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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
21 December 2015
Sami El-Yousef

Patriarch Fouad Twal greets the children of Gaza who held the first Christmas performance at the newly refurbished parish center funded by CNEWA–Pontifical Mission. (photo: CNEWA)

20 December 2015 will be one great day to remember.

It was the day of the Christmas celebration at the Holy Family Church in Gaza, celebrating with members of the heroic small Latin parish who call Gaza home.

Again I was fortunate to be one of the few people of my status, a Palestinian East Jerusalem “resident” of the State of Israel, to be granted a one day permit to go to Gaza, despite the ongoing ban. I accompanied the official delegation of his Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The St. Joseph scout troop was there to receive us upon arrival with traditional Palestinian and Christmas songs. The drums were louder than ever to announce the arrival of the delegation. Shortly after arrival, His Beatitude opened the Door of Mercy at the Latin Parish Church in Gaza before celebrating the Christmas Mass with the parish members and the clergy. He was assisted by Bishop Marcuzzo from Nazareth and some 10 priests from the Latin Patriarchate who all came specifically for the day. The Superior General of the Rosary Sisters accompanied the delegation as well as the Superior of the Order of the Fathers of the Incarnate Word, the President of the Christian Schools Commission in Palestine, the Rev. Faisal Hijazin, and the Rev. Raed Abu Sahlieh, Director of Caritas Jerusalem.

In his homily, the patriarch reflected on the Year of Mercy, as well as on his continued prayers for peace and justice in our region. He affirmed his continued support and that of the Catholic Church for the small Catholic community of Gaza. He stated that he continuously prays for them, especially for an end of the blockade of Gaza and for unity within the Palestinians so that the situation there will improve and they will live a better life in the near future. He asked the people to remain steadfast and reminded them that they are suffering on earth and truly living the life of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not have an easy life in this land. He assured them that their suffering will not go unnoticed and that their rewards will be in heaven.

As soon as Mass ended, the renovated areas of the Latin parish complex were visited and blessed by his Beatitude. This included the newly renovated and refurbished parish center which was completely funded by CNEWA–Pontifical Mission. The renovated center includes a new library fully stocked with a variety of Christian books for all ages, as well as a new gymnasium with state of the art equipment, a sitting area and a kitchen, renovated rest rooms, and a large parish hall. During our visit, the first formal performance took place: a Christmas play by the parish children. All the children perfected their roles, and the long hours of practice as part of the CNEWA–Pontifical Mission “Oratorio” program paid off.

Aside from the official celebrations, there was noticeable respect granted to the official delegation by both the Israeli authorities at the Erez Crossing, as well as by the Palestinian government officials in Gaza who came to visit with his Beatitude and bid him and the parish congratulations for Christmas. Also noticeable was the large number of local and international press representatives who all wanted to interview many people so that the voices of the Christian community of Gaza are heard both locally and internationally.

One of the important people in attendance was Elias Manneh, the former Chairman of the Board of our partners, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) in Gaza, who is now in retirement. He reminded me of a conversation we had six years ago when I first met him and we were discussing the dwindling Christian presence in Gaza as emigration was on the rise.

He said then: “Despite our small number, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are respected by the government and the larger community. Quality and not quantity is what counts in Gaza.” Our wish for this small, but brave community is to enjoy the Christmas celebrations in Gaza, Many confided that although Israel issued permits for a full month (20 December 2015 through 20 January 2016) to hundreds of Christians from Gaza to enter the West Bank and Jerusalem (as was the case in previous years) it was rare that a complete family received the permits. The ban on youth aged 16-35 continues; none in this age group was granted a permit. The Rev. Mario da Silva, the parish priest at the Holy Family parish, will celebrate midnight Mass in his beautiful church. Undoubtedly the same prayers heard today will be repeated again for pace and jkustice for all in our Holy Land, especially for our suffering people in Gaza.

