Glimmers of hope in the Holy Land

By Father Mark Madden

Christians in the Middle East often accuse others across the world of forgetting and ignoring their plight. Once the television and newspapers move on to another story, it is easy to forget the struggles that many face on a daily basis. And yet these struggles are still there.

In 1998, with the blessing of Pope St John Paul II, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran formed a group called the Holy Land Coordination, led by bishops from around the globe. The purpose of the group – which also includes representatives from various organisations and media outlets – is to show solidarity, to build relationships and to continue offering support and encouragement. Their work really begins after their annual visit to the Middle East, as delegates return home and the Bishops use their influence to lobby governments, politicians and ambassadors on behalf of the Holy Land Christians.

For the last few years it has been my pleasure to serve as coordinator of the group. It is my responsibility to set the agenda, to liaise with the various episcopal conferences and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and to make the necessary practical arrangements. This year I chose the theme 'You are not forgotten' to show that the Church is concerned for the Christians of the Middle East and will try to support them. We focused specifically on Gaza and Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan.

For the third consecutive year the Holy Land Coordination visited Gaza where we saw the outstanding work carried out by the local parish priest and numerous religious orders taking care of the tiny Christian community and anyone else coming to their doors seeking help. We were struck by the resilience of people still living under such extreme conditions, particularly young people.

The Catholic schools in Gaza open their doors to Christian and Muslim youngsters and provide a haven of peace and normality regardless of religion. People under 35 are not allowed to leave Gaza as they are classed as terrorists yet all they want is the chance to lead a normal life. They believe that with a good education they can change their situation and many have aspirations to develop careers – be it as doctors, teachers or civil engineers, etc.

The message that we received from the young people we met was clear: "Please do not forget us." These young people want to live with dignity and yet they live in an open prison where the future seems bleak and uncertain. Many have lost their homes, families and friends, but they have never lost hope.
 
We visited a village to meet the locals whose homes were destroyed during the military action in 2014. Thankfully no further conflict has occurred but rebuilding homes is extremely difficult because of the lack of resources and aid not getting into Gaza. In this village, 2,000 of the 4,000 houses were damaged and at the moment only 200 have been rebuilt (with the help of the Catholic Church).
 
In 2015 we had visited an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. Many of the children were left without parents and the Sisters are doing all they can to act as surrogate mothers. Last year we saw sadness and heartache. This year we saw happier and relaxed children, thanks to the Catholic Church.
 
While there are signs of hope, many remain homeless and deeply traumatised by the 2014 war. Aid is very slow getting into Gaza and the blockade continues to make people's lives difficult. Father Mario da Silva, the parish priest of Gaza, told the Bishops: "In this Year of Mercy, one of the acts of mercy is to visit prisoners and I thank you for visiting the largest prison in the world. Your presence here has shown us that we are not forgotten and for this we say thank you."
 
During our stay in Jordan we met hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugees. Since 2014, approximately 145,000 Christians have fled their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. They have left everything behind to escape Daesh. They were given the options of either dying, converting to Islam or leaving immediately. They witnessed many being executed, maimed and tortured and they left their homes and country because they wanted to remain Christian. One man, a surgeon from Mosul, said: "Militants from Daesh uprooted and expelled us from our country. We left Mosul broken. They took our homes and businesses and slaughtered our Bishop Faraj and priests Ragheed and Boulous. How could we ever possibly return there?"
 
Refugees from Iraq and Syria have been welcomed into Jordan but are not entitled to employment, health, social care or education. They are assisted by Caritas Jordan, the Catholic humanitarian aid agency but as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem said: "Jordan is tired. The refugees are tired. The Church is tired." The Coordination witnessed the work done at a number of Caritas refugee centres – with food, clothes, blankets, heaters all distributed – yet more refugees are arriving on a daily basis, making the situation difficult to cope with.
 
Throughout the week we had daily opportunities to celebrate Mass with the Iraqi refugees in local Jordanian parishes. Though they have left everything to flee Daesh, they had not left their faith behind and did not feel abandoned. Indeed the Masses were powerhouses of intense prayer and joy which left the members of the Coordination deeply moved.
 
Our final meeting was with 500 Iraqi young people who gave a wonderful concert and spoke candidly about their lives and their faith. They still have hope of a better future and are determined to change the world so that all can live in peace, security and with dignity.
 
At the end of our ten-day visit we left the Holy Land not in total despair; through the Catholic Church we had seen many glimmers of hope. The efforts of the local Church and NGOs in reaching out to all refugees – Christian and Muslim – are significant and commendable in terms of addressing their loss of human dignity, but the international community must do more to alleviate their plight and work for peace across the region. We saw that the local Jordanian community is vital to the wellbeing of all living in the country, though they are afraid themselves of the growing extremism in the region.
 
It is the duty of the Coordination Group to carry in our hearts the faces, stories and experiences of the week and to share these with people at home. Our hearts came away full of admiration for the people we met and pride for what the Catholic Church is doing.
 
As Christians, it is our duty to work for peace. It is our duty to ensure people have dignity as children of God, made in His image and likeness. The Holy Land Coordination reminds us of the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si': "O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes." This is why the Holy Land Coordination will never forget our brothers and sisters, and precisely why we should never forget them either.
 
• 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine and this will be the focus for the Holy Land Coordination next year.