In recent years, even at Christmastime, there has been little good news from the Holy Land, but on Nov. 19 Latin-rite Catholics in the Holy Land had reason to celebrate. That day they welcomed Bishop Fouad Twal, until recently bishop of Tunis, as coadjutor patriarch of Jerusalem. Bishop Twal, a Jordanian, is a priest of the patriarchate who served as pastor in Ramallah in the West Bank and in Irbid and Amman in Jordan. Twal’s appointment was a sign both of renewal and of continuity for Christians in the Holy Land.
Pope Benedict XVI’s appointment of the coadjutor is a signal of his concern for the future of the church of Jerusalem. Twal’s address at the pontifical Mass demonstrated continuity with the defense of human rights by the current patriarch, Michel Sabbah. He took note of the crisis of unemployment and emigration affecting the Christian community as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted the common suffering of Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews. He also professed his belief that faith cannot be separated from the defense of the image of God in every human being.
For the Christians of the Holy Land, Twal’s installation is a small ray of light in a deep winter gloom. In Bethlehem, the Israeli government completed the last segment of the security wall separating Israel from the West Bank and dividing Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem. Mayor Victor Batarseh told The Times of London, “Bethlehem has become a prison for its citizens.” While foreign pilgrims can enter Bethlehem with relative ease, leaving it can now take up to three hours. The hotel trade, which is essential to the town’s economy and had only just started to revive, has again begun a downward slide.
For 13 years, as adviser to the U.S. bishops on Middle East affairs and liaison with the church in the Holy Land, I tried to find American Catholics who would function as rays of light in the darkness of occupation and resistance. One of them, Sue Morris, former director of social ministry in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., was among the first pilgrims I accompanied to the Holy Land in the hope of motivating other diocesan pilgrim guides. This month Sue is leading 34 pilgrims, including Springfield’s Bishop George L. Lucas, on her sixth pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Another beam of light is Joe Donnelly. Along with Jonathan Evans, the Catholic Relief Service country representative in the mid-1990’s, Joe, who was a volunteer working with the Latin patriarch, helped me establish strong links between the U.S. bishops’ conference and the church in the Holy Land. Today Joe represents Caritas Internationalis, the consortium of Catholic national charities, at the United Nations. There he works with an N.G.O. working group on Israel-Palestine issues. On Nov. 29 the Caritas network issued a statement imploring world leaders “to commit themselves seriously to the road map” for peace between Israel and Palestine.
Another point of light is Rateb Rabie, the president of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation. Over several years Rateb, a Palestinian-American, has built up the foundation to be a serious source of support for Palestinian Christians. The foundation is involved in home construction and repair in Bethlehem and other Christian areas, providing needed local employment. In addition, it markets Palestinian handicrafts and provides tuition support for students in Catholic schools.
There is also a working group of episcopal conferences that unites the episcopal conferences of Europe and the Americas in support of the church in the Holy Land. In January, bishop presidents and other conference representatives will meet with the bishops of the Holy Land for their fifth meeting since 2000. They will hold meetings in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and Bethlehem. By their presence they will show Christians of the region that they are remembered by Catholics around the world. U.S.C.C.B. president Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane will be one of the visitors.
In addition, two longtime stalwarts in relief and development work on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem are the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which works through the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, and Catholic Relief Services, which because of the multiple obstacles to travel in Palestinian areas now has five offices in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.
To learn more about the Christians of the Holy Land or make a donation, visit these Web sites: www.hcef.org., www.cnewa.org and www.catholicrelief.org.