8 April 2019
A photo shows the father of Mousa Kamar, Youssef Kamar, right front, carrying the large wooden cross during the Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem.
(photo: CNS/courtesy Kamar family)
For four decades, Mousa Kamar has taken his place at the head of the heavy wooden cross used during the Franciscan Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa.
Kamar, 55, can be seen every year at the front left of the cross, the same position where his father used to carry the cross. His grandfather also helped carry the front of the cross. The scores of old black-and-white pictures, color photographs and magazine photos Kamar has collected and uploaded onto his Facebook page attest to the long-held family tradition.
“We do this not only because it is the tradition, but because we are religious and we truly believe in it,” said Kamar, looking over some of the photographs scattered on a coffee table as he sat in his mother’s living room in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the ninth station of the cross. This is the home where he grew up and where his paternal grandmother was born.
It takes about 20 men to carry the 3-meter (3.3-yard) cross on Good Friday, and traditionally each position on the cross was taken by a representative of a different family. Kamar is the only one who has continued with the tradition. As the older generation died off, the younger members of the other families did not continue with the tradition, he said.
The cross, though still large and heavy, is smaller than the one used generations ago, he said.
Even in the pushing and shoving of the procession, which sees local Catholics and pilgrims packing the cobblestone streets of the Old City as they make their way along the Via Dolorosa, Kamar said he is able to find a space within himself where he can reflect on the significance of the moment and on the life of Jesus.
“When I am carrying the cross I remember Jesus, how he died for us and how he walked all this way by himself,” said Kamar. “We are 20 people carrying it, and he carried it by himself. Especially as we stop at each station and it is mentioned where he fell (or other detail), it makes me feel like I am following the footsteps of Jesus.”
Kamar’s parents had run a family grocery store near the eighth station of the cross, and Graciella Matulleh Kamar, today 83, recalled the pride she felt as she would stand in the doorway of their shop on Good Friday and watch as her husband carried the cross during the procession. Her husband, Kamar’s father, was killed during the 1967 war in which Israel took over control of Jerusalem from the Jordanians.
“After he was killed, I couldn’t watch the procession anymore. It was too painful,” she said.
Only when Kamar, at age 15, stepped in to fill his father’s place was she able to once again watch the procession, she said.
Kamar was 5 when his father was killed.
“Especially on Good Fridays, my mother would tell me about how my father carried the cross and that one day I would carry it, too,” he said. “The first time I carried it I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so excited about carrying the cross and filling that space my father had had.”
Several years ago, Kamar’s oldest son, Youssef, 20, also joined the group of men carrying the cross, but during the procession, he steps aside to let others take their turn. More recently, Kamar’s youngest son, Ramez, 15, began taking part in the carrying of the cross. One of the pictures shows a 13-year-old Ramez at the end of the cross, his head barely peeping over the top of the cross among the crowd of men surrounding it. With his dark curly hair and full cheeks he looks just like his father did in earlier pictures.
“It was very exciting to be able to carry the cross,” said Youssef Kamar. “In the future maybe I and my (future) sons will continue the family tradition. Although this is a tradition, it also helps me feel closer to Jesus and what he went through before being crucified.
“It is also a burden and an honor to do this,” he added. “Since I was young, I heard stories about this family tradition and, since my father, and his father and his grandfather have done this, I think it is important to keep the tradition and to keep our religion alive.”
In preparation for the procession, Mousa Kamar spends Holy Week in prayer, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre every day after work and participating in the liturgical ceremonies, including the traditional veneration of the pillar of Jesus’ flagellation, the washing of the feet pilgrimage to the Cenacle, and holy hour on Holy Thursday at Gethsemane.
He said he uses the time to meditate and pray for Christian unity and a strengthening of Christian religious identity, which he feels is being lost.
“All week I am praying, preparing to carry the cross, linking how Jesus suffered for us to the Palestinian situation. He fought for us, sacrificed himself for us but, unfortunately, we are losing our Christianity. I always pray for that, that people will return to the foundations of Christianity,” he said noting that Christians in the Middle East are living a difficult reality with close to 50 percent of the Christian population having emigrated.
“We love Jesus and we feel we are a part of Jesus. Every corner, every stone in Jerusalem is directly about Jesus.”
26 March 2019
Salwa Salem Copty, 70, holds a photo of her father, Fares, in front of the Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob in Ma’alul village, Israel. Salwa, who now lives in Cana, is fighting for the right to visit her father’s grave in the Ma’alul cemetery, which is now enclosed in an Israeli army base.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
The destroyed Arab village of Ma’alul, located just outside of Nazareth, does not appear on any Israeli map, but it is etched on Salwa Salem Copty’s heart.
