PALESTINE/FRANCE – In November 2002, the parish of the Holy Family in Ramallah signed a twinning agreement with the parish of the Saint Vincent of the Good News in Marcq-en-Baroeul, a town in northern France. For fifteen years, the two parishes have times of exchange and meeting where solidarity willingly gives way to friendship. To talk about it, we met Father Ibrahim Shomali, who, until this summer, was Parish Priest in Ramallah; Lucy Hishmeh, project coordinator; Canon Jacques Beils, parish priest at Marcq, and François-Joseph Furry, a member of the association’s office which handles this twinning project in France.
- Can you tell us how this pairing was born?
Canon Jacques Beils: At the beginning of this twinning, it was the appeal of Archbishop Sabbah, then Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who launched it in the newspaper “La Croix”: he called the faithful of the “eldest daughter of the Church” to build bridges across the Mediterranean towards their Eastern brothers, particularly in the Holy Land. It was an invitation to come as a parish on pilgrimage, to make contacts with local communities, and to avail of the opportunity to build lasting inter-parish relations.
In May 2002, Father Chillon relayed this appeal to the parishioners of Marcq and challenged them about the problems faced by Christians of the Holy Land. What to do in such a situation? How to support those who knew difficult times? Members of our parish, led by Bernard and Annie Aubin, agreed to answer such a call and followed a phase of making contacts at a distance, so that the two parishes of Marcq en Baroeul and Ramallah would be twinned in November of the same year, just 15 years ago!
- What were the developments?
Father Ibrahim Shomali: In the early days, before contemplating regular exchanges, the parishes gave each other prayer appointments and we knew that at such and such a time we were praying together for each other. A way to be close, without material complication, and to remind us of what brings us fundamentally closer: the same faith in Jesus Christ our Savior. We were in a difficult time here; the second intifada had not ended. Going to France seemed an impossible project to achieve.
Canon Jacques Beils: Some members of our parish took advantage of lulls in the conflict to organize a first visit. In February and, finally, November 2003, the first meetings took place with Father Fayzal Hijazin, to establish the main principles of our twinning. From the outset, the key word was reciprocity of visits. We all agreed that mutual welcomes would be carried out by the welcoming host: we had at heart to find out our respective daily life.
Since the first mutual sharings, full of emotion, during the visitations by Marcq parishioners to Ramallah in 2004 and early 2007, and since the welcome of the first delegation of Ramallah in July 2008 in Marcq, meetings have taken place, exchanges have borne fruit, the twinning between our two parishes was no longer a dream but became reality! Since then, we have welcomed each other, we have become friends, we lived the experience of Pentecost where everyone could be understood in their own language!
At the end of these 15 years of fraternity that has taken place, deepened and rooted progressively but firmly, we give thanks, in our parish, to the Lord for these various visits to Ramallah which amazed us! In fact, we thank Him who is the source of love for those times when we were able to welcome Christians from Palestine who had become brothers and to be welcome them at home.
Over the years, with Father Chillon, whom I succeeded in 2010, we have always found faithful, enthusiastic and hospitable partners in Ramallah, in the course of pastoral changes in the Holy Land: Fathers Ibrahim, Aktham and Fayzal Hijazin, (the latter welcomed me to Ramallah in 2011), then Fathers Raed Abu Sahlieh, his vicar Father Farah Bader, Father Ibrahim Shomali who visited us in July this year, and finally Father Jamal Khader who comes from Beit-Jala seminary. Despite new appointments to other positions, we, the association and myself, remain in contact with these priests of Ramallah who have discovered the history of our own parish through their visits and the joyful memories they have left.
- What were the projects to make this twinning live? And what are they today?
François-Joseph Fürry: The first phase was, of course, a phase of mutual discovery, building confidence through the alternation of visits and hospitality in France and the Holy Land. Reciprocal visits that, from the start, the founders wanted. It was I think a great mark of wisdom to build this twinning on hospitality, offered and then received. It has never been a question of looking at our relationships unilaterally or asymmetrically, and I think that has allowed twinning to last and intensify. In 15 years, whatever the roughness of the political news in the Middle East, we have been able to maintain these mutual visits with regularity, with Marcus’ eight visits to the Holy Land, and five visits by our brothers in the Middle East, unfortunately because of difficulty obtaining visas.
Visits have added two dimensions to our projects. The first is that of witness, by the publication of a parish journal. Thus in 2006, the publication “Olivier de Ramallah”, was born and is published 3 to 4 times a year, with a distribution of 500 copies and also put online in a digital version (http://www.asframallah.fr/olivier-de-ramallah/). It responded to a pressing request that came to light once friendships were established. It was generally expressed at the time of the initial publication: the demand to relay what is happening on the ground, to attest the precariousness and fragility of the Christian presence in a region with tumultuous and often conflictual ongoing events. This, so that the fruits brought back by those who had the chance to visit our brothers of the Holy Land be shared with the parishioners of Marcq, and well beyond. In the appeal to make pilgrimage and to the visit, there is the requirement of witnessing in the service of the “Living Stones”, which are the local communities, without which the holy places would be reduced to simple museums without life … The association tries, in its capacity, to assume this duty of being modest but active witnesses.
