by Madoc Cairns in THE TABLET, 16 January 2020
A group of Catholic bishops from Europe and North America have returned from their visit to the Holy Land, releasing a joint statement that highlights the “profound humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, which they claim has become an “open-air prison”.
As part of this visit the bishops celebrated Sunday Mass on the 12th of January in Gaza, to “remind the small Christian community that they are not forgotten” in the words of an official statement. The Bishops then had a meal with the Catholic community which numbers roughly 15 families or 100 individuals, and that has recently been suffering from serious water and electricity shortages. The Israeli government prevented Gazan Christians from travelling to Bethlehem or to visit friends and relatives in the West Bank over the 2019 Christmas period.
Composed of bishops from across Europe, North America and South Africa, the Holy Land Co-ordination was founded 20 years ago with the aim of supporting Christian communities in the Holy Lands. Over the course of their visit the bishops will also meet with young people in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, Palestinian and Israeli officials, and religious sisters working in the region.
Speaking to the Tablet, the Coordinator of the visit, Bishop Declan Lang emphasised the difficult position of Gazan Christians: with limited access to electricity, and increasing restrictions on their movements and activities, their community is growing smaller every year. The great danger for the Catholic population near Bethlehem is, according to Bishop Lang, that they lose hope for the future.This was a concern echoed by the collective statement of the visiting bishops, which stated that conditions for Palestinian Christians were becoming “less and less bearable”, as “construction of settlements and the separation wall is destroying any prospect of two states existing in peace.”
He said showing “practical solidarity” with Christians in Gaza is key to the work of the Holy Land Co-ordination. “Meeting with local Christians, eating with them, listening to them” is central to the visit, said Bishop Lang, rather than criticising from the sidelines. It’s in this lived experience that the Bishops have found a “profound awareness of the universality of the church”, as well as a continuing concern for Palestinian and Israeli Christians.
The bishop’s closing statement, released upon their return, stressed the urgent need for a political solution to the continuing tensions between Israel and Palestine, and the very difficult living conditions experienced by the inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank.
The Bishops of Galloway, Raphoe and Down and Connor were among the group of Catholic bishops from Europe and North America to visit the Holy Land this week. Bishop Nicholas Hudson, an auxiliary in Westminster, and William Kenney, an auxiliary in Birmingham, also took part in the visit, which has a particular focus on supporting Christians living in Gaza, Ramallah and Jerusalem.
There are currently around 200,000 Christians living in Israel and Palestine, although this number has fallen as a proportion of the overall population for many decades. Around 50,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.