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Pope’s Easter appeal for peace includes special prayers for Syria, Gaza

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — In his Easter appeal for peace throughout the world, Pope Francis made special mention of the ongoing “carnage” in Syria and the recent violence along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, violence the pope said had not spared “the defenseless.” Read more »

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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Priest says life in Gaza is worse a year after the war

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Catholic News Service

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — One year after a war with Israel that turned daily life here into a nightmare, a Catholic priest in Gaza said the situation in this besieged Palestinian territory has deteriorated even further.

“Compared with a year ago, we’re worse off. Although a truce stopped the war, the blockade of Gaza by Israel has grown more intense. This has direct consequences for the population,” said Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza City.

A boy rides his bike amid the ruins of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, June 9. Houses in the area were destroyed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

A boy rides his bike amid the ruins of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, June 9. Houses in the area were destroyed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

The priest said the war also served as a recruiting tool for Hamas, the Islamic party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

“The war generated new activism throughout Gaza. The number of people willing to fight has multiplied, whether on behalf of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Salafists, and now even with the Islamic State. Despite that, the great majority of the people of Gaza is not aligned with one party or another. They just want to live a normal life,” Father Hernandez, an Argentine missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, told Catholic News Service.

The 50-day war cost the lives of more than 2,250 Palestinians, 65 percent of whom were civilians, according to a June report from a U.N. investigation. The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.” It said the Israeli military launched more than 6,000 air strikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells into Gaza between July 7 and Aug. 26, 2014.

The war also “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians,” the U.N. said, reporting that nearly 4,900 rockets and more than 1,700 mortars were fired by Palestinian armed groups during that period. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were killed, along with six civilians.

The report also cites as possible war crimes the conduct of Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods, as well as the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’ armed wing.

Father Hernandez said militants came to his church compound twice looking for alleged spies among some 1,400 civilians who took shelter there. Church buildings were damaged when Israel bombed a neighboring house. At one point, Father Hernandez and several members of the Missionaries of Charity shepherded a group of 29 disabled children and nine elderly women into the open.

“We put them in the patio in front of church, a place that’s far from any homes. And then we prayed that Israel wouldn’t bomb the church,” he said.

Gaza’s children continue to be affected by the war, the priest said. Besides thousands who remain in temporary shelters, he said the overwhelming violence of the conflict has created discipline problems, with normal tensions in the family and on the street more quickly escalating into physical violence. And lingering stress generates health problems.

“Some kids continue to have problems with speech or bed-wetting, and now that there are rumors of another war; some are even talking about specific dates. )ne child’s hair has started to fall out again,” he said.

One Catholic leader in the region said that Gaza’s Christians have nonetheless adjusted to their perilous situation.

“When I came here immediately after the war, everyone I talked to pleaded for a one-way ticket out of Gaza. But I no longer hear that. They are resilient, this is their home, and they’re resolved that they’re going to make a contribution to society. They are proud to be both Christian and Palestinian, no matter the difficult conditions,” said Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Of Gaza’s 1.8 million population, only about 1,300 are Christian. Catholics number fewer than 200. Relations between this small minority and the Muslim majority have been marred by discrimination.

“When one looks for work here, the first thing they ask is if you are a Muslim. If you are, then they ask if you support Hamas or Fatah. If neither, they ask which mosque you go to, because they want to know who you’re loyal to,” Father Hernandez said. “But if you’re a Christian, you won’t get asked those questions because you won’t get the job. The only way Christians can get jobs is through a Muslim friend who serves as an intermediary. No store or school or bank will give them a job, so they come to the church asking for help.”

There are occasional episodes of harassment of Christians on the street, Father Hernandez said, which is one reason he maintains good relations with Hamas officials.

“It’s important for me to have good contacts, because if there’s a problem I just call someone at a high level and immediately they respond and grab the responsible person. If I had to go to the police to file a report, and the police officer had a long beard, then nothing would happen,” he said.

Vatican support for Palestinians, which has strengthened under Pope Francis, has helped ease tensions on the ground, Father Hernandez said.

