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Catholic leaders in Holy Land pray for those hit by wildfires


Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land expressed solidarity with those affected by regional wildfires, which continued to burn after five days.

“We thank God for the fact that the majority of human injuries were light; we express our solidarity with those who suffer from physical or material damage,” they said in a Nov. 25 statement.

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

“Our country needs the fire of love which unites people, expands hearts and thoughts and enables a safe life full of faith, justice and love,” they said.

By Nov. 28 security officials said most fires were under control; of the 90 fires that broke out throughout Israel and the West Bank, 40 were suspected arson, they said, adding they believe the outbreak of the initial fires was due to a combination of negligence, accidents and dry, windy weather after a two-month drought.

Local mosques and Christian institutions made themselves available for those evacuees in need of a place to stay, though the majority of the people stayed with family and friends or in hotels.

The fires broke out Nov. 22 and spread across the countryside, damaging hundreds of properties and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, 60,000 of those in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, Israel’s third -largest city. Firefighters also battled flames in several Arab and Druze villages, including a village outside of Nazareth, and several communities outside of Jerusalem, including the Neve Shalom community, where Jews and Arabs live together.

Haifa is home to a large population of Christian residents who make up 14 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The numerous brush fires in the city did not affect the neighborhoods where the majority of Christians and Christian institutions are located.

At the same time in a sign of rare regional cooperation with its Arab neighbors, Israel received assistance in form of personnel and equipment from Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in addition to other countries, including the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Italy and Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him for his assistance, and the Israeli press reported that Jewish settlers from Halamish, one of the hardest-hit communities, came out to thank the Palestinian firefighters who had helped battle the flames.

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Church leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites


Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Although Israeli officials have publicly criticized the June arson attack that seriously damaged the Benedictine Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, anti-Christian violence is not new, said a representative of the religious order.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem July 27. Christian leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem July 27. Christian leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the Benedictine Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion,  told Catholic News Service that fires and vandalism have plagued other churches and church property for years.

The abbey was set on fire May 25, 2014, soon after Pope Francis visited the site during his Holy Land pilgrimage. It is located near a yeshiva and the Tomb of David, where the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, site of the Last Supper, is located.

A year earlier, two cars owned by the Benedictines were set on fire. Benedictine monks often are victims of verbal and spitting attacks, and Christian tombstones are smashed, Father Schnabel said. In March, a Greek Orthodox seminary was damaged in an arson attack and a wall was sprayed with anti-Christian graffiti.

Although there have been photos of people spitting at and verbally abusing the monks, no arrests in connection with any of the incidents have been made, Father Schnabel said. A Benedictine request that a security camera be installed near their property has gone unheeded, he added.

“We are very thankful for the many signs of solidarity from our friends in the civil society, but (until Tabgha) we never heard any officials respond,” the Benedictine priest said.

With the official condemnations of the Tabgha attack, the Benedictines are “very happy with the words,” but are “now looking for results,” he said.

No charges have been brought in connection with the incident, although police announced July 11 that they had arrested several suspects.

The building housing the traditional locations of the Cenacle and the Tomb of David continues to be a point of contention within the National Religious Party, a Zionist political party whose supporters believe in the right of Israel over all areas of the biblical Jewish Holy Land. The party has used the building as a rallying point, charging at times that it will be transferred to the Vatican or Christians.

Makor Rishon, a newspaper identified with conservative national and religious values, regularly publishes anti-Christian articles and charges against Christians and the monastery in particular.

“It is a very tiny group of national religious Jews,” said Father Schnabel, emphasizing that it was important to point out that the perpetrators are not, as often portrayed in the media, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many are those who are prohibited from entering the West Bank by Israeli authorities, those known as “the hilltop youth” who establish illegal settlements on hilltops in the West Bank, he said.

The Benedictine said those who carry out the attacks adhere to an ultranationalist stance that often calls for ridding Israel of non-Jewish individuals and organizations.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal blamed government inaction and a lack of education about tolerance and understanding for the continuing attacks.

“Sometimes the government of Israel condemns (incidents) and many private Israeli institutions and Israelis come or write beautiful letters condemning the attacks, saying this is not their way,” noted Patriarch Twal. “But it is not enough for the government to condemn the actions. We ask for follow-up with action.”