Copty’s widowed mother and her three older siblings, along with other residents, were expelled from the village in July 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence. Copty was born 16 days later.
Copty laments that she has no memories of Ma’alul, but she clings to the stories her relatives have told her about what life was like there. Now, at age 70, she still visits the site of the village, drinking coffee and eating pastries with her children and grandchildren in the shadow of the reconstructed Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob.
But she is unable to visit her father’s grave because an Israeli air force base was constructed around the Christian cemetery shortly after the residents’ expulsion, and they have never been permitted to enter the base to go to the cemetery. Her father was killed a few months prior to the expulsion by a Jewish militia bullet and is buried in the cemetery.
“They told me father was in heaven and I would look at his picture and would see a cloud in the sky that looked like the picture, and I would think that my father is looking at me and is speaking to me, and I would talk to him,” said Copty, a retired social worker. She has enlarged the photograph of her father and keeps it in her home, still confiding her deepest worries and concerns to it.
“I am appealing to all sense of humanity for this request to visit the grave. I want to whisper on his grave, as if he will hear that he has a daughter named Salwa who misses him, just to touch the grave, the dust, his soul, the place where he walked, even where maybe he stepped. That drives me crazy,” she said.
Since 2000, Copty repeatedly has made formal requests to gain access to the cemetery to visit her family members buried there, but her appeals to various Israeli authorities through multiple channels have gone unhandled.
“I dream about this grave. I’m begging. I just want to visit my father’s grave before I die and it’s too late,” Copty said. “You can’t just erase someone’s memory.”
On 13 January Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of Copty and her 93-year-old uncle, Subhi Mansour, to allow them to visit the cemetery. Mansour is the only living displaced resident of the village who can identify the location of the grave of Copty’s father, Fares Salem.
The petition, which will be heard by the court 24 June, was filed against the Israeli defense and interior ministries and the Israel Land Authority and demands that Copty and Mansour be permitted to visit the cemetery. The petition also seeks clarification regarding why the Interior Ministry and ILA have not been required to preserve Ma’alul’s Christian cemetery and protect it from desecration or, alternatively, why it is not allowing the petitioners or anyone on their behalf to maintain and protect the cemetery from desecration.
“The desecration of and failure to maintain the cemetery, and the failure of Israeli authorities to respond to Copty’s appeals within an appropriate and humane time frame, are all violations of the constitutional right to dignity -- both of the living and of the deceased -- and a violation of her right to grieve at the family grave,” Adalah said in the petition.
This is the first time a case relating to access to a cemetery located inside a military base has been brought to court.
The government ministries did not reply to requests for a response from Catholic News Service.
Mansour told CNS: “We haven’t been able to visit the cemetery since 1948. ... It’s not just us, everyone has family buried in the cemetery. Everyone should be able to visit their dead, place flowers on their graves.”
Copty’s oldest daughter, Odna -- which means “return” in Arabic -- accompanies her mother on visits.
“Because I have this name, I feel this village is always with me,” she said. “I always live my mother’s pain and suffering. Sometimes I wake up at night and she is crying to the picture.”
Along with the other descendants of the expelled families, Copty and her family return to St. Jacob Church, which they restored, on the second day of Easter for Mass, and her children attended the yearly summer camps held at the site to remember their village.
Today the remains of the destroyed village are overgrown, and the overturned rocks peek out from under rolling mounds of green grass, which has sprouted after a rainy winter, but Mansour can still point out where he lived and where Copty’s parents lived. He identifies one of the village’s wells amid the jumbled rocks.
Together with another niece who is an engineer, Mansour recently mapped out the pre-1948 village and, next to the church, they placed a large sign of the area marked with every family’s home.
They also placed name markers next to every pile of rubble to identify the homes on the ground, but someone tore down all the name signs.
14 December 2018
Tags: Israel Melkite
Angeline Fernando and Vangie Lapada, foreign workers from the Philippines, take a selfie wearing Santa hats at the Christmas market in the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Israel. The market offers an opportunity for foreigners to buy decorations for Christmas in the Jewish state.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
For foreign workers and other nonlocal Christians living in Israel, celebrating Christmas far from loved ones in a country where Christians are a minority can be a difficult time.
Used to a festive Christmas season back home in the Philippines, many of the Filipino caretakers who work with mainly Jewish families have learned to adjust their expectations.
“We are missing our families. We are used to seeing all the Christmas decorations everywhere,” said Vangie Lapada, 51, who has been working in Israel for five years. She is a caretaker in the Golan Heights in northern Israel, where there are few Christians.
