11 December 2018
Palestinians and foreign tourists take part in the Santa Run outside the Cremisan Monastery on 7 December in Beit Jala, West Bank. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour depend economically on tourism, but traditionally have struggled with keeping visitors in the area for more than half a day. Although the hotels are fully booked for Christmas this year, that does not necessarily mean it will translate into any business for the locals.
Most large tour and pilgrim groups are bused through the Israeli checkpoint straight to the Church of the Nativity and sometimes to the nearby Milk Grotto or Shepherds Field in Beit Sahour. Then tourists get back on their buses and go to one of a select few souvenir shops to spend their money. If the souvenir hawkers hovering in the area are lucky, they may be able to sell the tourists a few trinkets during their brief stay. But for the most part smaller businesses, including shops and cafes, rarely see any rainfall from visitors.
With the memories of the economic difficulties during the second intifada still fresh in their memories, private residents and the three municipalities are starting initiatives to entice visitors to stop, stroll through the towns, eat a local baklava sweet or take a city tour, much like they would in any other city they visit.
Janneke Stegeman, 38, a German theologian, has been to Bethlehem many times. But this time, arriving during the Christmas season, she took advantage of a two-hour Art Walk tour through the old city of Beit Sahour — one of Bethlehem’s sister towns in the Bethlehem “triangle” — to get to know some of the young artists in the area and hear about the work they are doing.
“For me, coming here as a pilgrim is having a deep connection to the context and people you are visiting,” she told Catholic News Service. “People come to the holy places without realizing where they are and who the people are who are living here.”
“This experience is really crucial to me … especially at Christmas,” Stegeman added. “It has to do with real people. I want to understand what is happening here, to talk to the people who are living here. To see how people keep their hope and perseverance in a context of a difficult reality.”
Just having a cup of coffee at a place like Singer Cafe affords a glimpse into the life of young Palestinians who opt to stay in their city and invigorate their town rather than emigrate, she said, sipping her coffee as she spoke.
“It is important for me that people understand that Palestinians deserve as much time as Israel. There is nothing to be afraid of if they come here. Come, see the Nativity Church, but then come meet the local Palestinians, have a chat with them. People come to see the Biblical stones and then forget to see the living stones,” she said.
Dutch expat Kristel Elayyan, 40, who runs the Singer Cafe with her husband, Tariq, started the Art Walk, so people get to know local artisans.
Social media is also taking a role in advertising the events and stirring up interest for both local and international visitors. The Bethlehem Christmas tree was lit to the delight of a crowd of thousands in Nativity Square, with live music and fireworks following. Similar tree-lightings took place a few days later in Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
The Latin Patriarchate tweeted about the tree-lighting event in Bethlehem, and the municipal Facebook pages advertise in English the various events taking place in the area during the season: the Art Walk, Christmas markets featuring locally produced crafts and food, an Afro-Dabkeh dance workshop, a pre-Christmas gala dinner, a pub dance party and a Christmas “Santa Run” in Beit Jala, where St. Nicholas is the patron saint.
As rain drizzled, participants in the Santa Run gathered in the parking lot of the Beit Jala Latin seminary on 7 December, stretching their muscles, buying their red Santa shirts and taking selfies as they waited for the shuttle to take them to the Cremisan Monastery, where the run began.
“Five years ago, you could maybe go to a coffee place to smoke a water pipe and play some cards. Now there are bars for youth and places to meet up. There are a lot of places where you can spend your time here now,” said Musa Khatib, 26, a pharmacist from the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa. “Because of social media you can follow the events, schedule your week. The spirit here is nice, the vibe is very positive, and you can see happy people.”
A representative from the Beit Jala municipality who declined to give his name told CNS: “Our vision is of strengthening the cultural side of Beit Jala. We want to note the connection between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. It is about promoting tourism, and bringing it up to the international level is our dream,” he said as upbeat Christmas carols blared in English from a car with oversized loudspeakers.