This was my shortest visit to Gaza. Despite the great joy of being able to be there for the day to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters, I left with a heavy heart, knowing that most of them will not be able to join us in Bethlehem for the celebrations. Please keep the people of Gaza in your prayers and join me in wishing them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

18 December 2015
Sami El-Yousef

CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, Sami El-Yousef, third from left, meets with recipients of a CNEWA scholarship who are now employed at Al Ahli hospital through its training and job creation program. (photo: CNEWA)

This was my first visit to Gaza since Israeli authorities placed a ban on East Jerusalem ID holders back in July 2015. Though the ban is still in effect, a limited number of permits were allowed, and I feel lucky to be one of the few approved.

Upon arrival in Gaza, there seemed to be a general feeling that life is gradually returning to “normal.” Traffic was busy and more people were on the streets; shops seemed sufficiently stocked with no lines at gas stations. There were also a limited number of construction projects and more workers doing odd jobs. People seemed more relaxed than in previous visits. The two main streets crossing Gaza from the north to the south — Salah Eddin Street and Beach Street — have been widened and paved with new street lamps and beautiful landscaping, and the promenade area has been totally refurbished.

However, when one digs deeper into the situation, it is clear that not much has really changed. Electricity is still on either 6- or 8-hour shifts; unemployment continues at an all-time high; the Rafah borders continue to be tightly closed, severely limiting travel; the fragile industrial base is still in ruins; prices of goods and services are through the roof; and most of the people who lost their homes during previous wars continue to face extreme temporary living conditions. The hoped for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas continues to be a dream. Thus, for all practical purposes, not much has changed, except that the people of Gaza have become resigned to their current state of affairs and accustomed to living on much less than their counterparts in the West Bank, and certainly with much lower standards than their neighbors in Israel. For now, they seem content with what is available to them. There is a strange sense that life must go on regardless of the harsh reality on the ground.

What did we find? You can read a full report on the Gaza visit here.

Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Palestine Economic hardships

30 November 2015
Sami El-Yousef

Pope Tawadros II (C) arrives for the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, on 28 November 2015 at the Coptic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

His Eminence Metropolitan Archbishop Dr. Anba Abraham passed away in Jerusalem on Wednesday 25 November 2015 and was laid to rest on the grounds of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday 28 November 2015. In a surprise move, Coptic Pope Tawadros II presided over the ceremonies; a Coptic pope has not visited Jerusalem in 35 years and, in fact, there is a ban on Copts visiting Jerusalem and the holy sites as long as it is under Israeli occupation.

The visit was very low key and limited to the funeral services. No official meetings or contacts were made with Israeli officials. Several times, the pope reiterated the private nature of this particular visit and emphasized that it does not in any way break from the existing ban.

During the funeral services, Pope Tawadros spoke eloquently about his close relationship with the late Archbishop Anba Abraham and recalled the various stages of his life. He highlighted that, in the Coptic hierarchy, the archbishop of Jerusalem is the second most important figure after the Pope and the first among equals in the synod of bishops. He further urged all present to live a faithful life full of good deeds and service to others, always upholding Christian values.

In addition to Pope Tawadros, a delegation of 10 other Coptic bishops from around the Coptic world joined him. Representatives of all the churches of Jerusalem representing the varied landscape were all in attendance, including Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem Giuseppe Lazzarotto as well as Bishops representing the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Assysrian, Anglican, Lutheran, as well as all the Oriental Catholic churches. Representatives of both the Palestinian Authority as well as Israel were also present, joining several hundred people who came to bid him farewell.

Archbishop Anba Abraham was born in Sohag, Egypt, in 1943 and received undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology in 1967 and 1971 respectively. He held a doctoral degree in medicinal plants, graduating from Ein Shams University in Cairo in 1976. He became a monk in 1983; in 1991, he was called to become the archbishop of Jerusalem by Pope Shenouda III. He was highly respected within the local community for his humility.

CNEWA’s President Msgr. John E. Kozar meets with Coptic Archbishop Anba Abraham in Jerusalem in 2013. (photo: CNEWA)

In Jerusalem, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission for Palestine has maintained a very close relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church. CNEWA has provided numerous grants to its institutions, supported services in education through the two Coptic schools operating in the Old City of Jerusalem, and funded renovations to a Coptic convent in Bethlehem.

Our prayers are with our Coptic brothers and sisters who are grieving this loss. May he rest in eternal peace.