He charged that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tacitly encourages such behavior.

“They are in the government. All the right-wing government is their allies. This is their line,” he said. “They are an integral part of the government. This is our society. We haven’t a normal life.”

In a June 22 statement, the Christian Palestinian initiative Kairos Palestine expressed concern that such continued incidents could “fan dissent and fire religious conflicts in the Holy Land.” It said that failing to hold the perpetrators accountable for their deeds encourages them to continue with such actions.

“The Israeli authorities are responsible for this kind of terrorism and the absence of security for the religious Christian and Muslim sites,” Kairos Palestine said.

Under police order not to speak about the case so as not to interfere in the police investigation of the Tabgha attack, Father Schnabel said: “We feel that there is not the lack of ability to look for results and arrests but a serious lack of will. I hope I am wrong but we have that feeling.”

As difficult as it may be, the priest said, it is necessary for Israel and its officials to acknowledge that a small fringe within society does not tolerate minorities; this is part of the religious freedom and democracy that Father Schnabel is convinced Israel supports.

Arresting the culprits helps with a feeling of justice being done, but it is only treating the symptom of the illness rather than the problem itself, he said.

“You have to go to the root of the problem,” he said.


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Vatican signs agreement with Palestine, calls for two-state solution


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Holy See and Palestine have signed a historic agreement that supports a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, based on the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.

The two parties signed the “Comprehensive Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine” at the Vatican June 26. The accord, which includes a preamble and 32 articles, focuses mostly on the status and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine. It assures the church “juridical recognition” and “guarantees” for its work and institutions in Palestine. Read more »

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Call to build bridges, not walls, in the Holy Land


Dialog reporter


Palestinian pastor Rev. Dr. Raheb Mitri visits Delaware to talk about oppression in his homeland


NEWARK – Since the time of Jesus, there have been Christians in the Holy Land, but for much of that time, they have lived under the occupation of others, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor told an audience in Newark on May 18.

“Unfortunately, not too many people are aware of what is going on in Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem,” said Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and president of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, an advocacy organization for the people of Palestine. Raheb spoke at multiple events in Delaware, including this one at First Presbyterian Church-Newark. Read more »

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Exiled residents of destroyed Israeli village unite each month at the church


Catholic News Service

IQRIT, Israel — For the elders of Iqrit, their biggest regret in life is not having been able to raise their children together.

On April 13, they congregated with the younger generations in the old Church of St. Mary for Easter Monday Mass in this destroyed Melkite village perched on a sloping hill in Western Galilee.

Father Souhail Khoury blesses a baby after Easter Monday Mass at St. Mary's Church in Iqrit, Israel, April 13. The residents were expelled by the Israeli army in 1948 and have never been able to permanently return to the village. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Father Souhail Khoury blesses a baby after Easter Monday Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Iqrit, Israel, April 13. The residents were expelled by the Israeli army in 1948 and have never been able to permanently return to the village. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

As youngsters, they and their families left the village in October 1948, shortly after the Israeli war of independence, at the behest of the fledgling Israeli army, which said they would be allowed to return after 15 days. The villagers had hoisted the white flag atop their church as the soldiers entered, and the village priest received them with a Bible, and salt and bread as signs of peace and rapport.

But as Israel, which uses the Jewish calendar for holidays, is set to celebrate its 67th independence day April 23, the people of Iqrit are still waiting to return to their village.

A July 1951 Supreme Court decision ruled residents could return due to a lack of evacuation orders. Five months after the court’s decision, formal evacuation orders were issued. On Christmas Eve 1951, Iqrit was destroyed except for the church.

Villagers were finally allowed to re-enter their village in the summer of 1971.

The tightly knit group of some 126 families eventually dispersed among nearby villages, but they have never lost their connection to their town or given up their struggle to return. They continue to celebrate a monthly Mass at the church together, to teach their children, grandchildren, and now the newest great-grandchildren to love their Iqrit roots through gatherings and summer camps. They have come to bury their dead at the cemetery here, and now the elders say that they, too, will be buried here. At least then, they say, they will be allowed to return to Iqrit.

“Even our children don’t know each other. It is sad,” said Abdullah Haddad, 85, as he recounts the story of his secret courtship with his wife, Vidad, 83. Their relationship was disrupted because of what followed after the evacuation, and Abdullah Haddad went to work in Jerusalem. But Vidad Haddad said she put off other marriage proposals and waited 10 years until she and Abdullah could marry.