In the end, some 80 locals and a few internationals took part in the run — some came just for the fun while others came intent on winning. The Santa Run Facebook page was updated continuously throughout the event.
“This is great,” said Elizabeth Purcell, 35, from Mt. Vernon, Illinois, whose husband works for the Baptist Church in Jerusalem. She was there with her three sons and two young friends visiting from the U.S. “If you just go to the church, you are not seeing what is really here. You don’t get to meet the people if you don’t go to something like this race or to a craft fair. You can see the energy here. It is energizing to see foreigners coming here. It is great for the Palestinian economy.”
3 October 2018
Tags: Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims Holy Land Christians West Bank
Diana Babish poses with a puppy outside her animal shelter in Beit Sahour, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
God gives everyone a mission, Diana George Babish said as she fielded a phone call about a dog who had been shot in Hebron. The mission God gave her is to take care of the abused and abandoned animals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, she said.
“God is pushing me to do this work. I believe it is something sacred,” said Babish, who uses an image of St. Francis surrounded by animals for her online profile.
Babish, a Catholic, admitted that it is not an easy mission in a place where, traditionally, society gives little importance to treating animals with compassion and routinely considers government-approved shooting and poisoning of stray animals as the best solution to population control.
“It is very difficult for me with the culture here; it is a very closed mentality,” she said. She spoke to Catholic News Service as she was trying to coordinate the injured dog’s transportation to her animal shelter in Beit Sahour, a village adjacent to Bethlehem.
“They continue to poison and shoot dogs because they don’t consider their lives to be of value.”
Her day began with the rescue of a 3-week-old puppy who was being kicked around like a ball by a group of schoolboys.
A few years ago, she traveled to Assisi, Italy, and she said she continues to draw strength for her work from the pilgrimage.
“Until now the pigeons still stay on his statue,” she said. “If God did not want anyone to take care of animals, he would not have given that mission to St. Francis.”
Last year Babish, who is in her late 40s, quit her day job as a bank manager to dedicate herself full time to running the first animal shelter in the West Bank, the Animal and Environment Association—Bethlehem Palestine, which she established in 2013.
In addition to $13,700 she received in donations, Babish used $20,000 of her own money to build the shelter. Currently it is run solely on donations and other forms of assistance, some of which also come from Israeli animal rescue organizations and individuals. Many of the dogs and cats she has rescued have been adopted or are being fostered by Israelis. By early October, she had rescued more than 400 dogs and more than 100 cats from the streets of West Bank cities. Recently she sent 15 dogs for adoption to Canada.
Babish has many critics within Palestinian society, including members of her own family, who complain that she is working with Israelis and spending her efforts on animals rather than people. Some charge her with profiting from the donations she receives, she said.
Still, Babish brushes off the insults and accusations thrown at her.
“If we had vets here in Palestine who had the proper equipment and treatments to care for the animals, or people who would adopt the dogs, I would leave them here. But Palestinians don’t want street dogs, most only want pure-bred dogs,” she said. “We in the rescue community put aside politics for the well-being of the animals. I tell (my critics) God gives each one of us our mission, and there are a lot of organizations taking care of people. My mission is to take care of the animals, the most vulnerable beings in the world.”
It was close to 9:30 p.m. and she had not yet eaten her dinner. She was working out the logistics of how to take three puppies and one adult dog to their foster homes in central Israel, then take other animals to a veterinary clinic to be treated and neutered. She also was preparing travel papers for a cat who was to be flown to her new home in Sweden.
Babish has 11 board members, 13 general members and two workers who help her in the day-to-day work at the shelter. Slowly she is making inroads into changing societal views about animals and rescue, she said.
The reality of life as a Palestinian is never far, though, and Babish must have an Israeli travel permit to go into Israel. She and a driver make rounds in Israel several times a week.
“A lot of (Palestinians) start to see that animals are very important. I am raising awareness through Facebook, fighting animal abuse,” she said. Some of her posts have received 14,000 views, she said. “Step-by-step I am creating more soldiers to fight for the sake of animals.”
