Winnipeg Archbishop Weisgerber sees dire problems of Holy Land

  • January 29, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber has returned from his first trip to the Holy Land with a deep understanding of the pressure and suffering the historic Christian community experiences there.

Weisgerber described the dwindling Christian population as a “minority within a minority” and painted a dire economic picture that has prompted many to emigrate.

“When there are no jobs and no future, people feel forced to look at other options,” he said. “It would be unthinkable that there would be no Christians in the Holy Land, in the land of Jesus. These people have lived there since the time of Jesus, this is their home. Everybody wants to stay in their homeland.”

Weisgerber made the Jan. 11-16 visit in his role as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, accompanied by CCCB general secretary Msgr. Mario Paquette. They joined an annual tour sponsored by the Co-ordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land.

“We go to the Holy Land to support the Christians who are there, to encourage them, to get to know them, and also to make them aware they are not forgotten,” Weisgerber said.

They accompanied a delegation of bishops, including some cardinals and other archbishops, from Europe and North America.

The trip included a visit to Teypeh, a small Christian village north of Jerusalem, to Bethlehem where they spent time with students at Bethlehem University, and Ramallah, where they visited a parish. In each location, they celebrated the Eucharist and dined together.

These visits to the “occupied” or “disputed” territories, gave Weisgerber the experience of crossing through the many checkpoints that are a daily experience for the Arab community, both Christian and Muslim.

“It makes life very complicated,” he said. “For many of them it’s a daily experience of humiliation. Even more importantly, it separates Israelis from the Palestinians, especially the students, and prevents them from getting to know each other as people.”

In the Palestinian territory there are no jobs, especially in the information technology field that many in the Christian communities are trained for, he said.

The delegation held some high level meetings with public officials, including the Israeli religious affairs minister and the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister and president.

"They’re politicians, all good will and they are trying hard,” Weisgerber said, noting the Palestinian authorities were “very insistent” that Christians were an integral part of their society. In fact, one of the ministers from the Palestinian government was an Orthodox Christian, he said.

While the delegates did not hear about Muslim persecution of Christians in the West Bank, they did hear stories of “pressure” in Gaza.

The delegation did not visit Gaza, which Weisgerber described as an “open air prison.” The small Catholic community in Gaza is “experiencing a lot of harassment” he said.

This year, the annual visit included a leg in Rome, where the bishops met with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

“The Holy See was very anxious to hear what we had to say,” Weisgerber said, noting the annual trip is a Vatican initiative.

Weisgerber found the trip difficult because it was so quick. “One needs to make a pilgrimage, to spend a lot more time than I had,” he said.

Since it was his first time to the region, he had hoped as well to see some of the holy sites, but there was no time.

The purpose of the visit was to visit the “living stones,” the present-day church, the people, rather than the historical sites, he said.

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