“We are treated by Israel as Palestinians, but at times other Palestinians don’t want to recognize us as Palestinians. What the pope has done has helped us a lot within our community. We are just as Palestinian as Hamas. And if they forget that, we remind them of what the pope has said and done,” he said.

Father Hernandez had an opportunity to personally thank Pope Francis for the Vatican’s protagonism when the priest was invited to the Vatican the day after the war ended last year.

“Bishop William Shomali (the auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem) called me on the phone and said I had to leave Gaza immediately,” Father Hernandez recalled. “But we had just finished living through a war. I couldn’t understand what was more urgent than remaining here with the people. But he didn’t want to tell me the reason over the phone. I pushed him, and finally he told me in Latin, ‘The man in white wants to see you.’ At first I thought I was losing my Latin. I asked him if I was understanding correctly, and he said yes. I called my superior, and he went to talk with the Latin Patriarch. He called me back in 30 minutes and told me it was true. So I packed my things and left.”

Two days later, Father Hernandez was embraced by his fellow Argentine inside the Vatican.

“He was a true pastor, hurting for all that had happened to the people here. He was sad about the violence on both sides. When we spoke of the children, he got emotional. We spoke at length about how the chemicals used in the war had affected the health of the people. He knew a lot about what had gone on in Gaza,” Father Hernandez said.

“I told him how much we appreciated a message he sent us in the middle of the war. I told him we had translated it for all the people, and that it was a big source of hope and courage for us.”

The priest said that at one point during the hourlong meeting he confessed to Francis that he was nervous. “He told me not to worry, to feel at home. I looked around and thought, ‘The Vatican is now my house. Caramba.’”

 

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2014 was a year marked by millions suffering in the Middle East

By

Catholic News Service

The story of the Middle East in 2014 is one of war and displacement, broken families and tireless aid workers, and the rise of a new group one scholar referred to as “al-Qaida on steroids.”

It’s a story of populations stretched to the limit, but still welcoming more refugees as neighbors. And it’s a tale of religious leaders calling for prayer, meeting for dialogue and urging an end to the violence.

U.S. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., stands amid rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Bishop Malone visited Gaza Sept. 14 as part of 18 bishops' nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Matt McGarry,

U.S. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., stands amid rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Bishop Malone visited Gaza Sept. 14 as part of 18 bishops’ nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Matt McGarry)

The continuing civil war in Syria created what Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called “the defining humanitarian challenge of our times.” His agency estimated in December that more than 3.3 million Syrian refugees lived in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

UNHCR also estimated that, within Syria, 12.2 million people were in need, including 7.6 million people displaced from their homes. Of those displaced, half were children.

Amid the migration of Syrians to neighboring countries, a group calling itself the Islamic State began driving Christians, Yezidis and even Muslim minorities from parts of Syria and Iraq. The minorities told stories of the Islamic State group cutting off electricity for weeks ahead of the main troops’ arrival. When the militants arrived, minorities were told to convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.

Mary Habeck, associate professor in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, described the Islamic State, and its parent group, al-Qaida, as “merchants of violence” trying to “use Islam for their own purposes.” The groups are “a very tiny group of extremists that have decided that they understand what Islam is, and they are going to force the rest of the Muslim-majority world in their direction.”

After capturing Mosul, Iraq, in June, the Islamic State group declared a caliphate, or Islamic empire. Habeck said the group views itself as “the only legitimate government in the entire world.”

Faced with the choice of renouncing their faith or being killed, hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in Iraq’s Ninevah province fled Mosul to places like Qaraqosh. Later, as Islamic State fighters advanced, the minorities fled again to cities like Irbil, Iraq, where they slept in churches or in tents in parks and on the streets.

The mass migration of Syrians and Iraqis, combined with Palestinians left homeless after a 50-day Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, created a huge challenge for international aid organizations, including those run by the Catholic Church. Most refugees in the Middle East do not live in camps, but in local communities. This placed a strain on the host countries.

Church agencies focused on helping those communities. For instance, between August and early November, Caritas Jordan registered 4,000 Iraqis; the agency helped more who did not register.