But as Israel’s population has become more diverse to include foreign caretakers, migrant workers and asylum seekers -- many of whom are Christians living in cities where Jewish residents are the majority -- Jewish Israelis also have adjusted to a new reality. One of the changing points has also been the arrival of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union where the New Year celebration, Novy God, uses many of the usual Christmas symbols for the nonreligious holiday.
On a mid-December Sunday, Lapada used her day off to travel to Tel Aviv with a friend. On the fourth floor of the cavernous Tel Aviv central bus station, they visited the pop-up Christmas market with its twinkling Christmas lights and festive Santa Claus apparel. A large banner in the center of the station announced the location of the market.
The stalls were set up several years ago by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union wanting to openly celebrate the Novy God holiday. The market also has provided a place for Filipino foreign workers and others to enjoy some trappings of Christmas.
Novy God was the only nonpolitical holiday permitted by the communist regime in the former Soviet Union, which incorporated some customary Christmas symbols -- such as the tree -- into the celebration to placate people. The communist government also added parallel symbols from traditional folktales such as the Snow Maiden and Grandfather Winter. All religious celebrations were forbidden under the communist regime.
“This (market) makes me happy because it brings a bit of our tradition,” said Lapada as she and Angeline Fernando, 48, snapped selfies of themselves wearing Santa hats in front of a white plastic Christmas tree covered with decorations. English Christmas songs played from a stereo, adding to the atmosphere.
Lapada said that, in Israel, the main focus of their celebrations is the Filipino parishes in the larger cities and in the homes of friends who are not live-in caretakers, but she still misses the general atmosphere of Christmas in the Philippines.
“My employer is a religious Jew, so we don’t have a tree in the apartment. I come here to take pictures and feel the spirit of Christmas. These decorations are part of Christmas for us,” said Lapada.
Fernando, who works in Tel Aviv caring for a Jewish woman originally from France, said her employer enjoys the Christmas lights, and they combine Hanukkah and Christmas decorations in the apartment.
“Every day we have visitors, and they all say how beautiful the decorations are because of the colors. But I come here to see the trees, and I feel like I am in the Philippines,” Fernando said.
Because of its unique decorations made in Russia and other high-quality Christmas items, the market even sometimes attracts local Christians who live in areas where other Christmas decorations are sold.
“My mother wanted to buy the special glass decorations they have here instead of the plastic ornaments sold in Jerusalem,” said Rami, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem who declined to give his last name. His mother went from one stall to another, looking over delicate, hand-decorated ornaments nestled in boxes; larger ornaments made to look like snowflakes; and china Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter dolls.
Vasilisa Gorbichova, 9, who moved with her parents from Russia one-and-a-half years ago, helped her mother, Olga Alaeva, 35, decide which lights to buy. Alaeva is Christian and her husband is Jewish. For Vasilisa, the decorations were all about Novy God.
“I love the night of Novy God. I get presents from Grandfather Winter,” she said. “My favorite thing is to put up the decorations. My friends accept it, they know me and understand that I am Russian, and this is our tradition.”
Yulia, 28, a seller from Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from Russia three years ago, said the market runs a brisk business in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Novy God. Sellers have never experienced any negative response from Jewish Israelis walking by the market, she said.
“In Tel Aviv, there are a lot of people from different countries, so it is a very tolerant city,” she said. “This (market) is the best place to work on the holiday.”
Diana Giraldo, 28, a Colombian who moved to Israel this fall, was preparing for her first Christmas away from home.
“It is very hard and sad to celebrate Christmas without my family, so I am very happy to see this market, because I didn’t know where I was going to get my decorations from,” Giraldo said. She heard about the market through a Facebook page, she said.
“This is our tradition. This is what we are used to,” she said. “Now we can go home and put up our decorations.”
22 October 2018
Tags: Israel Tel Aviv
St. Paul VI left an enduring legacy on the Holy Land. (photo: CNS)
For Holy Land Christians, St. Paul VI left behind a legacy of Catholic institutions to serve and strengthen the community.
On a more personal level, for two Catholic families living in the Old City of Jerusalem, he left behind a special blessing and a relic which has taken on more significance for them after his canonization by Pope Francis on 14 October.
During his January 1964 visit to the Old City, which then was under Jordanian rule, St. Paul VI made a spontaneous stop to the home of a sick man to hear his confession. Upon leaving the man’s home, he was received with a traditional cup of coffee from Fairuz Orfali and greeted by Laila Soudah, neighbors who shared the same courtyard.
The Orfali family has kept the plain white cup safely stored in a felt-lined glass and wooden box while the Soudahs have photographs of the visit.
After the pope took a symbolic sip of the coffee, Orfali, in the old local tradition of welcoming honored guests, poured the remains of the coffee at the pope’s feet.