Haddad said he has not yet lost hope of returning, if not him, then his grandchildren.

Sitting together in a tin shack used as a reception hall with his brother Ibrahim and some childhood friends, Ayoub Ayoub, 76, recalled Easters in the village, when the girls would prepare colored eggs and the boys would sneak around to steal a look at the girls they fancied.

“These are memories we don’t forget,”he said. “When we are here, we are like one family. It is a happy and sad occasion to come here. The only thing I ask is that when God takes me, he allows my soul to return here and not to Rameh as a refugee.”

Though several Israel politicians and even nearby Jewish communities have expressed support for their cause, officially Israel has not relented.

Aymen Odeh, a Muslim, attended the Easter Monday Mass. The newly elected Knesset member is leader of the Joint Arab List, now Israel’s third-largest political party. He is a longtime supporter of the villagers and said he respects their nonviolent methods, but added that it was time to take the case outside the village.

“We need demonstrations in public squares and in front of the Knesset,” he said. “Things here are far away from the public eye.”

He said the Israeli position that the villagers could not return because of security reasons due to its strategic hilltop location is no longer valid, because the villagers and their descendants have proven to be loyal, productive citizens of Israel, some even serve in the army. He said the fear that their return would create precedence for demands by others is also null since the cases of Iqrit, and the Maronite Catholic village of Biram, whose residents faced a similar situation, are unique in that they left with the promise of return and have a Supreme Court decision in their favor.

For several years, some members of the younger generation, such as Nijmy Yacoub, 26, who grew up in Kfar Yasif, and Samer Awess, 21, of Haifa, have established a presence on the site, rehabilitating the rectory and planting gardens near the church. When they can, they spend the night in the village.

“We love the land and we feel a strong connection to this place,” said Awess, noting that theirs has always been a peaceful struggle. There is no reason to resort to violence, he said. “That is the nature of the village. We are doing the right thing. We feel like we have something here which belongs to us. I believe that someday we will be allowed to return. There is no reason not to. We are not settlers here; this is ours.”

“I feel more connected here than to the village where I grew up,” added Yacoub, who had her young niece and nephew, already the fifth generation of Iqrit descendants, in tow. “When I come here I feel comfortable, and I come here when I am feeling low. I like to tell the stories my grandparents told my father, and my father told me.”

After the Mass, Melkite Father Souhail Khoury, whose great-great-great-grandfather was a priest in the village and is buried in the church, was asked by several eager grandparents to “church” the newest-born, in the Melkite tradition.

“Even if we live in Haifa or other places where we have no problems, our connection is here to the church and the priest here. This is our holy site,” said Hubbeya Khoury, 60, as she held her infant grandson, Ettienne, after the rite.

“We believe in prayer,” said the priest, who lives in Nazareth, where he also serves as a parish priest and in a nearby village. “We ask God to be with us and hear us and answer us so we can come back to live in Iqrit.”


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Bishop criticizes Texas senator for politicizing summit on Mideast Christians


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A Catholic bishop criticized Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for politicizing a conference of diverse political and church leaders working on behalf of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.

“When you come to a hard political stance on anything, it’s going to cause a flare-up, and that’s what happened last night,” Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, New York, told Catholic News Service Sept. 11.

Cruz was a keynote speaker at the gala solidarity dinner at the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians, a new organization with the aim of shaping policy and heightening awareness of Christians in the Middle East.

The conference brought together more than 500 politicians, church leaders, including Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs flown in from the Middle East, and Christians in the diaspora. The patriarchs emphasized that their differences did not preclude unity on behalf of all minorities in the Middle East.

Cruz, touted as a potential Republican candidate for president in 2016, left the stage after he was booed for saying that Christians have no better ally than Israel.

In a statement posted on his website, Cruz said: “After just a few minutes, I had no choice. I told them that if you will not stand with Israel, if you will not stand with the Jews, then I will not stand with you. And then I walked off the stage.”

Bishop Mansour said he felt Cruz “had a litmus test for us: If we don’t stand with Israel, then he won’t stand with us. Well, that’s not an approach that is viable for a Christian.