24 May 2018
Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Saints
An injured Palestinian lies on a bed at a hospital in Gaza City on 15 May. (photo: CNS/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)
Already in a precarious state, Gaza’s health system faces a medical emergency, with more than 1,000 people injured in the recent Gaza border demonstrations that flared up since 30 March.
Hilary Dubose, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, said hospitals have already been suffering from lack of medicine, proper medical equipment and enough electricity to run them, but the sudden swelling of injured patients has pushed the hospitals over the edge.
“They were pushed to the breaking point even before the demonstration injuries,” said Dubose, who visited Gaza on 22 May. “The injuries have pushed them [past] that point now. It is important that humanitarian actors support the medical system.”
Humanitarian organizations such as CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency that receives some of its funds from the U.S. government, are hampered in their work, she said. The government has withheld funds not only to UNRWA, the U.N. organization tasked with providing assistance to Palestinians refugees and their descendants, but also has put a hold on all U.S. funding to Palestinians pending an “administrative review.”
“We can’t provide any humanitarian aid. It is making the situation worse. We don’t know what impact it will have,” Dubose said, noting that there are 155,000 people going without humanitarian assistance in Gaza because of the freeze.
CRS has had to make drastic cuts in its programs, she said, and has retained only a skeleton staff in its Gaza office. CRS programs in the West Bank are not affected because those do not receive U.S. government funding, she said.
People are at the end of their ropes, said Dubose. Gazans get only four hours of state-provided electricity per day; 95 percent of water in Gaza contaminated; unemployment in Gaza is 44 percent among the general population and 62 percent among young people.
“People can’t earn a living and support their families. Young people can’t get married, because here to get married they need a house and a means of supporting their bride,” she said. “People can’t accomplish their very simple dreams of getting married and having a family.”
During her visit with the Missionaries of Charity in Gaza, she heard the story of a young man who had been engaged for two years but had not yet been able to marry because he had no way to support a family or provide a house.
“His sister told us that he had gone to the demonstrations feeling prepared to die, and he did,” Dubose said. “Conditions are bad, with no hope for change. There is so much hardship and frustration.”
After 11 years of an international blockade people are getting desperate, she said. There is a lack of freedom of movement, and young people are unable to travel for job or educational opportunities, she said. If there were some signs of hope, of change, people would not feel so desperate, she added.
“There has really been marked shift in [the ability of people to hope]. People are really reaching levels of frustration I have not witnessed before,” said Dubose. “It is so claustrophobic. People are so stuck. There is a loss of hope.”
4 April 2018
Tags: Palestine Israel Health Care Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Eritrean Catholic refugees Abel Kflom, 27, and Musia Daniel, 30, look at olive branches 23 March at Our Lady Woman of Valor Tel Aviv Pastoral Center in Tel Aviv, Israel. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
A refugee’s life is one of constant uncertainty and confusion.
Yet in their faith the refugees have found strength and refuge, said Father Rafic Nahra, priest of the St. James Vicariate, which ministers to the asylum seekers and migrant worker community in Israel.
Late 2 April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended a U.N. deal that would have sent thousands of asylum seekers in Israel to Western countries rather than to Africa. The deal had been announced hours earlier, but its reversal did not surprise the refugees.
“The refugees are fearful but, unfortunately, they are used it,” Father Nahra said. “They have already left their country, crossed the Sinai, crossed a lot of dangers and faced a lot of problems. Uncertainty has become part of their life.”
Sitting in the courtyard of the Our Lady Woman of Valor Tel Aviv Pastoral Center in late March, two Catholic Eritrean refugees, Abel Kflom, 27, and Musia Daniel, 30, said they do not feel certain of their future.
“If our country was good, nobody would want to leave. But because it is a dictatorship, everybody wants to leave,” said Kflom, who has been in Israel for six years. “Of course, I am worried they might send me (to Rwanda).”
Both men fled during compulsory military service in Eritrea, which kept them away from their families for years. In the army, they said, people become like slaves to the commanders. Some men are forced to serve in the army until their 60s. There is no time limit to the service; people cannot decide when to leave.
