hussein and Samina Khafagi share a snack of grapes with their four children in their small apartment in Beirut. They were receiving assistance from the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, which is funded by Catholic Relief Services. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Migrant workers in Lebanon, as in other countries, can be subject to exploitation. They are brought to the country by agencies to serve mostly as domestic workers. They are taken advantage of by these agencies and, at times, they can be physically and sexually abused by their employers or their families. They have no rights and are living a kind of slavery. The Migrant Center provides legal assistance, social counseling, medical aid, and they are working to formulate a unified contract that would protect worker rights. They have begun an advocacy program to raise awareness in Lebanon of these abuses. A sign on the wall in the office shows kitchen utensils surrounded by the words that read, “Would you tolerate someone hitting you or mistreating you?”

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Holy Land journey: Back in my grandparents’ homeland

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas (below) of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is in Lebanon, his ancestral homeland. The trip will also take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories for 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 ONE: Jan. 5, 2010

BEIRUT, Lebanon — I arrived in Beirut at night. I flew over the pitch black Mediterranean Sea on Middle East Airlines to see the lights of the city glittering in the night. I felt excited to be back a second time some 40 years later in the land my grandparents spoke about, whose food I grew up enjoying, and where my roots lie. I hope to learn more about this land which has faced so many heart-breaking struggles and keeps bouncing back proudly.

Steve Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. bishops’ conference, and William O’Keefe, senior director for advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, are accompanying me. They have visited this country before and know well its challenges.

Samir, a young man born in Lebanon who works as a driver for CRS, greeted me with the words, “Welcome home, Sayeedna (Bishop).” It felt so good.

Being late we drove right to the hotel where I met Mark Schnellbaecher, regional director of CRS, and Melinda Burell, country director for CRS, who planned our itinerary. We enjoyed a late evening meal of Arabic food at a lovely restaurant quite close to the hotel. Hummus, baba ghanouj, good Lebanese bread, grape leaves and lots of olives adorned the table. Mark and Mindy spoke of our next-day activities, which would start at 9:00 a.m. and end around 10:00 p.m. non-stop. I collapsed that night hoping jet lag would not menace my sleep.

Robbery of home of Near East Council of Churches Gaza official nothing more than a normal crime

Never let it be said that Judith Sudilovsky, Middle East correspondent for Catholic News Service, is asleep at the wheel.

She has been reporting for us for many years and hardly any news of significance escapes her careful watch. So when she learned that robbers invaded the home of  Constantine Dabbagh, executive director of the Near East Council of Churches, July 23, she was on the story in a flash. She wondered: Could he have been targeted because he’s Christian?

Sudilovsky got to the bottom of the story quickly and accurately. Here’s her report:

The robbery in his Gaza home could have happened anywhere, said Near East Council of Churches Gaza executive director Constantine Dabbagh, a day after three masked but unarmed men broke into his home and took money, jewelry and his car, leaving his four-room apartment in an upheaval.

Dabbagh was quick to dispel the notion that the robbery was an anti-Christian attack.

“It’s something that happens everywhere and yesterday I was a victim. My name could be Mahmoud or Cohen, it would have been the same thing,” said Dabbagh in a July 24 phone conversation with Catholic News Service.

“It had nothing to do with the fact that I was Christian. They were only interested in taking the money and jewelry and car.”

A day after the attack Dabbagh could even joke about the incident.

“Their questions were very unpolitical and very unreligious. They just asked where the gold and money was,” he said wryly.

The attackers forced their way into his home as he was leaving for work, he said, and handcuffed him and his wife and hit him once as they ransacked the apartment. The police responded quickly after he reported the crime, he said, and indeed found his dismantled car within 24 hours.

Dabbagh has heard of several instances of robberies in Gaza in the past few weeks. Most such robberies are carried out by one person and normally take place when the homeowners are away, he explained.

The fact that there were three robbers who carried out the attack in broad daylight has riled Gazans and the attack is the talk of the street now, Dabbagh said. People are furious, he said.

Still, he added, he can’t gauge whether these robberies are an indication of growing lawlessness in Gaza or just the result of “normal” crime as there is in every other society.

“In any place where this is unemployment and a continuing siege, you may expect to have more crime,” he said.