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News from the Latin Patriarchate

Report of a Visit of Fr. Paul Lansu to Holy Land
12 – 18 January 2007

07-0025

1. A group of European and North American bishops visited the Holy Land from 12 to 18 January 2007. This is an established group, which was set up at the request of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem supported by the Holy See.[1] This was the second year that I participated in the programme. On the plane, I read the latest ”Message of Concern to all the Palestinian people” issued on 12 January 2007 by the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Christian Churches in Jerusalem. This is clearly a message for unity among the Palestinians, calling on the different political factions to collaborate together rather than work against each other. I arrived in Jerusalem[2] very early on the morning of Saturday, 13 January at approximately 1 am.

2. This year, there were bishops present from Canada, England and Wales, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States of America, as well as the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) and the Commission of the Episcopates of the European Union (COMECE). In addition to the bishops, delegates from Caritas Internationalis, Pax Christi International, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Vatican Radio and the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation were also present.

 

Saturday, 13 January 2007:

 

Visiting Gaza with H.E. Archbishop Fuad Twal and the Apostolic Nuncio, H.E. Archbishop Antonio Franco, to support the local Christian community.

 

3. This was the first time that I was ever able to go to Gaza. The Latin Patriarchate arranged for the special permits you still need to pass the crossing border at Eretz. The delegation, about 6 cars with bishops, had to wait at the border because of problems with the passport of the driver of the Nuncio. Upon our return, we had to queue with the same cars for about 2 hours because of problems with the passport of a Jordanian priest. Our delegation was the only one to cross the border and then return. No other people travelled in or out of the Gaza Strip at that time of the day. The Israelis control all checkpoints.

 

4. Many of us, 28 in total, visited Gaza to meet the Christian community and Muslim and Palestinian leaders. The imams and civil authorities welcomed the delegation at the border. Fr. Manuel Mussallam[3] is the Palestinian parish priest from Birzeit and he arranged the programme for that day. People hoping for a better future while living in poverty warmly welcomed us. At the Holy Family School, which is a mixed school for Christians and Muslims, children welcomed the bishops by singing and dancing. We received floors upon which was written “children in Gaza.” The delegation then met with most of the religious and civil leaders.

 

5. Fr. Manuel then presented some basic facts about the Gaza, whose population is composed of about 1,300,000 inhabitants, including approximately 3000 Orthodox and 200 Catholic Christians. He said that “They are all Palestinians, one people, but two religions. Christians and Muslims are friends and they enjoy their friendship together.” Children are educated in this philosophy of living together as one people. They all live in a kind of open prison because of the wall surrounding the Gaza Strip. “People only have the freedom to create children,” Fr. Manuel stated. The average number of children in Christian families is 6. In Muslim families the average is often higher. “Our destiny is one and the occupation is the main problem of our people.” Charity is shared among all. The Christian community has a big role in solving conflicts in Gaza. It is an integral part of the Palestinian society because it runs schools and associations that help Christians and Muslims without distinction.

 

6. The Gaza is complete dependent on the good will of the Israelis. The Jewish settlements in Gaza have all been closed and dismantled during the government of Ariel Sharon. Their roads have been destroyed as well. Only some Green Houses are left. Israel still imposes total siege and controls the airspace, sea and borders.

 

7. The majority of the population in Gaza, about 1 million strong, are refugees. About half a million refugees live in 8 camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. Most of the time they lack electricity, there is not enough water and certainly not enough jobs. The Gaza Strip has a very high rate of poverty at approximately 75% and the unemployment rate is about 65%. More than half of the Christians in Gaza are refugees who have arrived from different cities, mainly Jaffa, Jerusalem and Lod. People live permanently in extremely stressful conditions. The Christian families in Gaza are not wealthy, but they are not poor either. Most of them have jobs and own their own houses.

 

8. The delegation was able to make a tour from Gaza Town to the south of the Gaza Strip and visited the religious site of St. Hilarion, the founder of anchoritic life in Palestine. The main mosque (a former Orthodox Church) in the town of Gaza, which is being reconstructed, was also visited by the delegation. The Gaza Strip is in fact rich with history. It is situated at the crossroads between Africa and Asia. Gaza is famous for its beautiful beaches. In normal times of peace, Gaza could be a very attractive destination for tourists! Unfortunately, today Gaza is one huge mess.

