Where's the peace and love?

By  Kitty McGilly, Catholic Register Special
  • April 8, 2010
As the international Jewish community united in protest against a perceived slight spoken in a Good Friday homily by a Vatican official, I wondered why Catholics continue to remain silent amid the suffering of our brothers and sisters in faith in the Holy Land.

This silence has been particularly baffling in the years since the erection of the towering walls that surround some Palestinian cities of the West Bank. Movement from one Palestinian city to the next — and into Jerusalem itself — is prohibited for most Palestinian Catholics. Even those few granted travel or work visas from Israel are subjected to excessive scrutiny. These restrictions prevent Catholics from worshipping in the holy sites of Jerusalem. Seminarians located in Bethlehem are unable to acquire visas to pray in Jerusalem even though it is just a 15-minute drive away.

In March, a group of Catholic teachers and I discovered that it is not only Christians of the West Bank but also those in Jerusalem who have limited access to the holy places. In the last days of our faith journey we began our Friday morning on the Via Dolorosa only to discover the gates of the Old City closed to all Christian and Muslim Arabs under the age of 50. Dozens of police and soldiers, reacting to a perceived security concern, barred the entrance to Herod’s Gate, which leads through the Arab quarter to the first station. Though tourist-pilgrims were allowed to enter, no local Catholics could walk the Friday stations nor could Muslims pray at the mosque on their holy day.

All shops were closed and all streets empty apart from scores of soldiers. We carried the cross with physical ease to the top of Golgotha. But, how heavy were our hearts as we realized the injustice towards our fellow Christians. Tourists had open access to Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre but we were sad carrying the cross that Friday through the Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarters of old Jerusalem. Only the Jewish quarter was open for business as people prepared for Shabbat.

I find that Catholics are generally ignorant about the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith. That is why the hundreds of Canadian pilgrims who I’ve taken to the place of our Lord’s birth are so shocked when they first see the wall at Bethlehem, so stunned by its enormity and outraged upon learning the traumatic impact it has on the people virtually imprisoned behind it. Pope Benedict saw the wall in May and was visibly shaken, saying, “It stands as a stalemate to peace.” 

To add insult to injury, at the passage from Jerusalem into Bethlehem there hangs a 50-by- 15-metre poster placed on the wall by the Israeli tourist office. It reads: “Jerusalem-Bethlehem: Peace and love.” Each time I see it I wonder if the sign is some kind of expensive joke? Or are those who placed it there really so oblivious to the reality? Directly beneath the poster, all visa-bearing pedestrians must pass an inspection area as armed soldiers tower above them. Cars and buses pass through a double security check manned by police and soldiers with guns propped. Hardly peace or love!

There is no need for posters on the Bethlehem side. There is no passport control, no soldiers, just welcome and gratitude. Though the people of Bethlehem lack freedom, though their economy and infrastructure have been devastated, each tour group I bring through the wall always encounters a Catholic community that is ever bruised but never broken.

As we meet with children and teachers in local schools, Sr. Sophie and babies of the Holy Family orphanage, peddlers and shopkeepers, seminarians and other religious, we are taught a Gospel lesson. They are a people in darkness but are people of light. The words of our Palestinian Catholic guide, Gabriella, who hasn’t been outside Bethlehem for over eight years, resound: “We do not focus on the wall. We know our Lord came for us, to this little town of Bethlehem, to the poor, the hungry and the imprisoned.”

Despite the atrocity of their situation, I have never experienced anti-Israeli sentiment, any hatred or despair from these people. Says Edward Tabash, a philanthropic Christian  shopkeeper inside the wall: “Look at the map. Israelis and Palestinians need each other. Pray that our Lord will guide the leaders on both sides to show that walls and wars are not the answer but peace can only come by working together in reconciliation.”

Every time I leave the suffering Catholics of Bethlehem I carry with me their plea: “Don’t forget us. This is your home too.” Oh, how I wish we could drive that message home to our Catholic world.

(McGilly, a Lady of the Holy Sepulchre, operates Faith Journeys, www.faithjourneys.ca , a Toronto company specializing in biblical and sacramental pilgrimages to the Holy Land.)

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