26 October 2015
Sami El-Yousef

In this image from 2011, Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, visits with staff at the Pontifical Mission Library in Bethlehem. (photo: John E. Kozar)

On Sunday 25 October 2015, the Pontifical Mission Library in Bethlehem celebrated its 45th anniversary on the campus of Bethlehem University. The celebration started with a Eucharistic celebration at the Chapel of the Divine Child where the main celebrant was His Excellency Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, assisted by over ten priests. His homily concentrated on the need to have God in our presence in whatever we do, and for each person to find “light” in his/her life, especially amid the violence this land is currently facing. Mass was followed by a formal program where a number of speakers made comments about the history of the library and the great services it is providing to the local community in Bethlehem. Monnitte Monana, the current Teresian director of the library welcomed the guests, and formally opened the celebration by thanking all in attendance. I was privileged to make the opening remarks, emphasizing the three-way cooperation that has made the library such a success. I highlighted the role played by the Teresian Association for being entrusted with the leadership and administration of the library since its inception; thanked Bethlehem University for housing the PM Library in its main library building since 1978; and acknowledged the moral and financial support of CNEWA since those early days. I further highlighted the fact that the library has dramatically expanded its services since those early days and is now more of a community center providing educational and cultural activities for a wide variety of audiences.

The second part of the program included a video presentation narrated by previous and current members of the library. (You can watch the video at this link.) This was followed by short talks about the humble beginnings and history of the library by Brother Joseph Lowenstein, who was the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University when the initial agreement to host the PM Library was signed back in 1978, as well as by Mellie Brodeth of the Teresian Association who worked in the Library in those early days and is now the director of the Bethlehem University Library. They both spoke eloquently about the importance of people in the life of the library and how it has evolved over the years.

As a way to show the diversified nature of the activities of the library, there was a surprise: a Palestinian folk dance performed by young members of the library who learned this dance as part their activities during the summer camp 2015. This was followed by a ceremony presenting awards to individuals and institutions who made significant contributions to the life of the library over the past 45 years — including, among others, Archbishop Lazzarotto, Br. Joseph Lowenstein, CNEWA, Bethlehem University, the Teresian Association, plus a number of library members. The ceremony concluded with closing remarks by the regional director of the Teresian Association, Dr. Nenita Tenefrancia, who reflected on the mission of the Teresians and how that mission is being lived in Bethlehem through their presence in both the Pontifical Mission and the Bethlehem University Libraries. Their founder Saint Pedro Poveda should be very proud as they fulfill the mission of “transforming society, and promoting human values in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel.” A reception followed in the Institute of Hotel Management served by students of the university.

You can read more about the library here and here.

And to support the ongoing mission of the Pontifical Mission Library, please visit this giving page.

16 October 2015
Sami El-Yousef

Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas during clashes with Israeli troops near Ramallah, West Bank, on 16 October. (photo: CNS/Mohammed Torokman, Reuters)

Is this an intifada?

I returned home on 3 October after a one-week visit to New York to attend CNEWA’s annual planning meeting only to find a Jerusalem that was completely different from the one I had left a week earlier.

After landing in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, a normally quick drive to my home in the Old City of Jerusalem instead took me close to two hours, though it was a Saturday and traffic was very light. I learned later that coinciding with my arrival two Jewish people were stabbed, fatally, inside the Damascus Gate. I thought it an isolated incident, and the situation will quiet down and remain under control. Little did I know then!

Is this the beginning of a new intifada? [Intifada is Arabic for uprising.] I guess at this point it would be anyone’s guess; there are no experts in this particular field. We were caught off guard in 1987 with the first intifada, and again in 2000 with the second intifada. We were also caught surprised with the successive wars in the Gaza Strip.

And what about the incidents when we thought that an all-out intifada just started, and again we were all proven wrong. I remember in early July 2014, when the 16-year-old Palestinian boy Mohammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped from his East Jerusalem neighborhood by Jewish extremists and later burned to death — we all thought this brutal action would spark an intifada. For a full month thereafter, we slept to the sound of gunshots and helicopters flying overhead as every neighborhood in East Jerusalem demonstrated every night. In frustration and anger, they demonstrated against the murder, the occupation [the annexation of Jerusalem by Israel after war in 1967 is not recognized by the international community]. However, it all stopped about a month later and, for Palestinians, life went back to its usual state of occupation, with all of its humiliations and injustices.

