‘Our governments must do more to meet their responsibilities for upholding international law and protecting human dignity.’ So came the call from the group of bishops and archbishops from across Europe and North America – including England and Wales – who journeyed to the Holy Land in January for their annual visit to the Christian communities there.
The 2020 Holy Land Co-ordination, organised by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, took place between 11 and 16 January. It included visits to Christians in Gaza, Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and took as its theme ‘Visions for the future: the prospects for equality, justice and peace in the Holy Land’.
If the bishops’ aim is to promote peace and dialogue with their annual visit, the worsening situation in the Holy Land led them to end their trip with an urgent plea to their governments back at home – including a request that they follow the example of the Holy See and acknowledge the state of Palestine.
In a statement published on 16 January, the bishops said: ‘We implore our governments to help build a new political solution rooted in human dignity for all. While this must ultimately be shaped by the peoples of the Holy Land in dialogue, there is an urgent need for our countries to play their part by:
• Insisting upon the application of international law;
• Following the Holy See’s lead in recognising the State of Palestine;
• Addressing the security concerns of Israel and the right of all to live in safety;
• Rejecting political or economic support for settlements;
• And resolutely opposing acts of violence or abuses of human rights by any side.
‘In taking these steps the international community can meaningfully stand in solidarity with those Israelis and Palestinians who are refusing to give up their non-violent struggle for justice, peace and human rights.’
Bishops from 10 different countries formed this year’s Holy Land Co-ordination party. They recognised that some of their own governments had ‘become actively complicit in the evils of conflict and occupation’ and echoed the lament of the local bishops who had spoken recently of the ‘evaporation of hope for a durable solution’.
The Co-ordination’s statement continued: ‘We have witnessed this reality first-hand, particularly how construction of settlements and the separation wall is destroying any prospect of two states existing in peace. […] local bishops have sounded the alarm about living conditions becoming “more and more unbearable”. This is painfully clear in the West Bank where our sisters and brothers are denied even basic rights including freedom of movement.
‘In Gaza the political decisions of all sides have resulted in the creation of an open air prison, human rights abuses and a profound humanitarian crisis.’
Support for Gaza
It is 20 years since the Co-ordination was established at the invitation of the Holy See with the aim of visiting the Holy Land’s local Christian communities. This year, the bishops were based in Ramallah in the West Bank, with an overnight visit to Gaza where they celebrated Sunday Mass on 12 January with the local Christian community.
This was a deliberate show of solidarity to Gaza’s 1,300 Christians – including 100 Catholics – who this Christmas were prevented by the Israeli government from visiting Bethlehem or families and relatives in the West Bank. Following the Mass, the bishops visited the House of Peace run by the Missionaries of Charity, and held meetings with young people and parishioners as well as making a visit to the sick in the community.
Father Mark Madden, parish priest of Our Lady & The English Martyrs, Litherland, was part of the Co-ordination party in his role as general secretary. He said that ‘the Catholic community is tiny but strong’ in Gaza and underlined the valuable efforts of Church-run institutions there. This includes the Catholic Relief Service, whose housing projects help those displaced and left homeless by bombing; Caritas with its medical centres; the Daughters of Charity whose care for the most vulnerable includes babies, children and the elderly; and the Rosary Sisters who help support the education of young people.
Meanwhile, the Latin Patriarchate, with funding from the English and Welsh Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, has set up the St Thomas Aquinas Centre providing academic and professional services for young people.
Yet all of this effort only goes so far, as Fr Mark explained: ‘Life is very difficult. Children and young people have only known war and conflict. Christian families stick together, and family support is important and necessary. Their faith is strong and they believe that, with the help of Our Lady, they will be protected. Many of the Christian families live more than an hour’s walk from church, but even with threats of missiles they still make that journey each week.
‘People only have eight hours electricity a day, but realistically only get four hours and often during the night. They simply don’t want people to forget them. The visit of bishops from different parts of the world gives them encouragement and helps them persevere in their lives.’
The Co-ordination bishops have asked Catholics to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, not just to visit the Holy Sites but ‘to encounter the local communities’ – even if it means tasting the daily difficulties faced. Fr Mark elaborated: ‘It was very difficult getting into Gaza with the procedures slow and unnecessary. Getting out of Gaza and back into Israel was even worse. The feeling from the Israelis authorities was that they’ll allow you entry but will make it as difficult as possible so you don’t visit again.’
The three Ps
The Co-ordination bases its efforts on the three Ps of prayer, pilgrimage and persuasion. Their encounters included a meeting with Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator to the Latin Patriarchate, and Nuncio Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli. There was also a trip to East Jerusalem where 76% of Palestinians live under the poverty line and Catholic aid organisations are feeling increasing strain.
Additionally, for the first time since 2010, the Co-ordination visited the Comboni Sisters in Bethany, where in addition to their convent they run a guest house and kindergarten. Fr Mark explained the daily difficulties caused by the separation wall: ‘It was built within their land, metres away from the building and completely cutting off the convent from the community. In 2010 the Israeli authorities placed a window within the wall to allow children to be passed through. This window was opened by the soldiers for a few minutes every day to allow the children to be passed through.
‘Ten years later, the window has gone and children and parents must now make a long journey to get to school. The Sisters are completely cut off from the community and feel isolated and vulnerable.’
This provides some context for the bishops’ words of gratitude, in their communique, to those religious working on the ground in the Holy Land. ‘Amid these circumstances,’ they said, ‘we are moved by the sacrifice of religious sisters, lay people and priests who are reaching out with respect to every side, in order to build a better future for all. They offer vital services, especially education, job opportunities and care for the most vulnerable people. We give thanks for their witness.’