The cup remains as it was: coffee grounds still at the bottom and around its side.
“It gives me chills now, especially that he has been canonized,” said Soudah’s daughter, Hania, 52, who had not yet been born during the visit. Her oldest sister Hanady was blessed by the future saint as were others in the courtyard.
“This was the first visit of a pope to the Holy Land. My grandparents, mother, father, our neighbors welcomed him in the traditional way. This is now something to be passed down generations of our family,” Hania said.
“Who am I that the pope should come to visit us?” her father, Issa, 84, said as he leafed through a folder with photographs of the visit. “We moved flower pots so there would be room. We were very honored he visited our house.”
During the visit, St. Paul VI called for the establishment of social rehabilitation and development projects. His call eventually led to the founding of Bethlehem University, Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children, Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center.
As early as the 1940s, the future pope -- Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini -- in his capacity as Pope Paul XII’s assistant responsible for displaced Palestinian refugees, had championed the Pontifical Mission Society’s relief efforts and continued to do so throughout his papacy.
At a November 1948 meeting in the Vatican, Msgr. Montini named the head of Catholic Near East Welfare Association at the time, Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, to lead a papal mission specifically for displaced persons in Palestine which became the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Pope Pius entrusted the mission to CNEWA.
As pope, he continued to show a deep commitment to CNEWA’s work by beginning his pontificate with the historic trip to the Holy Land, which he called a “pilgrimage of prayer and penance.”
“He wanted to establish such institutions that would help empower the situation of the local (Christian) community in the Holy Land,” said Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA regional director in Jerusalem.
The apostolic delegate in Jerusalem at the time, then-Father Pio Laghi, was a close friend of the pope and teamed with CNEWA and other organizations to make the pontiff’s ideas a reality.
“At that time, we were under Jordan rule with a majority of Muslims so for us these were very important,” said John Orfali, Laila Soudah’s son. “It made us feel that we belong here.”
The establishment of the Bethlehem University provided for the first time a school of higher learning for young Palestinians so they would not have to go abroad to study and boost emigration. The three other organizations continue their original mission, Hazboun said.
The initiatives St. Paul VI promoted testified to his belief in the church as an instrument of reconciliation and hope, CNEWA said in a statement about the canonization.
“St. Pope Paul VI left a large legacy and an example for many to follow in his quiet and humble way,” Hazboun said. “Really what we need now is humble people who can set aside the difficulties and disagreements that have accumulated over 1,000 years creating divisions which are due to political issues rather than theological issues. The unfortunate division still continues making it difficult to achieve unity.”
A year following his pilgrimage, Pope Paul VI issued the groundbreaking declaration “Nostra Aetate” on relations of the church to non-Christian religions.
“He was the continuation of the revolution but a completely different personality,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, said of St. Paul VI. He noted that most Israelis -- unfairly in his opinion -- have a mixed response to St. Paul VI’s Holy Land visit because he refused to meet with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and met them instead in the northern city of Megiddo.
“It was seen as a great thing by Israel, but as it did not lead to anywhere, no establishment of relations, there was a sense in Israel of a letdown,” Rabbi Rosen explained. “With the rapid pace of Pope John XXIII, there had been expectations which were not met. But I feel he really tried to move forward.”
He delivered a warm speech in Megiddo, said Rabbi Rosen, testing the waters but needing to be cautious because there was negative reaction from the Arab world. Still, in 1974, he established the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews.
CNEWA also recalled the new saint’s desire to bring unity across religious lines.
“We remain deeply grateful for the love and passion he brought to his papacy, and which he shared so selflessly with the suffering peoples in the Holy Land, a place now so fraught with division, hardship and violence,” CNEWA said it its statement. “So many of those we serve need his prayerful intercession now, more than ever.”
The video below, from British Pathé, shows highlights of Paul VI’s historic 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
22 May 2018
A French pilgrim prays during a special service for peace in the Holy Land on 19 May at the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Even in times of violence and despair, the power of joint prayer for peace can be felt, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Local Palestinians, religious and foreign worshippers gathered at the Dominican Church of St. Stephen on 19 May, answering the archbishop’s call for a joint peace prayer in the face of 16 May violence along the Gaza-Israeli border, in which 62 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.
“We feel helpless for the killing of innocent people and the obstinate refusal to find alternative solutions,” said Archbishop Pizzaballa. “We must go through the strength of prayer to still believe we can change [the situation] and our land will one day be with peace and justice. We want fear and suspicion to give way to knowledge, where differences are opportunities.”
Though it may not be possible to change things as one would like in the wider world, the faithful must continue to try to change things in their own smaller communities, he said.
Their faith, he said, will give “courage to defend justice.”
