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.
“Gaza is a man-made disaster, a shocking scandal, an injustice that cries out to the human community for a resolution,” the visiting bishops said in a joint statement released on Jan. 16. “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.”
The bishops spent two days of their tour of the Middle East on Jan. 11-16 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. The delegation also visited Palestinian Catholic schools in Gaza, East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on the occupied West Bank.
“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.”
The 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 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 Christians in the rest of the world. They wrote: “We urge public officials to become leaders of hope, not people of obstruction.”
Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was struck by the important role Christian institutions and organizations 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.”
Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa, said he felt a “great affinity” with the Palestinians, whose suffering he compared to that of 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,” Archbishop Brislin said.
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.”