 

9. Before and during lunch, the delegation met with the Ambassador of Egypt in Gaza, the Palestinian Governor of the Gaza Strip, and the Mayor and Mufti of Gaza Town. Some of them mentioned the need for a stronger Palestinian government. Speakers put forth the conditions for a viable independent Palestinian state, which include, of course, the end of the Occupation. Gaza is currently in a state of unrest and violence; kidnappings, which have recently taken place, indicate a dangerous trend in criminal activity

 

10. During lunch I was able to meet with a delegation of the Middle East Council of Churches, the Committee for Refugee Work—Gaza Area.[4] The Committee is a Palestinian ecumenical church-related organisation, which aims to strengthen and empower the Palestinian community in the Gaza Strip by providing educational and health services and contingency assistance regardless of faith, colour, gender, political affiliation or geographical locality. They work very closely with Caritas Jerusalem, which also maintains programmes in this small Occupied Palestinian Territory. The continued closure has inflicted terrible hardships on everyone living in Gaza and can only lead to more misery, frustration, and unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been collectively imprisoned. This Occupation simply cannot be continued.  

Beit Hanoun 

11. The last part of the programme in Gaza was a visit to Beit Hanoun, in the northeast of the Gaza Strip. The town has a population of about 35,000. During Israeli operations in November 2006, dozens of Palestinians were killed and a number of homes were destroyed. Beit Hanoun is currently home to a large number of children displaced by civil strife. That displacement is permanent. Fr. Manuel gave me a project summary entitled “Children in Crisis Center in Beit Hanoun.” Our delegation was not allowed to leave our cars. We were still able to see the enormous destruction of the town. The Israeli authorities had not allowed Archbishop Desmund Tutu and others the opportunity to make a fact-finding visit to Beit Hanoun at the request of the UN Council of Human Rights. That same night we moved from Gaza to Nazareth, in the Galilee.

 

Sunday, 14 January 2007:

 

Visiting different parishes and communities in Nazareth and Galilee.

12. The delegation stayed at the Casa Nova[5], the hotel of the Franciscans, just opposite the Basilica of Maria’s Annunciation. Bishop G.B. Marcuzzo, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel in Nazareth[6] arranged our itinerary in Galilee. His residence is located just behind the Casa Nova. Our entire delegation visited Galilee and met the “living stones” of the Christian communities. We prayed with them, listened to their stories of joy and concern, and learned of their initiatives to build a common future with persons of all faiths. Today Nazareth has over 50,000 inhabitants. Next to the old town, a Jewish site has been constructed and is called “Nazareth Ilit.”

13. I celebrated the Byzantine liturgy with the Melkite parish in the centre of Nazareth. I joined two bishops: Bishop William Skylstad, Bishop of Spokane in Washington and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop William Kenney, Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and Representative of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).

14. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Emile Shoufani, the parish priest of Nazareth, would be conducting the Mass. In November 2005, the delegation of the diocese of Antwerp had met with Fr. Shoufani at his school in Nazareth. Emile Shoufani has maintained many contacts with the Belgian dioceses of Liège and Hasselt. After celebrating the beautiful liturgy we met with the community. All of them asked us to pray for them and their families. Almost no tourists or pilgrims have come to Nazareth in recent years, and if they do they mostly stay in Tiberias or other villages close to the Lake of Galilee. This has had an impact on the daily living conditions of the people in the town where the family of Jesus Christ lived. Our small delegation then visited the Centre Chrétien de Rencontres where the Vicar General of the Melkite Church received us. Every Sunday, children and youngsters come together to participate in various school activities. Lunch was served at the School where Fr. Emile is Director.