Palestinian demonstrations along the border began 31 March, protesting the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and marking the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call Al Naqba, or catastrophe — the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel says it has been using live ammunition to prevent Palestinian protesters — whom they say are being incited by Hamas — from breaking through the Gaza border fence, raising fears that they would carry out terrorist attacks on neighboring Jewish villages.
Rosary Sister Virginia Habib, director of the Catechetical Center of the Latin Patriarchate, said during difficult circumstances such as these, she urges the young people “not to forgo hope.”
“We are surrounded by lots of violence in all the Middle East, not just here; we as Christians should not feel frustrated — our Christian faith tells us that the Lord will help us defeat death,” said Habib.
At Pentecost, the faithful are still in the spirit of the Resurrection, she said, and there is hope that evil will not have the final word in their daily life.
“We live our lives, and we continue to come here to pray and keep praying to offer all our mortifications so that peace will take place,” Sister Habib said. “Peace will not happen in our land until peace has taken place in our own heart.”
She said she tells young people that, as Christians, they are called upon to react to the injustices they see following the teachings of Jesus. She said they listen to her because she is living the same experiences as they are.
LaSallian Christian Brother Peter Iorlano said Christians must be witnesses to peace, especially those living and working among Jews and Muslims, to speak out about injustices but in a “level-headed” way.
“You don’t want to fuel the fire,” he said. “You have to be aware of your [surroundings] and how we can be seduced into being violent. We need to be really self-critical and conscientious and say: This is not just. In a way everyone is suffering but … people with power are the ones who can make a difference.”
Archbishop Pizzaballa told Catholic News Service the Christian community draws strength from supporting one another and not allowing the conflict to enter in their hearts. The strength of their daily life, taking care of their children and family, is what frees them to have hope and be positive, he said.
“Life is difficult, but we must always pray for peace,” said Faiyad Elias, 55, of Jerusalem.
Christy Bandak, 43, of Bethlehem, said the only hope people have is in their faith.
“Negotiations have failed, human means have failed. … Peace is a gift from God. That is the only way out,” said Bandak. “Christians, if they are really Christians, are peacemakers. When you hear [about] the bombings and the shootings, one can be afraid. It is a reason to pray to strengthen your faith. We can’t fall into the abyss of desperation.”
Souad Handal, 49, of Bethlehem, West Bank, said as Palestinian Christians, they experience the same injustices as Muslim Palestinians, said but though the situation is getting harder, they do not believe in violence.
“Palestinians want our freedom [but] we [Christians] believe in Jesus as a peacemaker,” Handal said. “We ask for the peace of the land. We can ask only God to help us.”
Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, who also attended the prayer service, said Christians must raise their voices in the call for justice and be ready to offer themselves as bridges of peace.
13 December 2017
Tags: Jerusalem Palestinians
Palestinians walk past an inflatable Santa Claus on 12 December in Bethlehem, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Not far from where journalists lined up for positions outside the guard tower at Rachel’s Tomb in anticipation of confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, life in Bethlehem continued. Trendy young Bethlehem residents and visitors were lunching on vegetarian pizza, quinoa and salmon salad, and sandwiches with names like Sexy Morning at the popular Zuwadeh Cafe.
“No benefit will come (of the demonstrations), but people are getting their frustrations out like they have the right to do. It’s the least they can do,” said Mahmoud Hamideh, 25.
“People go and throw stones, but then life goes back to normal,” agreed his cousin, Saleh al-Jundi, 31, who just moved back to Bethlehem from Abu Dhabi with his wife and 14-month-old son. “But this time I am not sure after what Trump said.”
Palestinians leaders called for three days of protests following U.S. President Donald Trump’s 6 December official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and demonstrations have broken out in the West Bank, Jordan and other parts of the Muslim world.
Palestinians reported one killed and at least 35 injured in clashes in the Gaza Strip, with some 115 Palestinians injured in all protests 8 December. In Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at rock-throwing demonstrators.
Jerusalem is home to holy sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews and is contested as the capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. The city has been a key point of contention in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which have been on hold since 2014.
Palestinians say that with his declaration, Trump has removed the United States from the status of neutral mediator.
Though concerned that a continuation of the hostilities may affect the busy Christmas season, shopkeepers and others in the tourism industry in Bethlehem said on 8 December that, for now, pilgrims are not canceling reservations.
“But people will be afraid and will think we have a war here,” said 21-year-old Marianna Musallam, who is Greek Orthodox, as she arranged oversized rosaries meant to be hung on the wall. “But we are always in war. Nothing has changed. Trump’s speech was not for good. Jerusalem is for us Palestinians. It is not possible to share.”