Why now?

One needs to mention that what is moving the masses today is the underlying threat to the Al Aqsa Mosque — a mosque revered as the third holiest place on earth for 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. More importantly, the brutal force used by the Israeli police against women, the elderly and youth who keep watch inside the mosque, and the repeated police raids on the entire compound. have led to arrests, beating and even the use of tear gas around and inside the mosque. There seems to be little respect to the compound as a holy site.

The Palestinian perception today is that Israel is trying to change the “status quo” of Holy Land sites and move in a direction to limit access for Muslims to allow more access for Jews. Even though the Israeli prime minister has repeatedly assured everyone that Israel will continue to honor the status quo [which has been in effect since the 18th century], actions on the ground appear to be quite different. Allowing Jewish extremists to enter the compound and the mosque on a daily basis under heavy police guard while attempting to limit the hours when Muslims can enter the compound is a very provocative move. Various statements by other Israeli politicians and right wing settler leaders indicate their intentions to demolish the entire site and build a temple in its place, which has certainly inflamed this delicate situation.

Since 3 October, and according to various press reports and government sources, as of this writing more than 30 Palestinians have been killed and some 1,900 injured. Some 6 Israelis have been killed and about 70 injured. Those Israelis killed were attacked by knife-wielding Palestinian youths acting on their own. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, of the Palestinian dead, 13 were accused of committing or having committed an attack. The remaining majority of those killed were innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The remaining were active participants in demonstrations in various parts of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Israeli security forces look on during a noon Friday prayer outside Ras al Amud neighbourhood on 16 October 2015 in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

New policies and directives

It has been suggested that the increased number of Palestinian civilian casualties may be the result of the Israeli government’s new directives granting the army, police and even ordinary citizens with gun licenses greater latitude to shoot and kill those suspected of being dangerous.

Social media is playing a significant role in revealing such cases, which are considered “extra-judicial executions.” Today’s generation of Palestinian youth, unlike their predecessors, have greater access to mainstream technology and social media that is brimming with terrible images and videos that stereotype like never before, painting an evil picture of the people across the divide.

One video of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was hit by a settler car and left bleeding on the tram tracks in the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev showed police at the scene, continuously kicking him and stepping on him while Israeli passersby were cursing at him and demanding that he be shot in the head immediately. Even paramedics at the scene stood idle and let him bleed, leading many to believe that true humanity was certainly lost on the streets of Jerusalem. Scenes such as these, which go viral, inflame the masses.

Exacerbating the situation are new policies and directives of the extreme right-wing Israeli government. In response to a recent incident when three Israelis were killed, the Israeli government decided to adopt a series of measures in East Jerusalem — a collective punishment, intended to humiliate the population rather than bring security. Some of these measures included sealing off and imposing a curfew on Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods, which had been implemented overnight on the Mount of Olives, Sur Baher, Jabal al Mukabber, with others on the way including Shuafat and Beit Hanina to the north. Any individual involved in attacks — whether proven or not — faces withdrawal of residency status, along with their family members; all of the family’s property and assets are confiscated, their home demolished, and land deemed government property. Furthermore, new measures have loosened the restrictions on owning and carrying firearms for Jewish Israeli citizens while thousands of border police reserves and army battalions are being called in to “restore order,” especially in East Jerusalem, giving total impunity to the military and police, and even regular citizens who are now allowed take law into their own hands.

And what about the Palestinian position?

The Palestinian leadership finds itself in a very difficult position. President Abbas has been very clear that he and his leading Fatah party wish to see the current cycle of violence stop immediately; he does not wish to see a third intifada and has repeatedly made unpopular statements to the Palestinians to stop any violent activity directed against the Israelis. Additionally, the Hamas leadership has repeatedly declared that they are not interested in any escalation with Israel, as articulated by written directives in Gaza, which go so far as to declare a 500-meter closed military zone on the border with Israel.