Lebanon, a country 70 percent the size of Connecticut, has a population of 4 million and hosted 1.5 million additional refugees.

Jordan, slightly smaller than Indiana, with a population of 6.5 million, recognized 44 different nationalities as refugees. From 1921 to 2011, Jordan had a $10 billion deficit; since the Arab Spring began in 2011, it has picked up an additional $10 billion deficit.

Although the Jordanian government welcomed those fleeing, for the past three years it said that 30 percent of any aid going to help Syrian refugees must help the host community. It set similar quotas when Iraqis began fleeing to Jordan in 2003, at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Christian aid agencies tried to coordinate their work, focusing on various aspects of aid: One agency might help with mattresses and personal items; another might help with education.

Church agencies also coordinated aid in Gaza after the Israeli-Hamas war left 2,000 Palestinians dead, thousands injured and more than 100,000 people homeless.

In July, the Catholic aid agencies met three times in as many days, planning for Gazans’ psychosocial and material needs.

“We are talking about a massive number of people who will be in need of help, and of at least 200,000 children who will need intervention,” Sami El-Yousef, regional director of the Jerusalem office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told Catholic News Service in July.

During a May visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray for peace before the controversial separation wall built by Israel throughout the West Bank land. He invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican to pray for peace.

Throughout the year, he made repeated calls for peace in the Middle East. In early October, he met with the region’s apostolic nuncios and top Vatican officials; later that month, he included a discussion on the Middle East during the Oct. 20 consistory of cardinals in order to let the region’s seven patriarchs, who were taking part in the Synod of Bishops, also attend the proceedings.

At that meeting, Pope Francis said the Middle East was experiencing “terrorism of previously unimaginable proportions” in which the perpetrators seem to have absolutely no regard for the value of human life.

The Mideast Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs as well as bishops from North America, Europe and Oceania visited the Holy Land and northern Iraq to express solidarity with their fellow Christians. And although patriarchs expressed concern about Christians fleeing the violence in northern Iraq, laypeople were not the only ones leaving the advance of Islamic State: Twelve Chaldean religious men and priests living in the United States, Canada, Australia and Sweden were suspended from exercising their priestly ministry for not receiving permission from their superiors before emigrating from Iraq.

Once the Iraqis and Syrians fled, they hoped for resettlement in another country. One refugee described waiting for resettlement as “miserable days doing nothing.” Almost all Iraqis interviewed by a variety of news sources said they would not return to their country.

Father Rifat Bader described the refugees: “They are teachers. They are normal people, very kind people.” Faith “is a part of their identity.”

The Iraqis, he said, “are knocking at the doors of the embassies” trying to get resettled. But after their initial appointment, they were being forced to wait six months for a second appointment, he said

 

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Both sides victimize innocent people in Gaza fighting, church leaders say

August 1st, 2014 Posted in International News Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The president of Caritas Internationalis suggested Israeli and Hamas leaders pick up a pair of binoculars so they could see that “most of your victims are innocent people.”

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, president of the Vatican-based umbrella organization for national Catholic charities, said peace is impossible without reconciliation, and reconciliation requires recognizing each other as human beings.

Sister Muna Totah, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, comforts Mansour Ghobon, 51, of Gaza at St. Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem July 30. Ghobon is one of 23 Gaza patients being treated at the hospital, which specializes in head- and chest-trauma wounds. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Sister Muna Totah, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, comforts Mansour Ghobon, 51, of Gaza at St. Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem July 30. Ghobon is one of 23 Gaza patients being treated at the hospital, which specializes in head- and chest-trauma wounds. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

“Israel and Hamas, why do you keep pointing out the speck in the eye of your brother while missing the plank in your own eye?” the cardinal asked in a statement published July 31.

“As Caritas,” he said, “we pray for peace in the Holy Land. We pray for the Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost their children, mothers and fathers, and for those who have been killed. Our prayers are with the children who live in terror and whose mental scars will run deep long after this war is over.”

Despite the violence, the cardinal prayed that Palestinians and Israelis “will remain free to believe in a future of justice and peace.”