Several guests were busy checking messages on their smartphones in the lobby of the Franciscan Casa Nova Guest House, just steps from the Church of the Nativity, and an older couple dropped off their keys on their way out.
“Until now everything is good,” said Issam Matar, who was staffing the reception desk. “But no one knows what will happen in the future.”
Restaurant manager Mahmoud Abu Hamad, 30, a Muslim, said the Catholic owner had told him to close on 7 December for a one-day strike called by Palestinian leaders. He said they were not concerned about losing customers over Christmas.
“What we have to lose is bigger than anything. (Jerusalem), the capital of Palestine, is bigger than anything,” he said. “In the end, Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine. We don't care what (Trump) says.”
Others, like a Catholic shop owner and a Muslim in the tourism industry, both of whom did not want their names used, said the violence would not help the Palestinian situation.
“If people are smart they would not go out to the streets,” said the Muslim. “With a new conflict, we will lose more kids just because the leaders said to go out into the streets. They should send their own sons, not our sons, who don’t even know what they are fighting for.”
Inside the Church of the Nativity, a large part of which has been cordoned off due to ongoing restoration, pilgrims stood patiently in line, waiting to enter the creche that marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.
Latvian pilgrim Janis Bulisi, 43, said he and his wife had disconnected from the internet since arriving in the Holy Land and had vaguely heard something about Trump’s announcement and the ensuing demonstrations.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We have felt no tensions. We are just excited to be in the place where Jesus was born,” he said.
“Honestly, I did consider canceling the trip, but after thinking about it I saw the violence was more (in other areas), so I took the chance on still coming, though there is a lot of hesitation, nervousness and uncertainty,” said Daniele Coda, 34, of Italy.
Stella Korsah, 56, said though her group had seen some demonstrators on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem, they had not seen violence.
“I have been waiting for this (pilgrimage) for my entire life and I had the opportunity now,” said Korsah, who is a member of St. Catherine of Genoa Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. “I was nervous listening to the news ... but I hope for peace ... and remember my purpose for coming here. We serve a living God, and I know peace will prevail.”
In the courtyard outside the Church of St. Catherine, a Spanish group from the lay ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation prepared, in song, for their Mass.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We were a bit worried, but our priest reassured us,” said Cristina Gallego, 53, who directed the singing. “We pray for peace. Christ is here. Here one comes to see, touch and feel their faith.”
13 October 2017
The Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski blesses tourists outside the Church of the Visitation on 5 October in Jerusalem. Franciscan Father Brzezinski has been superior at the church for the past 10 years.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, the Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Franciscan Father Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan custos and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Father Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirt of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre are very important for Christians,” said Father Brzezinski. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day ... it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulchre, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th year anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Father Brzezinski and the other friar have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century.
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Father Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.
4 August 2017
An Israeli policeman throws a stun grenade in Jerusalem’s Old City on 27 July. Weeks of violence have raised tensions in the Old City. (photo: CNS/Amir Cohen, Reuters)
With tensions still high in the Old City following weeks of violence, the Rev. Firas Aridah completed his work at the Latin Patriarchate early so he could leave Jerusalem for his West Bank parish before any possible violence began.
“There were many [Israeli] police and soldiers, closing many roads,” Father Aridah told Catholic News Service in a phone interview once he was back in Jifna’s St. Joseph Parish 28 July.
Friday afternoon prayer in Muslim tradition is considered especially significant and is required of all Muslim men. Often during volatile periods, prayers at the contested Al Aqsa Mosque compound have been followed by demonstrations. Sometimes the tensions spread to other sections of Jerusalem, or even to the West Bank.
For Father Aridah and other parish priests in the West Bank, the challenge is to emphasize the Christian tradition of nonviolence while supporting their young parishioners’ desire to oppose the Israeli occupation.
Father Aridah said he counsels young people not even to throw stones at the young Israeli soldiers who sometimes come near their village on patrols or in search of men wanted by the army.
“The problem is with the [Israeli] government, not with the soldiers,” he said. “Violence is not acceptable from either side. With this conflict, Israel is losing its image as a democratic state. I tell the young men that we are not with this violence. If we do not accept for Israel to behave this way, then how can we accept it from our side? Wherever God is represented in our life, we should have no violence.”
If word that someone might be considering taking part in a violent demonstration reaches him, the priest makes a beeline to that home for a conversation. The way to best serve their society, he advises them, is to get an education, to bring a new vision to Palestinian life.
“I don’t want to see blood in my parish,” Father Aridah said. “If we want to see [real] results, I tell [the young people] to be educated. I [tell them] to serve your people well, do well in the university, then go get a job in society and tell the world [about our situation], but do nothing with violence. If we want to resist, we resist with education.”