15. Emile Shoufani is a leading priest n the Melkite Church of Galilee. He is an Israelian Arab and a good friend of the Druze, Muslim and Jewish communities. In 1976, Emile was nominated by his bishop to be Director of Saint-Joseph College which is a mixed school composed of about 56 % Christians and 44 % Muslims. The educational project of the school is interfaith and multicultural, and prioritizes peace education. In 2003, Emile went to Auschwitz/Birkenau in Poland with a group of over 500 students who were Jews, Muslims, Christians and nonbelievers from Israel, France and Belgium, to learn about the Jewish community during the Second World War and the Holocaust. The project was called “Memories for Peace”. The college also does collaborative initiatives with schools in France and Germany.  E. Shoufani received the UNESCO prize for Peace Education.

16. Emile gave me 4 books on the subjects of dialogue, understanding and peace education:

“Le Cure de Nazareth: Emile Shoufani, Arabe Israélien, Homme de Parole en Galilée,” 1998

“Emile Shoufani: Voyage en Galilée,” 1999;

“Comme un Veilleur Attend la Paix,” 2002;

  “Un Arabe Face à Auschwitz: La Mémoire Partagée,” 2004.

17. That Sunday afternoon all of the groups came together at the German Pilgerhaus in Tabgha at the Sea of Galilee. The German Association of the Holy Land has run this place of pilgrimage since 1889. This historical house was restored, expanded, modernised and reopened in 2001. The house is an excellent place to stay as it is in very close proximity to many holy sites.[7] We also visited the Church at the Mount of Beatitudes. 

Monday, 15 January 2007 

Presentations on the religious, political and socioeconomic situation in Israel and Palestine

 

18. H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, opened the morning session by discussing the negative impact of the political, social and economic situation on every-day life in the region. The conflict has increased poverty and broken up families. Time and again we were reminded that pilgrims to this land ought to meet the living Christian communities in addition to visiting the holy places. Human security continues to be an issue and political tensions have only increased. A concrete peace process is sorely needed. Furthermore, Christians are emigrating and the link between the worldwide Catholic Church and the “mother church of Jerusalem” is getting weaker. There is a legitimate fear that the Holy Places will eventually become a museum or a kind of religious Disneyland!

 

19. We met with the Minister of Tourism, Isaac Herzog, to discuss ways to encourage and improve pilgrimages and visits. The Christian presence is a moderating influence and is essential to achieving peace.  As Pope Benedict XVI recently said, “Christian witness will be of assistance and support for a future of peace and fraternity.” Christians are small in number but are an integral part of the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Their rights must be guaranteed through recognition of equality and improved security, along with religious rights enshrined in law. 

20. The situation for Christians in the Galilee is different from that of those who reside in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In Galilee, the question is: how does one live as a Christian in a Jewish state? We heard an encouraging inter-religious dialogue, “The Coexistence and the Inter-religious Relations in Israel” by a panel that included a Jew (Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa), a Christian (H.E. Msgr. Paul Nabil Sayah, Maronite Archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Maronite Patriarchal Exarch of Jerusalem and Jordan), a Muslim (Sheikh Muhammad Dahamshed, Abu Baker Assidiq Mosque in Kafr Kanna) and a Druze (Prof. Fadel Mansour, Lecturer in different Universities on Biology and Environment). Most of the speakers expressed their willingness for further dialogue and collaboration. Archbishop Sayah explained some specific problems of Christians who live in the Holy Land. The Bishop noted that Christians of Galilee have a unique experience.  They hold an Israeli passport, are of Arab origin, and profess the Christian faith—three overlapping cultures. The identity of the Christian is therefore quite complex, leading to some problems. The Bishop mentioned the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the refusal to accept “the other.” The main causes of our problems are discrimination, the settlements, the separation barrier, etc. There are approximately 10,000 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons. Peace education on all levels is necessary.

21. Msgr. Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church (Melkites) in Haifa and the Galilee, made a presentation on the role of the Church in Israel. Elias Chacour is well known within Pax Christi International and in September 2006, he made a speaking tour in the Netherlands and Flanders on the occasion of the Annual Peace Week of Pax Christi Netherlands. Elias mentioned different aspects of the present conflict: the culture of fear and death, the discrimination against citizens, the integration of minorities, and the emigration of mainly young people (especially Christians). He called for more solidarity and action. “Prayers are not enough!” Elias said.