“This is the third war in five years between Israel and militants in Gaza,” the cardinal said. “In the intervening years, Palestinians in Gaza have lived a life where water is scarce, much of their food comes from humanitarian organizations and where the dignity of a job is beyond many people’s reach.”

On Aug. 1, shortly after what was to be a 72-hour cease-fire, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem said temporary halts in fighting obviously are good, but unless Israel changes its policies toward Gaza, the desperation of residents will continue to lead to violence.

“If conditions in Gaza remain that of a desperate land under siege, where the only things that grow are fear and frustration that spur hatred,” then a temporary cease-fire will have no lasting impact, he told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

“It almost seems as if the point is to make Gaza a factory for desperate people who are easy to transform into extremists ready for anything,” the patriarch said.

The next step, he said, must be lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza. “Even the tunnels” dug by Hamas and a primary target of Israel’s military action, “are a product of the embargo. If the siege ends, if roads are opened and the free movement of persons and products is permitted, if people are allowed to fish in the sea” along the Gaza coast, then “no one will need to dig tunnels.”

The patriarch did not say Hamas militants are innocent. In fact, he seemed to put part of the blame on them for the high percentage of victims who are children and women.

“Just think of the fact that of all the tunnels, Hamas never thought to build underground refuges for the people,” he said.

 

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Gaza’s Christians work together to stay safe

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Members of the tiny Christian community in the Gaza Strip have been keeping tabs on each other and lending a helping hand to keep each other safe during Israeli airstrikes throughout the region, but nowhere in the territory is really safe, said a priest at the territory’s only Catholic parish.

Father Jorge Hernandez, an Argentine member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, said that one night, after a bomb siren sounded, he helped three Sisters of Charity evacuate 20 handicapped children from their home to his.

A Palestinian man examines the damage to his destroyed house following an Israeli airstrike north of Gaza City July 11. A Catholic priest in Gaza said Israeli missile attacks are wide-ranging and that there is no safe zone. (CNS photo/Mohammed Saber, EPA)

A Palestinian man examines the damage to his destroyed house following an Israeli airstrike north of Gaza City July 11. A Catholic priest in Gaza said Israeli missile attacks are wide-ranging and that there is no safe zone. (CNS photo/Mohammed Saber, EPA)

“We had to carry all the children in our arms,” Father Hernandez told Catholic News Service. “There is no space in my house, so we laid down blankets on the floor and put the children there.

“It was very intense and there was a lot of fear, but the bomb fell farther away,” he said.

Israel has said that its airstrikes in populated areas are targeted to the homes of militants, and they give phone warnings to all civilians in the house to leave the premises before attacking. The airstrikes began July 8.

While some people leave after the phone calls, there have been reports of others climbing on the roofs of houses to act as human shields. Almost half of the more than 100 Gazan dead are civilians, including women and children.

Father Hernandez said that three Gaza neighborhoods had been warned to evacuate, but there are no safety zones large enough for all the residents. Instead, the people seek refuge in government- and U.N.-run school buildings, he said.

“Everything is so close there is no place for them to go,” he said. “They are 100,000 people who have been told to leave, and then there is the problem of food and water for them. It is an enormous problem.”

The people of Gaza suspected that an attack was imminent a few days before Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, so the people prepared themselves by stocking supplies. Some neighborhood stores remain open, Father Hernandez said, and Israel has said it continues to allow food and humanitarian supplies to be taken into Gaza by truck. Media reported some 240 Palestinians with foreign passports have been allowed to leave the Gaza Strip.

Holy Family Parish was about to begin its summer camp and Father Hernandez was celebrating the opening Mass when the bombing began, he said, adding that the children were sent home.

The Sisters of the Institute of the Incarnate Word have been calling members of the parish to check up on them on a daily basis, he said, and he has remained in touch with his parishioners either by phone or by Skype. He is also in touch with the Greek Orthodox priest and Baptist pastor, and they remain united in helping the Christian community, he said.

“Maintaining contact with the people is important. Maybe I can’t reach them myself because of safety, but, for example, there is a very elderly woman who did not have any water on one of the most intense days of bombings, so I couldn’t go there but I called a neighbor who lived close by to bring her water,” he said.