As he prepared to leave for a new parish in northern Israel, Father Aktham Hijazin of the Annunciation Parish in Beit Jala spent his last Sunday with his parish saying his good-byes. He said the majority of Palestinians, including his parishioners, are proponents of nonviolent opposition to the Israeli occupation. His parishioners did not take part in the clashes in neighboring Bethlehem, he said.
Following the tenants of their Catholic faith, he said, “They are not interested to take part in any violent act.”
In Ramallah, West Bank, Father Ibrahim Shomali noted that though he did not take part, members of his parish as well as clergy from the Melkite and Greek Orthodox churches did participate in peaceful demonstrations in Ramallah, away from the flashpoints with Israeli soldiers.
He said he has made it clear to his parishioners that, even while under Israeli occupation, violent confrontation is not acceptable. Even if Israel settlers attack Palestinian farmers and villagers, violence is not justified, he added.
As Christians, he said, people must respect all holy places and respect the holiness of Al Aqsa for Muslims.
“We resist with our prayers and with our Bible and with respect of the human person,” Father Shomali said. “If you can love your enemy, you can have more power over them and get stronger to ask for your rights.”
The Al Aqsa mosque compound has been the focal point of Palestinian-Israel confrontation for decades. To Muslims it is Haram al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary where, according to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. To Jews it is holy as the Temple Mount, where, according to Jewish tradition, the two biblical temples stood. In the Gospels, this is where Jesus lashed out against the money-changers when he came to Jerusalem on Passover.
On 14 July outside one of the compound gates, two Israeli policemen were murdered by three men from an Israeli Arab town. The men had smuggled guns into the compound; Israeli police shot and killed them. Israel responded by erecting metal detectors and other security measures outside the compound, sparking protests — some violent — by Muslims.
A week later, a Palestinian snuck into the Israeli settlement of Halamish and killed three members of an Israeli family during their Shabbat dinner. An off-duty soldier shot and injured the attacker.
Israel eventually removed the metal detectors at the Al Aqsa compound and replaced cameras with “smart cameras” that have face recognition capabilities and can detect weapons.
“The place is holy for the three religions, Muslims, Christians and Jews, so we should [all] be able to raise our praise to God,” said a Catholic priest, who asked not to be named. “This may be possible when a peace agreement is reached.”
22 May 2017
Tags: Palestine Jerusalem Israel Israeli-Palestinian conflict
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump speak to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 22 May.
(photo: CNS/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)
Following his official welcome to Jerusalem by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, U.S. President Donald Trump began his two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian
territories with a private visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Western Wall.
Details of the visits to the holy sites had been a carefully guarded secret until the last moment, but from early 22 May the alleyways of the Old City were closed to both residents and tourists, and the main thoroughfares leading to the Old City were closed off to all traffic.
Under tight security and led by the traditional kawas honor guard announcing the way with the thumping of their ornamental staffs, the president made his way by foot through the Old City’s alleyways to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He and first lady Melania Trump were welcomed at the entrance of the church courtyard by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Archbishop Theophilos III; Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land; and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. The president spoke briefly to the religious leaders and stopped at the entrance of the church for a group photograph after also speaking to a few other religious.
Trump, who also was accompanied into the church by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spent about 30 minutes in the church, which encompasses the area where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified, buried and later rose from the dead. At the entrance of the church is the stone of unction, where tradition holds that Jesus’ body was laid out and washed after his crucifixion. Inside the central rotunda is the newly renovated Edicule, where Jesus was buried.
The delegation then walked the short distance to the Western Wall plaza, where Trump was greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall. Wearing the traditional Jewish kippa or skullcap, Trump walked alone to the wall, where he placed his hands on the stones for several minutes. He then placed a note with a prayer into a crack in the wall, a Jewish tradition. Melania and Ivanka Trump visited the women’s section of the wall separately, and the first lady spent a few minutes silently in front of the wall, touching it with her hand.
Trump is the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in the contested Old City of Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital city.
The Western Wall, considered the holiest site for Judaism today as a remnant of the retaining wall of the Biblical Jewish Temple, also surrounds the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, where the Jewish temple once stood and the location of Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.
Avoiding any symbolic controversy involving the issue of the city’s sovereignty, the Trump administration insisted the visit to the sites be private, vexing Israel by Trump’s refusal to be accompanied by Israeli political leaders to the Western Wall.
Meanwhile, Palestinians said Israel had not allowed a Greek Orthodox Scout marching band to accompany the delegation to Church of the Holy Sepulchre as planned because of the Palestinian flags on their uniform. A spokesman from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any Israeli involvement in the matter, suggesting that it might have been a U.S. security issue.