Neither had intended to come to Israel. Kflom was kidnapped by members of the Rashaida Bedouin tribe, who took him and his friends from Sudan into the Sinai Desert, where he was brutally tortured for four months until his family was able to pay $19,000 in extortion money. He was released at the border with Israel.
During his captivity, his childhood prayers sustained him, he said.
Now, early every Saturday morning, Kflom walks with his wife and young son to the pastoral center for a traditional three-hour Eritrean Mass.
“I pray to God to help me,” he said. “Life is very difficult. You can’t look forward to your future. You don’t have permission to live here. You can't organize your life here. I am always under a lot of stress.”
Netanyahu has said he wants to deport 20,000 refugees — whom he maintains are mainly economic migrants — by the year 2020. If his original deportation plan is implemented, the deportation process will require single adult males to choose between a financial incentive for “voluntary deportation” to a third African country or indefinite incarceration.
Israel is not alone in struggling with a deportation policy. Countries such as Australia, Germany and Greece have implemented similar deportation policies, including financial incentives for refugees to leave or face incarceration. Following the October 2016 European Union declaration of “safe zones” in Afghanistan, other countries began to deport Afghan refugees. France will be debating a controversial migrant deportation bill in April.
“If you are married or not married, it won’t make a difference,” said Daniel, whose wife will give birth to their first child in mid-April. “They say they won’t deport someone who is married, but they are making a lot of pressure so you will go to another place.”
Without hesitating, Daniel and Kflom said they would choose incarceration over deportation to Africa.
“To sit in jail is nothing for me. I have been through worse,” said Daniel. “You do not know what an African country is. There is no democracy there, no one to look after us. Someone can take you and kill you and no one will know. It would be easier to return us to our country. So why are they sending us to Rwanda? It shows you that they know there is a problem with our country, and our lives are in danger if they send us back there.”
African refugees began reaching Israel via the Sinai Desert in 2005, and by 2013, there were 60,000 African refugees in Israel. As the numbers of refugees grew, the
government began taking measures to prevent or discourage them from reaching Israel. In 2013, Israel completed work on a border fence with Egypt and, since last year, the flow of refugees stopped.
Today an estimated 38,000 adult refugees remain in Israel, the large majority from Eritrea and about 20 percent from Sudan; smaller percentages come from other African countries.
According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, of the more than 13,700 applications for asylum submitted by Africans, only 10 people have been given refugee status in Israel. Some 200 Sudanese refugees from Darfur also have been granted humanitarian status.
Father Michael Gropse, director of the Tel Aviv pastoral center, said when the refugees come to weekly Mass, their prayers are in earnest.
“I can really feel their prayer of hope,” he said. “They are always asking for God’s guidance. But in their daily life, they are afraid, sometimes, to go out and be caught by the immigration police. But still their faith and hope is strong, and every Saturday I see it when they attend Mass.”
“In Eritrea, I grew up in the Catholic Church,” said Daniel, kicking around a soccer ball with a friend’s young son as he waited for an afternoon prayer study to begin at the pastoral center. “The moment I come here, I forget about everything until I leave, then reality hits me again.”
16 February 2018
A monk walks outside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2013.
(photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters)
The heads and patriarchs of Christian churches in Jerusalem strongly denounced the city of Jerusalem’s plan to force churches to pay property taxes.
The proposal to levy taxes on some properties would run contrary to unofficial historical tax-exempt status the churches have enjoyed for centuries, the leaders said in a 15 February statement.
“The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land,” the statement said.
The leaders called on city officials to retract their intention and to “ensure that the status quo, which was sanctioned by the sacred history, is maintained, and the character of the Holy City of Jerusalem is not violated.”
“We declare that such a measure both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardizes the church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide church,” they said. “We stand firm and united in our position to defend our presence and properties.”
