Holy Land's youth offer beacon of light

By Father Mark Madden

'Our Catholic schools must always be on the side of peace because that's who we are – people of peace' Father Iyad Twal

This has been a year dedicated to the role of young people in the Church and in the world, culminating in October's Synod of Bishops in Rome. During the Synod, there was much talk of accompanying young people, of being close to them and of supporting them as they discern their futures. We have been reminded that young people have a vital role to play within the Church and society and during 2018 I have seen this clearly with young people from different communities living in the Holy Land.

The current situation in the Holy Land is tense because political leaders are not working together to bring peace and stability. Political leaders have failed in their task through their inability to promote dialogue in the search for a solution to the conflict and by presiding over an economy that is not offering job opportunities. Instead, it is young people who are taking up the challenge to be peacemakers in their communities while desperately wanting to stretch a hand of peace across the separation wall; they continue to wish for a better future.

Young Palestinians and Israelis living on the two sides of the separation wall grow up cultivating the dream of meeting each other which they see as the first step towards a future peace in their land. They are frustrated that they cannot meet people of their own age, who share the same ambitions, hopes and fears. Fifty years of continued conflict has had devastating effects on young lives but they still dream of a brighter future which they believe will be realised through good education.

Importance of education

Education plays a crucial part in the lives of all young people and the role of Catholic education is seen within the Holy Land as a means to peace and justice. Catholic schools there are committed to the integral development of all students. Father Iyad Twal, director of Catholic schools, told me: 'Our Catholic schools must always be on the side of peace because that's who we are – people of peace. In our Catholic schools not only do we prepare our students to enter the job market, we give them an education so they may become bearers of hope, love and justice.'

The role of education is to form the students as good citizens, loving God and neighbour, enriching society with the leaven of the Gospel and so bringing about peace and justice in their communities. The schools recognise that tolerance and acceptance of the different communities within the Holy Land strengthen democracy, facilitate the full enjoyment of all human rights and so give the young people a firm foundation for social harmony and peace. This is highlighted by the fact Catholic schools teach young people of different faiths – Christians, Muslims and Druze – to live in peace and mutual respect.

It is always a huge privilege to visit schools and hear students share their thoughts on the difficulties of living in the Holy Land and their hopes of a peaceful existence. Palestinian young people desperately want to meet and get to know people from Israel but they have no real way of doing so. They desperately want to live like people of their age in other parts of the world; in peace, in justice and with human dignity – a basic right for everyone.
Earlier this year I spent time in Jewish high schools and Israeli universities and the message I heard was the same as that of their Palestinian peers. Many Israeli young people spoke of the Christian calling to be 'bridge-builders', and of the vital role that the Christian community holds in bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each Christian has that unique position, founded on the principles of the Gospel message of love, forgiveness and peace, of being a beacon of light which the Holy Land and the world is crying out for. This was their message which they wanted to share with all people of their age but especially those living in Palestine.

The current situation in the Holy Land seems bleak. There is a desperate need for light. Young people living there wish to provide that light; this is a heartening but also very frustrating message. As one Israeli young person said: 'How can we work together for peace when we aren't allowed to meet? I know there are people my age across the dividing wall but I have no means to even say "hello" to them. Social networking does not even help. There are times when it's important to meet face-to-face, to listen to each other without typing keyboards or facing a computer screen. If we can meet, even a supposed "enemy" can become a friend because we realise that we're just the same.'

Appetite for peace

During this year I have discovered that many young people have an appetite for peace. With a good education they want to make their lives and their country a better, safer and peaceful place in which to live for the sake of everyone. Palestinian and Israeli young people wish no harm on each other but because of the political situation they have little means to reach out in friendship. As the Church, we must play our role as bridge-builders, helping to support those wanting peace and justice and so helping young people to become beacons of light.

The young people of the Holy Land have been consistently failed by their own leaders and the international community. Their frustration is justified because it is also a sign that they retain the conviction to strive for change. Throughout the Holy Land young people are keeping hope alive through their resilience and courage. The local Christian community, though small in number, is an integral part of this, not only through the contribution of its own youth, but also through its service to all young people.

It is young people who are daring to pursue justice and challenge the divisions that have been forced upon them. It is schools and youth projects that are breaking down barriers and equipping people to build tolerance. It is young volunteers who are demonstrating humanity in this wounded society.

We must share the hope of young people in the Holy Land and recognise their essential role in promoting peace. They help us to see hard realities through their eyes and so we must act in solidarity with them, through supporting organisations which help to create jobs, provide housing, and facilitate dialogue; through prayer and making pilgrimages which encounter and support local people; and through standing resolutely against all those who seek to create further division, especially among our own political leadership.

In this season of peace when our minds turn to a stable in Bethlehem, we must hold these young people in our prayers, and inspired by Pope Francis, commit ourselves, with the help of God's grace, to play our part in making the land we call holy more human and more worthy for the youth of today and the future.