Some 1,300 Christian Palestinians now live in Gaza amid 1.8 million Muslims, with 130 Catholics, a sprinkling of Baptists and a large majority of Greek Orthodox.

The Gaza Strip is a small area and the Israeli attacks are wide-ranging, said Father Hernandez, so there is no safe zone. Some Christian homes have had slight damage as a result of bombings, but as a whole most of the community has remained safe, and there have been no injuries, he said.

The Rosary Sisters serving in Gaza had left to visit their families when school ended, he said, as had his assistant priest, a Brazilian also from the Institute of the Incarnate Word. Three nuns of the same order — from Argentina, Brazil and Egypt — are in Gaza serving the parish.

Israelis in southern Israel have been under constant attack from missiles lobbed at them from within Gaza by Hamas militants, and residents of southern Israel have spent long hours in bomb shelters. Israel said July 11 that more than 550 rockets had been fired into Israel reaching into Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and as far north as the coastal city of Zichron Yaakov. Though there has been significant property damage, only one civilian and two soldiers have been reported injured. Most of the rockets have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

The bombings are not the only thing worrying the small Christian community in Gaza, Father Hernandez said.

Hamas is very strong in Gaza, he said, “and that makes people afraid that if the conflict continues for a long time, which it looks it will if someone does not come and stop it, there will be popular reaction against the Christians, as they have seen happen in other conflicts in the region.”

“When (the militants) see they are threatened and are going to lose, they usually go against the weaker segment of the population,” the priest said.

In addition, he said, before Operation Protective Edge began, an extremist Islamic group active in Iraq and Syria had demonstrated in Gaza.

“So you can see up to what level of fanaticism there is here, and people know that and (people) are afraid,” he said.

Father Hernandez described as a “cocktail” of very extreme forces present in Gaza and said the tiny Christian population was worried because of what they have seen happen to Christian communities in Syria and Iraq.

 

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Bishops visiting Holy Land decry ‘man-made disaster’ in Gaza

By

Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Bishops from North America, Europe and Africa called on international leaders to act immediately so people living in the Gaza Strip can have access to basic necessities.

Palestinian girls play in the courtyard of Schmidt’s girls school in East Jerusalem Jan. 15. Bishops from North America, Europe and Africa met with students during a solidarity trip to the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

“Gaza is a man-made disaster, a shocking scandal, an injustice that cries out to the human community for a resolution. We call upon political leaders to improve the humanitarian situation of the people in Gaza, assuring access to the basic necessities for a dignified human life, the possibilities for economic development and freedom of movement,” they said in their Jan. 16 statement.

The bishops spent the two days of their Jan. 11-16 trip visiting Christian schools and social and health institutions in Gaza as well as meeting with the local parishioners. Their visit, known as the Holy Land Coordination, is an annual event that began in 1988 at the request of the Vatican. Each year they come at the invitation of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land and focus on prayer, pilgrimage and advocacy with the aim of acting in solidarity with the local Christian community.

The tiny Christian community of Gaza is made up of about 2,500 Christians out of a total Gazan population of more than 1.5 million people. The majority of the Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, with just under 200 Catholics living in Gaza. Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control in 2007, although it loosened restrictions in 2010. Egypt opened one border crossing to Gaza in 2011.

“In the seemingly hopeless situation of Gaza, we met people of hope,” the bishops said. “We were encouraged by our visit to tiny Christian communities which, day after day, through many institutions, reach out with compassion to the poorest of the poor, both Muslim and Christian.”

At least one bishop remarked on the destroyed buildings and pock-marked facades that remain from Israeli shelling of Gaza.

In their statement, the bishops noted the warmth with which they were received in Gaza, and also the Christians’ request that they not be forgotten by the world’s Christians, whom they asked to pray for them and support them in whatever way they can.

The delegation also visited Palestinian Catholic schools in Gaza, East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, West Bank.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said he was impressed by the “efforts for education” at Bethlehem University, the Schmidt’s Girls College in East Jerusalem, and the Catholic schools in Gaza.

