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Longing for Christmas peace in the Holy Land

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During this wonderful time of the year, when Christians throughout the world focus minds and hearts on the coming of God upon the earth as one of us, our attention naturally turns to the place where the incarnation occurred.

While all the Earth is a holy creation of the almighty, Bethlehem and the surrounding lands that Jesus walked upon, taught upon, miraculously acted upon, suffered and died upon, and gloriously resurrected upon are uniquely holy and thus deserving of the title Holy Land.

In the Holy Land the Prince of Peace taught humanity the way to true peace.     Read more »

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Catholic leaders in Holy Land pray for those hit by wildfires

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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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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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Unrest flares again in West Bank, Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Unrest flared in early October throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem, which has experienced tensions during September, largely over the status of the contested holy site of the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif.

A Palestinian throws a stone at Israeli troops during clashes in Bethlehem, West Bank, Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)

A Palestinian throws a stone at Israeli troops during clashes in Bethlehem, West Bank, Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)

Four Israelis were killed in the Old City of Jerusalem: a couple driving near their West Bank settlement with their four children in the back of their car, and two men, one of whom was on his way to pray at the Western Wall at the end of the Jewish Sabbath; his wife and toddler were injured in the attack. An ultra-Orthodox teenage boy was later stabbed near the same place.

Catholic News Service was unable to reach the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land or the Franciscan St. Saviour Parish in the Old City for comment.

Palestinians said the attacks were reprisals for the killing of a young Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near Hebron, West Bank, as well as the shooting of another Palestinian man on the eve of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, not far from where the couple was murdered. Media reported the 19-year-old Palestinian who carried out the Old City attack had posted on Facebook that Palestinians would not accept Israel’s attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque and declared the start of the third intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

The Israeli Defense Forces carried out raids in the West Bank against suspected terrorists, but the Israeli Haaretz newspaper quoted an IDF source as saying that Israel was reluctant to deal a collective punishment to the Palestinian public. The source counseled restraint in dealing with the situation in order not to set off a third intifada. One Palestinian was killed in rioting in Bethlehem Oct. 5.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestinian police continued their investigation into a Sept. 26 fire at the Maronite Monastery of St. Charbel and have arrested several suspects in what they said was a work-dispute-related incident. The fire caused extensive damage; the structure was undergoing renovations at the time, and there was no working electricity.

However, Deacon Sobhy Makhoul, Maronite Patriarchate chancellor, initially said the attack was sectarian in nature and called it arson by extremist Muslims in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood. Deacon Makhoul was out of the country in early October and could not be reached for comment.

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Christian leaders hope Palestinian saints can be intercessors for peace

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Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Christian leaders in the Holy Land hope two new Palestinian saints will become intercessors for peace and a bridge among faiths.

“I am sure they follow our situation from heaven and will continue to intercede for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land,” Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem said at a news conference May 6. “Their intercession is strong and efficacious.” Read more »

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Bishops see signs of resilience in ‘open-air prison’ of Gaza

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Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Despite the immense destruction still evident in Gaza following the war there last summer, the resilience of the people gave hope to 16 bishops of the Holy Land Coordination during their visit to the Gaza Strip Jan. 11-12.

One boy’s words continued to resonate with Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The boy, who was the last student to speak to the bishops before they left Holy Family School in Gaza, told them he simply wanted dignity.

An unidentified bishop, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., and Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, England, pray during a Jan. 12 Mass with other bishops from around the world at the Carmelite Monastery in Bethlehem, West Bank. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

An unidentified bishop, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., and Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, England, pray during a Jan. 12 Mass with other bishops from around the world at the Carmelite Monastery in Bethlehem, West Bank. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

“What made a deep impression on me is that the people are not broken,” said Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa. “Their will is very strong. We saw this in the way they interacted with us and the fact that life is as back to as normal as possible. It signifies the strength of the human spirit.”

It took some of the bishops six hours to get through the Erez checkpoint into Gaza where they celebrated Mass, met with members of the Christian community and were briefed on the work of CRS, Caritas and the Pontifical Mission in Gaza.

The bishops also visited the Israeli border town of Sderot, which was among the Israeli towns that came under bombardment from Gaza during the war, before returning to Bethlehem.

“We shouldn’t make light of the Israeli perspective and we need to listen to it; it is truly a concern and before the walls of separation there were suicide bombings. We understand the fear, but that is not a long-term solution,” said Bishop Cantu. “The wall of separation is causing even more problems, even in the short term.”

Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England, noted that an Israeli they spoke with in Sderot remembered with fondness the time when Gazan workers were able to come to the city, and they had meals together.

Israel and Egypt instituted a border blockade of Gaza in 2007 following an internal struggle between two Palestinian factions — Hamas, which Israel, the United States and others consider a terrorist organization, and Fatah, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip following their legislative election win in 2006.

As a result of the blockade, the bishops noted, Gaza residents are still struggling to repair or rebuild their homes when it is extremely difficult to obtain much-needed building supplies.

Tens of thousands of people are still living in their bombed out homes or under primitive conditions even during the recent cold spells, the bishops noted, calling Gaza an “open-air prison.” They emphasized the importance of showing solidarity for the people living in Gaza so they know they are not forgotten.

“The biggest need for the people of Gaza is freedom,” said Bishop Felix Gmur of Basel, Switzerland. “They do not feel free because there is no exchange of goods or (movement) of people.”

He noted the strength of the shrinking Gazan Christian community.

“They hold on. They keep being there,” Bishop Gmur said. “It makes me feel sad because they are not free; they are living in circumstances which are partially hostile because … there are some (Muslims) who would like them to be outside of Gaza.”

In the face of growing radicalization of Islam in the region as well as in Europe, it is up to religious leaders of all faiths, especially Christians, to uphold the banner of reconciliation, several bishops said.

Since 1998, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has organized the annual meeting of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church of the Holy Land at the invitation of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.

Mandated by the Holy See, the Holy Land Coordination meets every January in the Holy Land, focusing on prayer, pilgrimage and persuasion with the aim of acting in solidarity with the Christian community there and sharing in the pastoral life of the local church as it experiences intense political and social-economic pressure.

 

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