Thus, the Palestinian leadership’s position is against any escalation at this time. However, the question is whether they will be able to control an increasingly angry and frustrated population and if so, at what price?

The sad reality for young people today

Instructions are being given to school children on how to behave if approached by fanatic settlers whose new motto is “Death to Arabs”; or approached by jittery police officers who suspect that these students may have a knife in their pocket or in their school bag. “Keep your hands out of your pockets and do not run away from any scene even if you are frightened or attacked” were my own instructions to my 14-year-old son as he was heading to school last Monday.

I feel sorry for yet another generation of Palestinians whose childhood is being lost as they confront increased extremism and radicalized hatred. In this regard, all Palestinian schools in Jerusalem have been shut down since early this week as a precautionary measure, and it is hoped that they will return to classes by Saturday.

Where do we go from here?

The international community must exert pressure to end the occupation, as nothing short of freedom for the Palestinians will end the vicious cycles of conflict. Even though the reasons change every time violence erupts, the common denominator — the occupation, remains the same. Unless the root cause is dealt with and resolved, then this will go down in history as part of another cycle that will eventually end, but will be followed by more cycles in the future that will be more deadly, and more vicious.

On a more practical note, one needs to highlight the continued important work carried out by Christian institutions working in education, health and social services that continue to provide safe havens and quality services with Christian values at heart. The value of Christian institutions shines brightest during times like these — of crisis, killing, hopelessness and despair. The message of peace, respect, tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance continues to filter through, seeking to make a positive contribution in the societies where CNEWA operates. The poor and the weak become more desperate during times of crisis and this is when we need to intensify our efforts to ensure that faith and hope are not lost.

Please continue to keep us in your prayers.

Sami El-Yousef is CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel.

Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Jerusalem Palestine Israel Israeli-Palestinian conflict

8 September 2015

Students at the Salesian Sisters’ Laura Vicuna School enjoy a new classroom, made possible by support from CNEWA donors. (photo: CNEWA)

The Catholic world has done everything in its power to try to stop the Israeli military from constructing an annexation wall in the Cremisan Valley on land belonging to both the Catholic Church and some 60 Palestinian families from Beit Jala. A new report published by the Society of St. Yves — Catholic Center for Human Rights, The Last Nail in Bethlehem’s Coffin: The Annexation Wall in Cremisan, documents this long legal battle meant to bring justice to the church and people of Beit Jala. The report also underscores the advocacy efforts by the governments of the European Union — as well as various Catholic bishops’ conferences — to prevent the construction of the wall in the area.

From our perspective, CNEWA — through its operating agency in the Middle East, Pontifical Mission for Palestine — has been quietly working on the ground to solidify one of the most important and historically significant Catholic institutions in the area, the Salesian Sisters’ Laura Vicuna School. Over the past few years, CNEWA has provided several grants to help with the operating costs of the school, such as teachers’ salaries and the utility bills, especially the high electricity bill during the cold winter months. Over the past year or so, financial support for the school from our donors has intensified, ensuring that the school continues to provide a solid education for its 420 children (60 kindergarteners and 220 elementary students in addition to 140 youth club members of the school) despite the wall’s path.

In the next few weeks, the school will have a new solar power system that will generate free electricity, which will help reduce costs. The school will also be academically expanded to the 7th grade level; an old unused annex building was transformed into additional classroom space and a new multipurpose hall. The new space will be used for catechetical activities and an indoor play area for the younger students during the winter. With financial support, the school has also been able to save a retaining wall that was about to collapse after the last few snowstorms damaged its foundation. The wall has now been fixed and reinforced, which will allow the school to reopen the children’s newly equipped playground.

The newly reinforced wall and refurbished playground at the school are ready for the
new school year. (photo: CNEWA)

The underlying message of funding and implementing projects like the Salesian Sisters’ Laura Vicuna School and others is one of hope and perseverance. It demonstrates that the church is present and its institutions are alive — active and even expanding despite the difficult circumstances of the occupation. This also sends a message that these institutions are continuing to serve all people in various sectors — education, health and social services — with Christian values of tolerance, forgiveness and love, along with a continued call for peace and justice. CNEWA is proud of its work which brings together donors worldwide with the local partners in the Holy Land to improve and enhance these services that benefit all.