“(These efforts) build a foundation which have a final impact on the interaction with different cultures and faith,” the bishop said during a Jan. 15 visit to the German Catholic girls’ school, where some 500 girls study from kindergarten through high school. “Education offers a perspective that will hopefully give way to peace.”

Rudiger Hocke, headmaster, told the bishops that several graduates of the school have already served in Palestinian governmental positions. He said while the school does not encourage emigration, it sees its mission as preparing its students for wherever life might take them.

“Palestine is a country where children do not know where they will end up in 10 years. They must be able to function in all parts of the world,” he said. In addition, he said, he sees his charges as the future leaders of their society for negotiations and contact with the Israelis, and they must be able to function on an equal level with their Israeli counterparts.

Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was struck by the important role Christian institutions and organizations such as the schools play in reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.

“We often picture Muslim-Christian relations in the rest of the world being antagonistic but here … at least where Christian institutions are running (programs), they really build relationships. It is quite remarkable and hope-filled,” said Archbishop Durocher.

He compared the complete isolation of the Gazans to building a wall around Montreal and not giving people freedom of movement. Nevertheless, he said, “the complexities of the issues are overwhelming.”

“From outside it is difficult to understand why (the Israelis and Palestinians) don’t just sit down and talk and solve their problems. But then you realize that the roots of the problem (of) distrust are built over decades of fear, and that kind of feeds everything,” he said.

In this situation what is most remarkable is the resilience of the people, he added, and the hope they maintain in the midst of their struggle.

“It is a testimony to the human spirit,” he said.

Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said it is also important to “have sensitivity to the needs of the people who live in Israel.”

“We have to (hear) the hope, fears and expectations of both communities,” he said.

South African Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town said he felt a “great affinity” with the Palestinians, whose suffering he compared to blacks in South Africa under apartheid.

“I personally would not call (Israel) an apartheid state. I believe there are nuances in the Holy Land which must be recognized … but it is very similar to apartheid in the sense of the loss of human dignity and of the subjection of people to the political will of others,” said Archbishop Brislin.

He said South Africa’s example should offer hope to the people of the Holy Land.

“We must never forget that democracy in South Africa brought not only liberation to black people but also to white people, because it freed whites from the burden of oppressing people and allowed us to develop normal relationships with our fellow human beings,” the archbishop said. “The same can be true of the Holy Land, and I believe it will be.”

 

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U.S. bishop visits Gaza, calls residents’ situation ‘intolerable’

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — A U.S. bishop who traveled into the Gaza Strip called the situation there “intolerable” and said it must be “addressed by the world community.”

“People are denied their basic rights of movement and the opportunity to experience what we call a normal life,” Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, told Catholic News Service Jan. 13 as he and other church leaders arrived in Bethlehem, West Bank.

Bishop Pates, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, was part of the Holy Land Coordination, an annual event in which bishops from the U.S., Canada and Europe travel to the Mideast to show support for churches there.

He called Gaza’s tiny Christian community a “long-suffering people” and said the local Christians were concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for their children. However, he added, parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church were extremely grateful for their visit and their support.

“Typically people do not visit (them in Gaza),” he said. “They were grateful for the help people give them in the situation and by recognizing the difficulties they are facing. The described a difficult and problematic situation which is really a slap in the face of dignity.”

Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control in 2007, although it loosened restrictions in 2010. Egypt opened one border crossing to Gaza in 2011.

Bishop Pates said that although the church leaders’ entrance into Gaza through Israeli security went smoothly, it took them two hours to cross the border on the way out.

“It really brought home for us how intolerable the security situation is,” said Bishop Pates. “It was very disconcerting.”

In November 2012, Israel launched its Pillar of Defense attack on Gaza, in response to hundreds of rockets being launched into southern Israel from Gaza.

Bishop Pates said the destruction in Gaza remains visible, with destroyed buildings and pock-marked facades.

“You see terrific devastation. Some buildings still have evidence (of the attack),” he said

Besides visiting the Catholic parish, the bishops met with members of the local Christian community, including Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexius

 

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