Fines totaling millions of dollars were handed out by the Jerusalem municipality last week to properties owned by the United Nations and by churches, citing a new legal opinion that determined the properties are not legally defined as places of worship and therefore were not entitled to exemptions from property tax.
Some observers said the step appeared to be an escalation in a financial dispute between the municipality and the Israel’s Ministry of Finance, with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat demanding the ministry provide his city with more funding. The threat to fine the churches seems to be another way the municipality is pressuring the ministry to release more funds to the city, which is one of the poorer larger cities in the country, observers said.
In late January, Barkat threatened to fire more than 2,000 municipal employees because, he said, Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is preventing necessary funds from reaching the municipality. The announcement led to a citywide strike of municipal services, including garbage collection, which left trash and debris strewn throughout the city.
The Israel Hayom newspaper reported that the religious institution with the biggest tax bill was the Roman Catholic Church, owing more than $3.3 million.
Among the properties slated to be fined is the Notre Dame of Jerusalem hotel, restaurant and conference center across from the Old City, which is owned by the Vatican. The director of the complex declined to comment on the issue.
The Holy See and Israel have been in negotiations over the status of its Jerusalem holdings since 1993, when diplomatic relations were established.
29 January 2018
Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez of St. Augustine, Florida, holding cross, and Auxiliary Bishop Alberto Rojas of Chicago, right, watch a Palestinian worker make crosses made of olive wood on 27 January at the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society in Beit Sahour, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Retired Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Texas, remembers the smell of woodworking and the feel of wood in his hands from when he was a child in his family furniture factory in Celaya, Mexico.
“Here they are working with olive wood; in Mexico we worked with cedar. We see the connection with our brothers here,” Bishop Rodriguez said as he walked through the small family-run Odeh Factory, which produces traditional olive wood statues and souvenirs to sell to pilgrims and tourists. “I see the effort that is needed, and the talent, (to do this work) as a way to support and feed their families. I can see this is the work of Christians. I don’t have to be told that, you can see it in their work.”
Bishop Rodriguez was among 10 bishops who participated in the 18-27 January USCCB Hispanic Bishops’ Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land. They met with local Christians as well as with other Palestinians and Israelis to get a firsthand understanding of the situation and to advocate for “bridges not walls.” Many bishops said the pilgrimage gave them a better understanding of the Palestinian Christian reality in the Holy Land and gave them the opportunity to express their solidarity with the community, which makes up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population.
On 27 January, Catholic Relief Services hosted the bishops in the traditionally Christian village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, for a tour of the CRS Fair Trade Partner Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society, and a visit to one of the artisan workshops CRS recently helped renovate to improve working conditions.
“It has given me a special understanding of the reason why the number of Christians in the Holy Land is decreasing and the difficulty of living here because of the occupation,” said Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez of St. Augustine, Florida. “While I have felt a great sadness at their situation, I have also marveled at the resilience of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza.”
Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Cleveland described Gaza with its 2.3 million people as a “virtual human prison,” where residents cannot leave and others cannot enter. While there is a political aspect to the situation, the humanitarian side of it cannot be ignored, he said.
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, touches a statue of Mary made out of olive wood at the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society in Beit Sahour, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
“People have the right to freedom of movement, right to life. I would hope that somehow, someday this will get resolved,” he said. “Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have their narrative, but (the situation must be dealt with) in a way which respects the dignity of the human person.”
He said although the students of Bethlehem University with whom they spoke gave him hope as they expressed desire for peace, their prospects for gainful employment were minimal, and many young Christian Palestinians emigrate because of lack of work.
“We can’t judge one side over the other but ... justice and peace must reign between these two communities living here,” said Auxiliary Bishop Alberto Rojas of Chicago. “This is possible only if each one recognizes the dignity of the other.”
“We have been exposed more to the reality of life here and have heard ... of the fear of Israelis near the Gaza border,” said Bishop Perez. “I could relate to the fear of being shot at. People have died. That was as disturbing as seeing the limitation of movement of people from Gaza.”