We convey our sincere thanks to the donors who saw the need to support the Laura Vicuna School and believed in its sacred mission: the Archdiocese of Cologne, Polish Aid, and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Holland. This vital work would not have been possible without their moral and financial support.

2 April 2015

In this image from 2014, pilgrims hold candles lit from the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Five years ago, after Easter in 2010, I documented the Holy Fire celebrations in Jerusalem in the pages of ONE magazine.

Every year since then, I pull my treasured hard copy and re-read the story to compare it to the reality of the current Easter, only to find that the story hasn’t really changed. The same difficulties are encountered every year, as more restrictions are imposed and freedom of access to the holy sites seems to become more of a luxury rather than a right. With each passing year, our prayer is that the situation does not get worse. We have been accustomed to having more military and police officers with full gear in the church courtyard, roof, and inside the Holy Sepulchre itself; in fact, they outnumber the worshipers. That in itself is shameful. I do not believe there is any other place on earth where you see so many arms inside a church as is the case in our treasured Holy Sepulchre during the Holy Fire celebration on Holy Saturday. The saddest part of all is that all these measures have nothing to do with the security or public safety.

The situation in our larger Middle East is no more rosy, with the Arab Spring in many countries turning into an Arab nightmare, especially for most minority groups, including the Christians, among others. Where is all this leading is anyone’s guess. How many Christians will remain and how many will lose hope and decide to move on? How many will have the opportunity to move on and how many will be stuck? How many will be killed and how many persecuted? How many will become refugees? All are questions that remain unanswered, but given the trends of the past few years, it is hard to be optimistic.

Having presented a few thoughts for consideration as we mark Holy Week, I want to highlight the positive. We who are the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land and the larger Middle East are not here by chance. We have a long and proud history full of accomplishments and contributions. Our Christian institutions are our pride, as thousands of them throughout our region continue to provide quality services to all segments of society — especially in education, healthcare and social services. During wars and crisis, our institutions are the first responders and a model for coexistence, respect, care, love and support to those who in need.

The social service initiatives of the church never existed to support only Christians, and we never will. Our teachings mandate us to respect others and treat everyone equally, and demand a full life with dignity to all children of God. Thus, during this Easter season, we are reminded again of the dramatic events surrounding our Savior’s life, death and resurrection on the streets of Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago, and we are again reminded that the Master never really had an easy life himself. He taught us how to give rather than take, to be there for the weak and poor — very much the path followed by our Christian institutions. Over 2,000 years have passed, and the story is repeated again and again, and thus if we continue to face difficulties and hardships, if our life appears bleak at times, if we suffer for various reasons, we only need to look back and be reminded how blessed we are to call this Holy Land home and to continue to walk in in Christ’s footsteps.

Five years ago, I concluded my article in ONE with these words:

“Finally, I look forward to the day when my youngest son, Michael, grows strong enough to carry the banner, and I can pass onto him the honor of carrying it on Holy Saturday. My father passed the honor onto me, and I have already passed it onto my eldest son, Rami. When the days come that I no longer carry the banner, but my sons do so in my place, I will know I have done what I could to keep the tradition and faith alive. Maybe peace will have prevailed in the Holy Land and the celebration will return to how it should be — free.”

Well, five years since writing the article, peace has not prevailed. And the celebrations are not free. But my youngest son, Michael, is now 14, which was my age back in 1974, when my dad took me for the first time to attend the Holy Fire celebration, thus beginning my own journey to carry the cherished banner every year and be blessed with that honor. It is my intention to introduce Michael to this family tradition this year — in the hope that in another 40 years, he may in turn introduce his youngest child, and the tradition will go on!

Let us all keep the faith and hope alive. Happy Easter to all, far and near!

27 February 2015

Woman who lost her son during the war thanking Misereor for their contributions to CNEWA’s psychosocial workshop. (photo: CNEWA)

Editorial note: In February, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, Sami El-Yousef, conducted a program review in Gaza. CNEWA’s partners from the aid organization of the German Catholic bishops, Misereor, accompanied Mr. El-Yousef for a portion of the visit, which focused on humanitarian activities implemented through the churches of Gaza. Below are excerpts from his report, which may be read in its entirety here.