In a visit that encompasses both political and religious symbolism, Trump spent two days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with King Salman and other Muslim leaders. He was scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas 23 May in Bethlehem, West Bank, and was expected to urge the Palestinian leader to take productive steps toward peace.
According to media reports, he did not plan to visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity because of an exhibit there supporting hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
In statements upon his arrival in Israel, Trump spoke warmly about the U.S.-Israeli bond and his deep sense of admiration for the country. He also spoke of the need to unite against “the scourge of violence.”
“We have the rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people by defeating terrorism,” Trump said at the welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, where he was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. “But we can only get there by working together. We love Israel. We respect Israel and I send your people the warmest greeting from your friend and ally, from all people in the USA, we are with you.”
The next leg of his first overseas trip as president is slated to include a visit to the Vatican as well as to Brussels.
19 December 2016
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, gestures during a news conference in September. Appointed in June, he spoke with journalists on Monday 19 December after releasing his first Christmas message.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Except for specific incidents in Egypt and one in Libya, Christians in the Middle East are suffering the same fate as their fellow citizens, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told media in response to a journalist’s question at his first Christmas news conference.
Because of the political chaos and the destruction of parish records, there are no statistics of how many Christians have been killed in the conflicts, he said, but the numbers of Christians who have been killed because they are Christian is low.
Thousands of Christians have been killed as victims of war just like others in the region, he said.
Nevertheless, Christians have remained strong in their witness to their faith, Archbishop Pizzaballa added.
The archbishop, appointed in June, released his first Christmas message, followed by the news conference, on 19 December. In his message, he said Advent and Christmas are times to “prepare for God’s surprises” and to remember the “incredible gift” with which God surprised humanity.
“We need God’s surprises. With these surprises God opens up the horizon and brings the novelty that can change our world and our lives,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said.
He also blamed the Mideast violence on the arms trade, power interests and “relentless fundamentalism.”
“The situation of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Egypt is a complete tragedy. In these countries, (the) cradle of our civilization, the vicious cycle of violence which is at work seems hopeless and endless,” he said in the message. “Wars and the way of force have not been able to bring peace and justice; it only brought more violence, death and destruction.”
He told journalists at the news conference: “The images of Aleppo we see in front of our eyes are shocking. ...Those who are suffering the price of this abnormal tragedy are the people.”
While the Holy Land is not facing such an extreme situation as in the rest of the region, Christians have still had to confront several cases of vandalism of church property, the construction of the Israeli separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley on property belonging to dozens of Christian families and unresolved budgetary issues regarding Christian schools, said Archbishop Pizzaballa.
In response to a journalist’s question, Archbishop Pizzaballa noted that the tiny Christian community in Gaza, numbering 1,000 people, is also facing the same difficulties all Gazans face living inside the enclave as “one big prison.” In addition to the political and military role they play in Gaza, Hamas is also an Islamic religious movement, and its fundamentalist religious pressure is felt strongly by the Christian community, he said.
He also noted that, in Jordan, the patriarchate has welcomed thousands of refugees: With a population of 7 million, the country has taken in 3 million refugees, he said.
In addition, in Israel the patriarchate has also taken on the responsibility of administering to some of the needs of a smaller refugee community.
Commenting on an 18 December terrorist attack in the Jordanian city of Karak, where a police standoff with gunmen at a Crusader castle left 10 people dead, including a Canadian tourist, Archbishop Pizzaballa said he hopes this was an isolated incident and that he is “confident authorities in Jordan are doing their best to isolate all ideological movements.”
Throughout the region, the church and Christian charities have a presence, and one concrete way Christians can help is to financially support these groups in their work, Archbishop Pizzaballa said, adding that there do not seem to be any serious political attempts to resolve the conflicts.
“The circumstances are not always easy, and we know ... we have to talk of justice and mercy, but sometimes in front of these tragedies it seems like slogans, and people are tired of slogans with no change,” he added.
The archbishop also said education is essential to combating all cases of extremism.
“We have our part of responsibility in those devastating tragedies: We cannot continue to only speak about dialogue, justice and peace. Words are not enough. We must combat poverty and injustice, and give a continual testimony of mercy to reveal to the world the love and tenderness of our God,” he said in his message.
Despite all of the tragedies, Christians must have hope, he said in the message.
“This hope is the light that is continually guiding us among the darkness and confusion of this region and of the whole world. Our broken hearts should be ready for surprises. And Christmas is actually the time to renew our faith in the God of surprises as we go to Bethlehem to venerate an apparently powerless God: The child Jesus,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said. “In our prayers, we are and we will continually carry this wounded world.”