“Christians don’t ally themselves to any state,” said Bishop Mansour. “We are not allied to the state — to the United States or to Iraq, or to Syria. Christians must be free to engage their society, to build up what is beautiful in it, and to critique what is not.”

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, distinguished professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University, attended the conference but was not at the gala.

In a blog for ncronline.org, scheduled for publication Sept. 15, Father Christiansen contrasted the unanimity of the patriarchs’ message on Christians with Cruz’s remarks, which he called divisive.

“Members of the audience responded that calls made by Cruz and other speakers for respect for Jews and their inclusion in a pluralist Middle East had met with wide approval,” wrote Father Christiansen, who has spent years advocating for Mideast Christians in his work as a policy adviser for the U.S. bishops’ conference and as editor of America magazine.

“It was Cruz’s assertion that Israel was an ally of Middle Eastern Christians to which they objected,” he wrote. “They felt that their effort to build a coalition had been hijacked for the sake of Cruz’s own political ambitions and the ultra-Zionist cause.”

Bishop Mansour, who said he liked Cruz personally, told CNS: “I ran after him, and I saw him, face to face, as you and I are talking. He was very upset.”

But he pointed out that many in the audience at the gala dinner were Palestinian Christians.

“Come on, you have to talk to your audience, you have to talk to the people who are here. I felt that showed a great insensitivity on his part,” said Bishop Mansour, whose comments were echoed by others in attendance.

“We’ve been very careful, all the organizers and everybody involved,” said Bishop Mansour. “The only one who was not very careful was Sen. Cruz.”

“He made it very clear about defense of Jews and defense of Christians, but he did not mention defense of Muslims,” said Bishop Mansour. He said everyone at the conference had been “very careful to defend the best of the Muslim tradition and to condemn the worst in it.”

The bishop noted that 18 congressmen and senators had had talks with the Christian leaders on Capitol Hill without any kind of animosity.

After Cruz left the stage, one of the event organizers chastised the crowd, and In Defense of Christians posted a statement on its website from its president, Toufic Baaklini:

“As (Lebanese) Cardinal (Bechara) Rai so eloquently put it to the attendees of the In Defense of Christians’ inaugural summit gala dinner: ‘At every wedding, there are a few problems.’ In this case, a few politically motivated opportunists chose to divide a room that for more than 48 hours sought unity in opposing the shared threat of genocide, faced not only by our Christian brothers and sisters, but our Jewish brothers and sisters and people of all other faiths and all people of good will.

“Tonight’s injection of politics when the focus should have been on unity and faith momentarily played into the hands of a few who do not adhere to IDC’s principles. They were made no longer welcome,” the statement said, without indicating whether that meant the hecklers or Cruz.

The senator also posted a statement on his website:

“Tonight in Washington should have been a night of unity as we came together for the inaugural event for a group that calls itself ‘In Defense of Christians.’ Instead, it unfortunately deteriorated into a shameful display of bigotry and hatred,” the statement said.

“When I spoke in strong support of Israel and the Jewish people, who are being persecuted and murdered by the same vicious terrorists who are also slaughtering Christians, many Christians in the audience applauded. But, sadly, a vocal and angry minority of attendees at the conference tried to shout down my expression of solidarity with Israel.

“They cannot shout down the truth. And we should not shy away from expressing the truth, even in the face of, especially in the face of, ignorance and bigotry,” it said.


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Viewpoint: When global problems heat up


If there’s anything good to say about the state of the world this month, it’s that at least we’re going to have nice weather for the apocalypse.

The poet Robert Frost once noted that “some say the world will end in fire and some say ice.” Who knew it could end during one of the balmy summer days we’ve enjoyed in the Diocese of Wilmington this year?

It’s not the heat; it’s the history of recent world conflicts and the dangers they portend. Here’s a review of this summer’s news: Read more »

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Working to end the madness, restore dignity in the Middle East


Catholic Near East Welfare Association


Catholic Near East Welfare Association works with churches to aid the poor, create dialogue, inspire peace


“The situation on the ground [in Gaza] is horrific. The attack on the Shajaia neighborhood yesterday [July 20] was very ugly and left 50 dead (including 17 children, 14 women and 4 senior citizens) as well as 210 wounded and 70,000 displaced. … “Those who visited the neighborhood during the two-hour humanitarian ceasefire yesterday reported bodies of women and children scattered in the narrow streets. …

“The Latin and Greek Orthodox parishes have opened facilities to receive those displaced mostly from Shajaia. There has not been any human loss affecting Christians, and property damage is limited to broken glass and minor damage. Let’s hope it remains this way. The most serious damage to the community is clearly psychological.