“There have been situations in the world where, in their moments, people felt there was no hope and there was nothing to be done,” he added. “But history has shown through God’s grace and intervention and goodness of people situations have changed.”
26 January 2018
Palestinian children play in the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on 15 January.
(photo: CNS/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)
The U.S. suspension of $65 million in aid to the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees alarmed advocates who work with Palestinians living in camps.
Hilary DuBose, country representative to the Palestinian territories for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, said her agency is “deeply concerned about the impact such a dramatic cut in aid will have.”
The agency, UNRWA, “is one of the major providers of critical, basic life-sustaining support services — including food assistance, education, health care, sanitation management — in the refugee camps. These needs exist.”
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said cutting the aid to refugee assistance would be inhumane.
“We have visited the refugee camps in Gaza and, even with the assistance they receive, they live very meager and undignified lives,” said Bishop Cantu, who was participating in the Hispanic Bishops’ Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land. “The separation wall has already devastated their economy. Able-bodied Palestinians who would want to work and are trying to work can’t find sufficient work to support their families. It would be absolutely inhumane to cut the aid.”
He added that politicians must move away from taking offense at the words they say to one another and move toward thinking what is best for humanity.
U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed frustration with the lack of movement in Mideast peace. Early in January, Trump blamed the Palestinians and threatened to cut U.S. funding. Later, the U.S. government suspended a $65 million payment to UNRWA, which serves more than 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants scattered across the Middle East.
On 25 January, Trump said the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive U.S. aid money.
Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, and Giulia McPherson, interim executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, were among advocates who signed a 24 January letter from humanitarian aid groups. The letter, spearheaded by Refugees International and Norwegian Refugee Council, objected to the withdrawal of U.S. funds. It was addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, national security adviser.
“We are deeply concerned by the humanitarian consequences of this decision on life-sustaining assistance to children, women and men in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” the groups said in their letter. “Whether it is emergency food aid, access to primary health care, access to primary education, or other critical support to vulnerable populations, there is no question that these cuts, if maintained, will have dire consequences.”
They said they were “particularly alarmed” that the decision — which will impact humanitarian aid to civilians — was not based on an assessment of need but rather “designed to both to punish Palestinian political leaders and to force political concessions from them.”
“This is simply unacceptable as a rationale for denying civilians humanitarian assistance and a dangerous and striking departure from U.S. policy on international humanitarian assistance,” they said.
They reminded the U.S. leaders that, in 1984, the Reagan administration justified its decision to provide humanitarian aid to famine-struck Ethiopia by declaring that “a hungry child knows no politics.”
In a statement at the United Nations 25 January, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N., noted that the Vatican “deplores the sufferings of millions in the Middle East due to armed conflicts.” He called on the Security Council to end the humanitarian crises in the region based on solutions in the U.N. Charter.
Speaking during the Security Council open debate on the situation in the Middle East, Archbishop Auza also emphasized the “urgent need” to resume negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians toward a negotiated two-state solution.
22 January 2018
Palestinian Catholics pray during Mass on 21 January at St. Joseph Church in, Jifna, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Building walls, whether between Israel and the Palestinian territories or the United States and Mexico, can only serve to separate people and create more isolation, said Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle.
“Walls can’t bring any positive aspect to any country,” he said 21 January, during a visit to this West Bank village. “The image is very negative. ‘I am keeping you out of my life.’ ... It creates more resentment and isolation. It makes it impossible to see the other.”
Bishop Elizondo was among 10 Hispanic U.S. bishops visiting the Holy Land and meeting with Israelis and Palestinians to get a better understanding of the Holy Land situation and to advocate for “bridges not walls.”
The bishop said he had returned to the Holy Land for the first time in 30 years and had been disappointed by the feeling that the situation had gotten worse rather than better.
“It is a tragic feeling coming to the Holy Land,” a place which for centuries has not had peace, he said. “It is a long process. A very slow process. I praise and pray for people in that process, but you have to be ready for martyrdom all that time. We humans are very slow learners.”