It is never easy visiting Gaza in normal circumstances let alone after a brutal war. ...

The residents who we spoke with were very angry with many issues: the two political factions, Fatah and Hamas, for doing nothing to ease their suffering and for the lack of progress to reconcile; at UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] for not doing enough to help reconstruct; and at the international community for not denouncing war for the people of Gaza; and at Israel for destroying life in Gaza. ...

To hear people say that “Gaza’s situation as it stands today is worse than it was during the 51-day war in the summer” is quite a depressing statement. However, this was to be expected considering the current state of affairs:

  • Gaza continues to live under a severe blockade that has not improved since the end of the war in August 2014
  • The Rafah crossing with Egypt is nearly shut-down and only allowed to open for 2-3 days every two months in order to allow the transfer of severe medical cases
  • The cost of all food items and basic commodities are 3-4 times more expensive
  • No meaningful reconstruction efforts have begun and thus the economy is at near standstill with unemployment reaching 70 percent
  • Personal debt is at a record high causing serious social and economic problems
  • Electricity is supplied between 6-8 hours per day
  • Basic water and sewage infrastructure are still not back to pre-war levels (which was a disaster in the making before the war)
  • There is a lack of basic law and order as poverty gets more rooted and petty theft and crime is on the rise
  • Islamic fanaticism and the influence from the Islamic State are of great concern to Gazans, especially for the Christian community.

I must admit that the despair and frustration level seems to be very high and is cross-cutting within all areas of society. ...

We have a grave humanitarian situation in Gaza. People are desperate to get their voices heard, calling for reconciliation, peace and justice — a declaration that there is true injustice imposed on Gaza’s population of 1.8 million people and that they deserve a better life.

Click here to help heal Gaza’s families.

4 August 2014

George Ayyad stands by his son, Jeries, of Gaza, in the intensive care unit of St. Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem on July. Since the death of his wife in an Israeli missile attack on their house in Gaza City in late July, Ayyad has been keeping vigil over his son, who is in critical condition. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)

Days of hope have given way to frustration and despair. We thought today we would see a ceasefire agreement take hold between the two sides, but after a few hours, a tentative truce very quickly broke down. Another escalation is underway in Gaza, each side blaming the other for breaking the ceasefire agreement.

On Friday, a group representing the main Christian organizations operating in the region visited St. Joseph Hospital and the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem to get an update about the injured who have been transferred from Gaza due to the lack of proper facilities there. One of the cases is Jeries Ayyad (whom I wrote about earlier this week) whose mother was the first Christian victim in Gaza.

What I saw in the two hospitals is beyond imagination, and one only wonders about the kind of life these people will have should they recover, with amputated legs and arms and many with brain damage from shrapnel. There may be thousands like them who are not fortunate enough to make it to Jerusalem for better treatment.

On a more positive note, I am pleased our appeals to Europe have been heard. A number of our friends — including Manos Unidas, Spain; Embrace the Middle East in England; Caritas Switzerland; the Archdiocese of Cologne; Kinderhilfe Bethlehem in Switzerland; Kindermissionswerk in Germany; Missio and Misereor of Germany; Secours Catholique in France; Church in Need and Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem — have all expressed interest and most have pledged support. All the contributions were made for CNEWA’s emergency phase, including medicines, fuel and medical treatments. Additionally, a few donors have urged us to submit specific proposals for the psychosocial intervention, which will be post-war.

This is an area where the need is great — and will only grow in the weeks ahead. Countless men, women and children will be suffering the after-effects of this conflict for a long time to come; for too many, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and a host of other problems will linger and need treatment. Some wounds are invisible and deep. We are asking our donors in North America to prayerfully consider whatever they can offer at this time to help these people heal.