“We are continuously assessing the situation and continue to pray for an end to this madness.” Read more »

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Pope urges Israeli, Palestinian leaders to end Holy Land conflict

July 18th, 2014 Posted in Featured, Vatican News Tags: , , , ,


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Expressing his serious concerns over the escalating violence in the Holy Land, Pope Francis telephoned Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urging all sides to end hostilities and build peace.

Palestinians look at a destroyed building in Gaza City shortly after an airstrike by Israeli Defense Forces July 17. Caritas Jerusalem officials say Gaza civilians are paying the price for the Israeli-Hamas conflict. (CNS photo/Oliver Weiken, EPA)

Palestinians look at a destroyed building in Gaza City shortly after an airstrike by Israeli Defense Forces July 17. Caritas Jerusalem officials say Gaza civilians are paying the price for the Israeli-Hamas conflict. (CNS photo/Oliver Weiken, EPA)

The morning after Israel launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the pope personally telephoned the two leaders July 18 to express “his very serious concerns about the current situation of conflict.”

Phoning Peres at 10 in the morning and Abbas at 11:30 Rome time, the pope told the leaders that the conflict was creating “numerous victims and was giving way to a state of serious humanitarian emergency,” the Vatican said in a written statement July 18.

The pope told the two presidents, whom the pope “considers to be men of peace and who want peace,” that constant prayer was needed.

He also urged them to “work hard at making sure all interested parties and those who have political responsibilities on the local and international levels dedicate themselves to bring an end to all hostilities, striving to foster a truce, peace and a reconciliation of hearts,” the Vatican said.

The pope assured the two leaders of his “constant prayers” as well as the prayers of the whole church “for peace in the Holy Land.”

Meanwhile, the pope also assured the parish priest of the Holy Family Church, the only Catholic parish in Gaza, of his prayers.

One of the pope’s secretaries sent an email around 7 p.m. July 17 to Father Jorge Hernandez, an Argentine priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word.

According to the Vatican, the brief message said, “I accompany you all with my prayers. May the Holy Virgin keep watch over you.”

Holy Family Parish had been holding eucharistic adoration and celebrated a special Mass “to implore forgiveness, justice and peace for all,” according to Vatican Radio.

The priest has opened the parish school to “numerous families” who fled their homes in bombed neighborhoods, according to Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news service. The families “didn’t sleep a wink all night because of the bombing,” a Brazilian nun, identified only as Sister Laudis, told Fides.

“The houses were shaking, the children were crying,” said the nun who said she had spoken with Father Hernandez after leaving Gaza July 17 for Beit Jalla, a village near Bethlehem.


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Pope Francis discusses peace in Middle East with Israel’s prime minister

December 2nd, 2013 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , ,


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel Dec. 2, and discussed prospects for peace in the Middle East and the pope’s still-unscheduled trip to the Holy Land.

The two met privately for about 25 minutes in the pope’s library.

Pope Francis presents a gift to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a private audience at the Vatican December 2. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)

A statement from the Vatican press office said the leaders discussed the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, hoping that a just and lasting solution may be found as soon as possible.”

The pope’s plans for a trip to the Holy Land also came up, but the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters no date had been set. Unofficial reports suggest the trip will be in May or June.

After their private meeting, the prime minister presented the pope with a book about the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews.

The book, “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” was written by the prime minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, a noted historian who died in 2012 at the age of 102. It argues that Spanish Christians of Jewish origin were persecuted not for any religious deviations but because of racism and envy of their economic success.

The prime minister had inscribed his present, a copy of the book’s Spanish edition, “To His Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage.”

Netanyahu also gave Pope Francis a silver menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum used in celebrating the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, sitting on a silver tray with a little silver oil pitcher.

The pope gave Netanyahu a bronze plaque bearing an image of St. Paul.

It was the two men’s first meeting, but Netanyahu had met with Blessed John Paul II in 1997 and with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.


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