22. Different working groups discussed possible questions or issues to be mentioned with political authorities, which were planned for Wednesday, 17 January in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In the evening, a public mass and reception was held at the Basilica with religious and civic leaders, as well as members of the communities we visited on Sunday.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

23. A presentation was made by Mr. Wabie abu Nassare on “Social Political Problems: Reunification of Families.” He listed four different categories or statuses of Palestinians: 1.) Israeli and Arab citizens; 2.) Jerusalemite Arabs (who only have a right to reside and no full citizenship); 3.) Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and 4.) Palestinians living abroad with a foreign passport who are not allowed to return to the West bank and Gaza. He stated that the Wall separating Palestinian families and the issue of reunification (or the impossibility of reunification) of the families should be a priority on the political agenda. The Arab population in Israel are asking for equal treatment. Jews have a right of return. Jewish Orthodox parties are strong in the Knesset. There is also a Druze Islamic section present at the Israeli Parliament.  

Fundamental Agreement 

24. The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel was presented by H.E. Msgr. Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio since 2006. The Fundamental Agreement is built upon rights established over centuries to facilitate the unique mission of the Church in the Holy Land. The vitality of the Church and its institutions in Israel, including hospitals, schools, and hospices that provide valuable services to the entire community, will be enhanced when the Agreement and other measures are ratified in law and fully implemented. For over a decade the Church has pursued this goal. Israeli officials are being asked to enable the negotiations regarding the Fundamental Agreement to be completed successfully and soon. The granting of visas and permits to Church workers continues to be an urgent concern. After having discussions in different working groups, the group travelled to Jerusalem where they stayed at the Notre Dame Center[8], close to the New Gate. 

Wednesday, 17 January

Meeting Political Authorities

25. A selected group of bishops, chaired by H.B. Michel Sabbah, paid visits to political authorities in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In a meeting with Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, bishops expressed an understanding of the significant security challenges that face Israel. They noted that the proposed reduction in the number of checkpoints and the proposed release of Palestinian tax revenues were encouraging signs, but also emphasised that bold action was still necessary to break the cycle of Israeli fear and Palestinian anger that dominate the current situation. 

26. The future of all peoples of the Holy Land depends on securing a just and lasting peace. There is clearly deep suffering on both sides. Mutual trust should be established through specific measures that build confidence. The creation of a viable Palestinian state, which would end the Occupation, requires the establishment of contiguous lands and calls into question the use of the security barrier and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. In the meantime, Palestinians need freedom of movement so that they can work, visit family members, obtain medical treatment and receive an education. Humiliating treatment at borders and checkpoints should cease. Since the foundation of society is the family, Israeli regulations should allow reunification of families where there is a Palestinian spouse. 

27. In a meeting with President Abbas, the bishops noted that during their visits they had witnessed the sufferings and deprivations that Palestinians experience on a daily basis. However, unity among Palestinian leaders is necessary for them to negotiate a just peace and create a better future.  The cessation of violence and the recognition of the state of Israel by all elements of Palestinian society will help rebuild the international community’s confidence in and support of the Palestinian Authority. President Abbas affirmed the need for the international community to support a new, more serious and timely initiative to pursue peace.

Visiting Partners in Bethlehem 

28. After taking part in an interview with Radio Vaticano, I organised a visit to Bethlehem. I was accompanied by two Irish bishops (Msgr. John Kirby, Trocaire, and Raymond Field, Pax Christi Ireland) and Philippa Hitchen of Vatican Radio. We passed the checkpoint and the Wall, visited the Church of the Nativity and the Franciscan compound, the Bethlehem Peace Center and the Milk Grotto Church. My three colleagues had never been to Bethlehem before, which made our visits especially meaningful! Also, these days almost no pilgrims travel to Bethlehem, even on special occasions such as the Christmas ceremonies of the Armenian Church (Thursday 18 January 2007).

