Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the board of the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services CNS photo

Bishops see hope, fear, complexities in visit to Mideast Christians

By  Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service
  • January 11, 2012

JERUSALEM - Almost a year after the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Middle East is a place of hope and fear for Christians, said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.

Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the board of the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, was in Baghdad late last year and visited Egypt prior to his arrival in Jerusalem Jan. 8-12 for the annual Holy Land Coordination meeting with bishops from the United States, Canada and Europe.

"There is a fear among the Christians (in Egypt) whether they will be given human rights and whether they will be treated as equal citizens. There is a sense of wait and see," Bishop Kicanas told Catholic News Service Jan. 11.

While there is hope for the creation of a new, equal society with a progressive economic situation, there are still concerns whether Egypt's newly elected government with its Islamist majority would put restrictions on the rights of minorities in Egypt, the bishop added.

Likewise, he said, in the Holy Land, while people continue to be hopeful for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they are frustrated by the inability of their leaders to reach an accord.

"There is the tension between the needs of the people and the bickering of the politicians," he said.

The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land joined the bishops in their opening session Jan. 9, and during the four days of meetings the Coordination bishops met with church leaders as well as with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders. The bishops also met with local Christians in parishes in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

In Gaza, Christians spoke of a feeling of abandonment by world church communities, said Bishop Kicanas. He noted the "astounding inequality" that exists between the lives of people in Gaza, where some 56,000 people are unemployed, and that of people living in Israel.

He said that in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Christian organizations and religious orders play a vital role in supplying much-needed educational, medical and child care.

"Hopefully this will create a sense in (these) societies that we all have dignity and human rights," he said.

On his first visit to the Holy Land in 18 years, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Alberta, said the experience was one of "a lot of listening."

"I'm finding layer and layer and layer of complexity," said Archbishop Smith, who was participating in the coordination for the first time. "When one is an observer and (does) not understand this situation from the inside, I think we have to do a lot of listening and reflecting before being able to make some comments which can in any way be helpful."

Reflecting on Blessed Pope John Paul II's statement that there can be no peace without justice and no justice without peace, Archbishop Smith noted that there seemed to be a lack of forgiveness on both sides.

"One thing essential for forgiveness is an attitude of profound humility that recognizes that, in some way or another, everyone is contributing to the problems," he said. "It is very easy to point a finger at the other, but what we all know as Christians is, for there to be genuine conversion of heart or genuine transformation, the first thing we have to examine is our own situation. And I'm not hearing a lot of that (here.)"

He said it remained to be seen whether the Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to create the "stable and reconciled society" referred to by Pope Benedict XVI.

"I am not hearing a lot so far about how a reconciled society would look," he said.

Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, England, said that in addition to the major new context within which the Arab countries are functioning, Israel was also currently undergoing tensions of its own, between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews and their expectations of Israeli society.

"These tensions are very real, and they cannot but change the atmosphere. This new dimension can't but raise questions for the state of Israel," he said. "It seems strange: Among all the strength which is Israel, there is fragility."

The lack of housing for Palestinians and the complexity surrounding building and creating new housing was also highlighted during the visit, he said.

"This is an issue of concern for Christians," he said.

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