While acknowledging that terrorist violence was one of the push factors for the creation of the Israeli separation barrier — which includes a series of 25-foot cement walls and fences and is expected to extend more than 400 miles — Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit said the whole use of the concept of walls prevents people from “seeing the other as a human person.”
“If we are not able to see the other as a human person, we are missing the point of who we are. The message is that this is about people, it is a human crisis ... the challenge is what is the most effective way to communicate this,” he said. “This is a human crisis. In our USA, we are facing a very, very hard human crisis, which is our immigrants. It is a terrible crisis.”
The Rev. Firas Aridah, parish priest at St. Joseph Church, told the visiting bishops there are more than 140 Israeli settlements and 636 Israeli checkpoints within the West Bank.
“We need the recognition of the simple human principle: No people has the right to impose his occupation on another people. We are waiting for the day when our churches will ring their bells, celebrating freedom and justice for all, Palestinians and Israelis,” Father Aridah said.
Earlier, Bishops Elizondo and Cepeda concelebrated Mass at St. Joseph Parish. In his homily, Bishop Elizondo told parishioners that, without forgiveness, there can be no dialogue.
“Regardless of the nationality — whether it be Palestinian, Israeli, Mexican or American — we are all created by the same Father and all redeemed by the same savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. “Forgiveness is the best and the most difficult, but the most powerful thing we can ever offer anybody. Forgiveness is a gift from God. It is very tough.”
Bishop Cepeda reminded parishioners that it was God who gave them the courage to “cry out for peace, justice, dignity and freedom.”
“Let us never ever stop crying out for what we believe in as people of faith, as Christians, as people of this land,” he urged. “We belong here, we belong to God, and God will give us the courage.”
The same day, other members of the delegation visited Holy Family Parish in Gaza. They included Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Cleveland, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs; Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez of St. Augustine, Florida; Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, New York; Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of Fresno, California; Auxiliary Bishop Alberto Rojas of Chicago; retired Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Texas; and retired Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego of San Bernardino, California.
19 October 2017
U.S. Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order, center, leads the ceremony for the opening of the celebrations of the anniversary of 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land on 16 October at the Church of St. Saviour in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Franciscans serving in the Holy Land have had an impact on Christian pilgrims, said Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order.
“The Franciscans’ care for pilgrims, their attention to detail, their efforts to demonstrate the love of God, the mercy of God through different religious services and ... how they welcome people in hospitality houses, these become elements that people themselves, Christians and others, take back to (their) countries,” said Father Perry.
Father Perry spoke to Catholic News Service in Jerusalem during official celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The celebration included three days of prayer, reflections, music and conference meetings, which discussed the history and archaeology of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches, was among those who attended.
The service of the Franciscans “should be a call to go beyond division, a call to recognize each other truly as brothers and sisters belonging to the one same family, whether you call it family of God or the one human family,” Father Perry told CNS following the celebrations’ opening ceremony on 16 October. “I think their service is absolutely essential; that is why in the 14th century, the Holy Father at the time asked the Franciscans to dedicate energy and personnel to care for the holy sites.”
In his missionary service, Father Perry said, he has seen pilgrims from many countries talk of the gratitude they felt for the way the Franciscans welcomed them and guided them, offering them an opportunity to meet Jesus, to meet the living God, giving real witness to their Christian faith.
He said he witnessed one of the strongest examples of the Franciscan dedication both to the local Christians and to the holy sites in Syria, which he visited in April. There, two Franciscan friars remained with 300 Christian families in two villages under the rule of the Islamic State group in order to “guarantee Christ’s presence ... and the presence of Eucharist and a presence of church” for the families, he said.
He added that although these friars were not able to cross over into Aleppo to see him, he did see how other Franciscans there were active in organizing the laity to help themselves.
“The Franciscans really serve as a cornerstone for coordinating and implementation and getting the funding in ... and also empowering laity to become partners in caring for their own people in Syria, so the laity in Syria, the young people in particular, were involved in this dire service to their own people, and not just to Christians, but to Muslims as well. This was an amazing witness to me,” he said.