 

29. A meeting took place with delegates of the Arab Educational Institute, AEI (with Fuad, Toine, Elias and a young intern from the Czech Republic). In a radio interview with Philippa, Fuad explained the projects and programmes of AEI. Toine commented on the difficulties experienced by foreigners who are married to Palestinians, such as problems with visas, family issues, etc. The AEI then offered our small group a nice lunch. In Bethlehem, I also met, to my surprise, Fr. Raed Abu Sahilia, the former Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate and parish priest of Taybeh in the West bank[9].

 

30. In the evening a mass and public reception took place in Ramallah. At the reception I was able to talk to citizens about their daily living situation. They asked us to pray for them. I also met with Isabelle Daneels[10], a Flemish journalist working for the UNDP. Isabelle is married to a Palestinian and lives permanently in Ramallah. I heard her unique analysis of the situation via the IPCRI-grouping.  

Thursday, 18 January 2007 

31. The final session with the bishops took place at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The Final Press Release of the Holy Land Coordination 2007 was discussed and adopted. An evaluation of the programme, focussing especially on follow-up measures, was discussed. The dates for next year are 12 to 17 January 2008[11]. This last session was then followed by a well-attended press conference.

Conclusions

32. On this visit to the Holy Land, delegates noted that 59 years after the conflict began, the search for lasting security and a just peace continues. Clearly, new measures are needed to achieve justice and peace so that Israelis can move beyond fear, which drives counterproductive security policies that oppress the Palestinian people, and so that Palestinians can move beyond anger and despair, which triggers violence that terrifies the Israeli people. 

33. In their final press communiqué, the bishops stated that: “Our belief in the one God compels us to work for the welfare of two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and the members of three religions-Jews, Christians and Muslims, who belong to the one family of God.  As bishops and pastors, we affirm our Holy Father’s recent address to the diplomatic corps in which he said, ‘The Israelis have right to live in peace in their state; the Palestinians have a right to a free and sovereign homeland.’” (January 8, 2007).

34. In communion with the bishops of the Holy Land, all delegates urge Catholics to pray for peace, participate in pilgrimages and undertake other activities to support the Mother Church. “We pray for the courage and guidance that are needed to break the hold of fear and despair in this Holy Land.” 

Inter-Church Centre Jerusalem 

35. In the afternoon I was able to meet with Fr. Christian Eeckhout[12] at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. Christian was the spiritual guide of the delegation of the diocese of Antwerp in November 2005. I also visited the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre JIC-WCC (in formation) and had meetings with Yusef Daher[13], Executive Secretary and Valentina Maggiulli, Local Program Coordinator of EAPPI. The Centre is located between the New Gate and the Latin Patriarchate. Pax Christi International supports the EAPPI and the Inter-Church Centre, which is available for assistance in setting up different, programmes or pilgrimages for our movement and our member organisations. In collaboration with the WCC, Pax Christi International is planning the International Church Action for Peace in Palestine and Israel for churches and Church-related organisations to mark the 40 years of occupation on 5 June 2007.

 

 

Fr. Paul Lansu

Brussels, January 2007


[1] The programme and the secretariat is with Dr. David Ryall and Maria Klos, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

[2] Travel has been arranged by Fr. Humam Khzouz, Chancellor, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem,

[3] Fr. Manuel Musallam, Latin Convent, Gaza, Palestine, Po Box 149, fax ++972-8-2837199 mobile ++972-59-9602320, e-mail: musallammanuel@yahoo.com

[4] Committee for Refugee Work Gaza Area, Middle East Council of Churches, 22/330 Said Al’as Street, Rimal, P.O. Box 49, Gaza

[5] Casa Nova

[6] Shadi is the Secretary of Msgr. Marcuzzo

[7] Pilgerhaus Tabgha

[8] Mr. Jamal Kafiety, Reservations Manager, Notre Dame Center, Jerusalem

[9] Fr. Raed Abu Sahilia, Ghaleb Rizeq

[10] Isabelle Danneels, PhD, Knowledge Management Expert, programme of Assistance to the Palestinian people, United nations Development Programme, UNDP

[11] Belgian Consul in Jerusalem, September 2006 – September 2009 = Leo Peeters

[12] Fr. Christian Eeckhout, www.ebaf.edu

[13] Yusef Daher, Executive Secretary, Jerusalem Center, World Council of Churches

 

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