The Holy Land in 2014: The best of times and the worst of times (source: Vatican Insider 25/12/14)

In this year’s Christmas message, Patriarch Fouad Twal says: Despite the “intensification of violence”, the Pope’s “visit followed by the beautiful prayer meeting in the Vatican gardens … may produce fruits many years ahead”
Giorgio Bernardelli

The devastating war in Gaza, the assault on the Har Nof synagogue and all other kind of violence against innocent people. The “heartbreaking” sight of children who have fled Syria and Iraq “running in the dust of the camp, without any goal and direction in life.” But also gratitude for Francis’ visit, along with the certainty that one day the seeds of peace will produce fruits in Jerusalem too.

This is how the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, urged people to look at today’s Holy Land in this year’s Christmas message published this morning. As always, the text presents an overview of the year that is coming to an end, a year that has brought faithful some joys but also some profound disappointments. “The best and the worst of times,” as Twal defines it, quoting Charles Dickens.

The greatest joy was clearly Francis’ visit to the Holy Land in May, which “was successful on the pastoral and ecumenical level,” the Patriarch writes, linking it to the memory of the prayer meeting with Shimon Peres and Abu Mazen in the Vatican gardens. Signs of peace, which Christians in the Holy Land must treasure: “Even though we did not obtain any concrete result from that meeting, however, every prayer is valid and the fruits may come much later, like the olive tree, planted on that occasion and which may produce fruits many years ahead.”

These fruits are what the Holy See is hoping for in the midst of worsening violence. The Patriarch mentions the war in Gaza, the third in the space of just a few years, “the devastating war and accompanying bloodshed in Gaza, being the most shattering of all.” “We condemn the Gaza war and deplore its dramatic consequences: killing and destruction; but at the same time, we condemn any category of violence and retaliation against innocent people such as the killing of people praying in a synagogue and attacks against mosques.” He recalls the peace gestures of Christians in the Holy Land in recent months in an attempt to quell tensions and the mission of the” Holy City whose vocation is to be the city of peace and interreligious coexistence.” Twal does not list the initiatives and political debates of recent days but he nevertheless sends out a crystal clear message to the international community to be more engaged: “Great are the responsibilities of political leaders – Israeli and Palestinian – to find and facilitate a solution. Great too is the responsibility of the international community to help these two parties to help themselves…”

These solutions for peace in the Holy Land are not to be found in statements of principles but in concrete calls for justice. This is why the Latin Patriarch has chosen his Christmas message to remind people of two dramatic situations in particular that have been afflicting Christians in the Holy Land for years. Following on from the Synod’s reflections regarding the family, he mentioned the families that are divided by conflict: Many families suffer from lack of legal documents for a couple to be able to live together when the marriage is between one Palestinian and a non-Palestinian. Here we ask the Israeli government to ease the present restrictions on family reunification.”

Another issue the Patriarch mentions in his Christmas message is the Cremisan Valley case. The area risks being separated from Palestine by the wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian territories. Legal proceedings began years ago and the developments of the recent Supreme Court hearing seem to offer few signs of hope.” We are afraid that the Court might decide that the land belonging to 58 Palestinian Christian families, might be separated from Beit Jala. Such a decision will harm our community and we hope that the judges be inspired by ethical principles and not to submit to political pressure.”

Naturally, the Patriarch’s message also mentioned the drama of Christians in Syria and Iraq. The Church in the Holy Land feels the painful effects of this, first hand, given the presence of refugees that find shelter here, but also because of the spread of radicalism. “We are all surprised that young people from Europe embrace radical ideologies and join the fight in Syria and Iraq,” Twal remarks, whilst recognising that many Arab and Muslim leaders have condemned these ideologies.

Finally, one of the joys this Christmas season, is the decree Pope Francis issued in recent days opening the way for the canonization of two women in the Holy Land: Sister Mariam Bawardi, founder of the Carmelite monastery of Bethlehem and Sister Marie Alphonsine Ghattas who was born in Jerusalem’s Old City and co-founded the Holy Rosary Sisters. The schools run by this congregation are a vital educational resource to the local Arabic Christian community. In his message, Twal announced that the canonization ceremony will take place next summer and will be accompanied by a pilgrimage of Holy Land Christians to Rome.


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