The second dimension by which twinning is enriched is solidarity, focused on the essential issue for parishioners (often parents!) of Ramallah: the education of children. This call was echoed by the parishioners of Marcq, and over the years, hundreds of schoolchildren and the schoolchildren from the Al Ahliyyah school, at a rate of about twenty a year, were able to attend school, supported by a sponsorship system led by Chantal Leurent, our president, and our treasurer André Boutry. It is this importance of education that has pushed us in recent years to grow the project, realized at the end of 2016, the twinning of, similar to that of the parishes, the Free Institution of Marcq with the Al Ahliyyah college. A year ago, Father Grégory Wattine accompanied 20 Marcq schoolchildren on pilgrimage, and this summer, for the 15 years of twinning, an inter-generational parish delegation (from 2 to over 70 years old!) led by Father Ibrahim Shomali was welcomed in Marcq en Baroeul, at the same time as twenty Ahliyyah college students from Ramallah were welcomed into the families of Marcq pupils. Awareness and commitment must be communicated to all generations, so this project was essential.
In the future, the development of support for university studies seems crucial to us so that, well trained, young Christian adults constituting the living forces of the community can, despite the difficulties, remain in their home country. We have implemented this in the past, but the stakes have clearly increased.
- How do parishioners live this twinning? What does it bring?
François-Joseph Fürry: If the initial call and the momentum was pastoral initiatives, the twinning was very quickly assumed and carried also by laity, assembled in association. If at the beginning only a few of us had the chance to have already been to the Holy Land, their witness was important so that all the parishioners gradually feel engaged in the welcome and the visits.
As early as 2007, the principle of welcome and family accommodation was introduced, which was of paramount importance, as Marcq families saw a Middle East coming to them that they had never encountered, opening to a world that this represents. Undoubtedly, the twinning of colleges has allowed us to reach a new dimension and intensity. Families and especially young people thus discover a cultural, religious, geopolitical reality, that they did not imagine. First by welcoming, by pilgrimage to and welcome in the Holy Land, unique, then. By involving young people and families, we have given longevity to twinning, which has become truly everyone’s business in Marcq.
Father Ibrahim Shomali: Today, this twinning is an integral part of our parish life. We have no trouble finding families to welcome the parishioners of Marcq and many of the parishioners in Ramallah have kept in touch with those of Marcq. These contacts remind us that we are not forgotten by our brothers and sisters in France, and at times it feels good to have this in mind. Moreover, we can imagine and hope to discover another country, other ways of living, another culture. This is still impossible for some of us (some Palestinians are forbidden to move outside of the West Bank), but it’s possible for others. On the other hand, this prayer union that we have established also allows us to move away from centering on our own concerns. We realize that life is not always easy in a country where there is no geopolitical context as complex as in Palestine.
- What are the challenges that need to be addressed? Have there been any difficulties?
Lucy Hishmeh: The difficulties we encounter are very concrete: the lack of means to finance these trips, made possible thanks to the solidarity of our friends Marcq, administrative obstacles, obtaining visas for Palestinians living in the West Bank to go up to Israel’s Tel Aviv airport is very complicated (for our last trip, visas arrived only three days before departure) and for the same reason we cannot always accompany our French friends to the Holy Places. On the other hand, we also have parishioners or families of our college students who do not overcome the stage of fear and who refuse to send their children to France, even if they are still happy to welcome French friends. Finally, once in France, sometimes there are some food disappointments!
François-Joseph Furry: Indeed, any meeting of otherness obviously supposes open-mindedness and respect to understand the differences of sensitivity on culture but also liturgy, and gastronomy… The years have allowed us to better understand the expectations on the two shores of the Mediterranean, sometimes to remove misunderstandings, to win us over, to appreciate us and ultimately, to love us, despite our differences and specificities. But if a real spirit of communion moderates and a will to make the meeting prevails, whatever the cost, no obstacle seems to us, in hindsight, unsurmountable for the French parishes who would like to take inspiration from our experience and in the end immensely enriching cultural, human and spiritual plans.
The broadening of twinning with the two colleges has not been without difficulty, as the media treatment of news in the Middle East and Israel/Palestine, in particular, can be exaggerated and full of angst. Parents of students were reluctant to let teenagers from 13 to 15 years old leave. We had to engage in educational methods, organizing conferences, supported by the team represented by Véronique Toulemonde, head of Pastoral Care at Marcq College. We had only 2 or 3 volunteers six months before departure. In the end, the students were enthusiastic over the course of the educational workshops and it was necessary to the draw lots to decide between participants! So, the main challenge remains that of education. It is essential for more and more people to answer the call of our brothers in the Holy Land “Come and visit us! Come pray with us!”
Interviewed by Cécile Klos