Holy Land Christians get a glimmer of hope

By  Kitty Mcgilly, Catholic Register Special
  • May 22, 2009
{mosimage}Much of the media focus on the recent papal visit to the Holy Land was an evaluation of the pontiff’s relationships with Muslims and Jews. However, in the land of  Christianity’s foundation, Christian church members wanted only to know that they are not forgotten, not alone and that their story of struggle is known by their spiritual leader.

They dreamed in hope that the visit would result in some good news for them.

Nine members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Toronto joined me on a 12-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was extended to include the papal visit. We were part of the papal entourage of the Latin Patriarchate and, consequently, had VIP status with close, privileged participation in all the religious events.

What astounded the nine who had already experienced the sacred sites in the biblical and sacramental journey through Nazareth, Bethlehem, Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem was the radical change in environment after the arrival of the Holy Father. All roads were blocked, the Old City was out of bounds without special permits, stores were shut down and 23,000 police and soldiers filled Jerusalem.

At the Mass in Gethsemane, Israeli forces almost outnumbered the congregation. Many local Christians were turned away without tickets and others opted out because of the roadblocks and the long by-foot routes. It was mainly the able-bodied tourists and dignitaries who had access. Having been present for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 this was a very different reality.

The visit of the Holy Father to the West Bank was even more revealing. Having brought over 40 groups in the past four years to Bethlehem, I was aware of the excessive security checks and procedures to enter the city. This time, however, only two minutes drive from the regular Bethlehem entrance through the heavily guarded gate at the security wall, we were re-routed a 20-minute drive down the Hebron Road, one generally accessed only by the military.

Without having to view the wall (referred to by Israel as a security fence) we entered Manger Square, the location of the Mass. All surrounding shops were closed. Peddlers who only recently were given some hopeful prospects with the increase in tourism were gone from the streets. In fact, this was a day of lost business rather than a boost, as they expected. To quote a leading Israeli newspaper, HaAretz: “Most of the people were tourists, journalists and Palestinian security forces working in co-ordination with Israeli forces.”

Yet, true to the Gospel reality that large numbers and high positions are not what counts, I believe the people of Bethlehem saw some glimmer of hope from their spiritual leader. To quote Gabriella, a Palestinian guide restricted for eight years to Bethlehem: “We do not focus on the wall or the negatives. We know Jesus came for us — the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. God will always be with us to protect us, and we have hope that the Holy Father will hear us.”

And that is the message the Holy Father did give to the Christians of Palestine — at each Mass and each gathering, his support was stronger. He responded to a courageous introduction by His Beatitude Fouad Twal by acknowledging the many difficulties facing the diminishing Christian communities here, speaking of their imprisonment and their imposed poverties.

Yet, it was in Bethlehem, the “little” town of “greatness,” that the Holy Father told the people what they needed to hear. He assured them he knew their story, that he had come to stand with them in their pain and suffering. He offered particular concern for the people of Gaza, amid much applause. He met afterwards with the small contingent from Gaza who had a day pass to be present. The Holy Father also welcomed one-day pilgrims from the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah.

But it was the visit to the Al Aida refugee camp that made the most impact. Despite a huge military presence, the wall could not be hidden this time and the Holy Father spoke out against it. Calling the structure “a symbol of stalemate” he prayed for it to come down — and soon.

So, was this Pope’s visit good news for the poor? It is interesting that the Gospel readings at the sites of the public Masses were stories of the lowly being raised up — Mary in Nazareth, the Shepherds in Bethlehem, and Mary of Magdala being the first witness of the Resurrection. But only time will tell the effectiveness of the visit of Pope Benedict.

We must continue to pray with him that our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land “will at last enjoy the peace, freedom and stability that has eluded you for so long.” We pray too that this visit of the Holy Father will shed new light on the reality of life for Christians in Israel and Palestine. Lest we forget!

(McGilly operates Faith Journeys , a Toronto company specializing in biblical and sacramental pilgrimages to the Holy Land.)

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