It is important to point out that we are coordinating the activities of various Catholic and non-Catholic agencies on the ground, hosting regular meetings at our office in Jerusalem. We have distributed our relief activities as follows: CNEWA will concentrate on provision of medicines, fuel and medical treatments in this emergency phase; Caritas Jerusalem is providing food packages and cash assistance; and Catholic Relief Services is assisting with the provision of non-food, hygiene packages and medical supplies. Thus, we are complementing our works to benefit as many people as possible. And, as always, CNEWA’s activities are implemented through the local church and its institutions.

Thank you for your continued support, and please keep the injured in your prayers.

To donate to our emergency fund and help those families in need today, please visit this page.

Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Violence against Christians War Israeli-Palestinian conflict Relief

29 July 2014

The Holy Family School, an institutional partner of CNEWA, has transformed its classrooms into living space for displaced families. (photo: CNEWA)

Here are some of the latest heartbreaking statistics from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) regarding the conflict in Gaza:

  • 1,065 Palestinians killed — including at least 795 civilians, of whom 229 are children and 118 are women

  • 44 Israeli soldiers and 3 Israeli civilians killed

  • 6,233 Palestinians injured, of whom 1,949 are children and 1,160 are women

  • 215,000 are displaced and in need of shelter, drinking water and food assistance

  • 44 percent of the Gaza Strip, encompassing a 3-kilometer wide strip, is declared a no-go zone

The number of casualties is increasing daily and will increase even should hostilities end. It is estimated that hundreds more are buried under the rubble and it will take days or weeks to unearth the bodies.

The above statistics are appalling, but what is more difficult to comprehend are the personal stories from our friends and partners. The targeting of the Ayyad family home just yesterday was most disturbing. The first Christian victim was a 60-year-old woman, Jalileh Ayyad, who did not have enough time to flee; she was killed instantly when a missile hit her home.

Her 32-year-old son, Jeries, who was with her at the time, was critically wounded in the attack, suffering severe burns and shrapnel fragments on as much as 70 percent of his body. Doctors had to amputate both his legs to save his life. He will be brought to a Jerusalem hospital for extensive treatment so he will have a better chance of survival. His mother was buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Gaza late yesterday afternoon.

The home of the Ayyad family, destroyed by an Israeli missile in the Shajaia neighborhood of Gaza City. (photo: CNEWA)

I received an urgent call two days ago from Suhaila Tarazi, director of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, explaining the urgency for medicines, medical supplies and, more importantly, fuel to operate the hospital’s generator. She reported the hospital had to make a painful decision to shut down their generator for 4 hours that afternoon in order to ration fuel. She was very upset not knowing what impact it will have on the patients’ treatment and recovery.

We immediately lobbied with our connections to ensure the hospital gets the fuel supply it needs to continue to save lives.

I will be remiss if I do not mention a member of our team in Gaza, George Anton, who leaves his young family on a daily basis and risks his own life to visit local institutions and individuals in order to assess the situation on the ground. He describes his personal experience and the stories of ordinary people affected by the war, the dozens of displaced families housed at the Holy Family Catholic Church, the hundreds of injured patients at the Anglican-run Al Ahli Arab Hospital and dozens of devout Muslim women and their children taking refuge at the ancient Greek Orthodox parish church of St. Porphyrios. Today, as he was describing to me the status of Jeries Ayyad, the building across the street from George’s home was shelled and he had to take cover immediately.

Our churches and church institutions in Gaza continue to be that beacon of hope despite all of the misery. Holy Family School, the Greek Orthodox parish and the Greek Orthodox Cultural Center have all opened up their facilities to hundreds of displaced families, giving them food, clean water and above all a safe roof over their heads. The Al Ahli Arab Hospital continues to open up its facilities in this emergency crisis to anyone needing medical treatment, free of charge. Incarnate Word Father Georges Hernandez continues to risk his life every day by making home and hospital visits. The Missionaries of Charity continue to call Gaza home despite the various offers for evacuation.

Despite all of the suffering, the Christian mission is certainly at its best. These brave souls — who are personally risking their lives — continue to comfort the injured and displaced, and provide assistance to the weak and marginalized with the Gospel in their hearts.

Thank you for your generous financial and moral support. Please know that your support and prayers for the people of Gaza, especially the women and children, are priceless and help to keep hope and faith alive.

Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Violence against Christians War Israeli-Palestinian conflict Relief

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