Reflecting on the significance of the 800th anniversary, Father Perry said two words came to mind: “inter gentes,” Latin for “among the people.”
“This going among the people, becoming a brother to other people: I think the significance of this event is not simply to look back at 800 years of ‘oh what a wonderful job we have done,’ although in many ways I think the brothers have given up a tremendous witness of faith, hope and love, but I also think the significance of this event is to propel us toward the future,” said Father Perry. “This new perspective ... means we have to be open and sensitive to where other people are, because we recognize God’s presence, the Spirit’s presence, already there. We are not there to convert people, we’re there to recognize with them what God is doing.”
The 800th year anniversary is one of celebrating the work that God continues to do in the Holy Land, he said.
“All of us have to reach out, not only to all human beings, but ‘Laudato Si,’ to reach out to all of creation to safeguard the future of our planet for all of humanity,” Father Perry said, using the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical. “This is what the holy sites tell me, this is what the place of the burial of Jesus tells me, the cross and the event of the resurrection. I think this is what it tells us as Franciscans. He calls us forward.”
18 September 2017
U.S. Army veteran Rocio Villanueva, 31, from Escondido, California, prays on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem while touring the Holy Land with the Heroes to Heroes program on 11 September. The program brings wounded veterans to the Holy Land to tour with wounded Israeli veterans. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, U.S. Army veteran Rocio Villanueva fell onto the stone of the unction where tradition holds that Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion and touched her head to the smoothed surface.
Injured during a tour of duty in Iraq and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the 31-year-old engineering specialist and mother of four was raised in a Catholic home but had slowly lost touch with her faith. After almost a week in the Holy Land as part of the second group of women veterans participating in the Heroes to Heroes program, Villanueva felt a spiritual renewal.
“Since the third day I got here I felt a healing in my heart. At the Church of the Annunciation (in Nazareth), I felt so good and able to speak to God,” said Villanueva, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in Escondido, California.
“My family has been able help me physically, but with the part I have inside of me, it has been really hard to open up. I had so much anger in my heart and was so sad, I could cry about anything. Here I felt my heart open up. I went to confession and I felt that God was talking to me through the priest,” she said.
Since its founding six years ago by Judy Isaacson Schaffer, a Teaneck, New Jersey, marketing and sales professional whose father and grandfather served in the military, Heroes to Heroes has taken 14 groups of U.S. veterans — including those who served in Vietnam — to meet with their Israeli counterparts and visit holy sites. It is a peer-support program with the goal of helping achieve spiritual healing and preventing suicide.
Villanueva’s group was in the Holy Land 5-12 September. Participants visited Bethlehem, were baptized in the Jordan River and joined in the Israeli memorial ceremony commemorating the 9/11 attacks in New York and elsewhere.
With 22 U.S. veterans committing suicide every day, Schaffer said she recognized the need to reach out to those veterans suffering the most from PTSD, just as her father had volunteered with veterans from earlier wars. Because less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces — a small fraction of whom are women — many veterans feel isolated when they return, she said.
The peer-to-peer encounter with Israeli veterans, some of whom have also experienced traumatic injuries, as well as discussions within their own group allow the U.S. veterans to see that it is possible to move forward from their challenging experiences, Schaffer explained.
Participants are asked to stay in contact with members of their group for a year after the visit.
Most of the veteran services available in the U.S. are geared towards male veterans, and perhaps because of this lack of institutional and communal support, more women veterans commit suicide than men, Schaffer said.
In addition to combat trauma, some women have also been victims of military sexual trauma, she said.
“I will never get over (the trauma), but I can get past it,” said U.S. Army veteran Rory Shaffer, 42. A mother of three, Shaffer served twice in Iraq and was severely injured in a blast which killed three of her friends. She also witnessed the suicide of another friend while on combat duty.
“Within my household, I have support but the rest of my family just thinks I should get over it,” Shaffer said. “I have been suffering. I was not expecting that one-third of the group would say this group saved their lives.”