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The Pontifical Mission for Palestine

Five popes have maintained a unique mission to serve the displaced people of the Middle East. The mission’s role has grown to meet new challenges.

by Brother Austin David, F.S.C.
photos: CNEWA files


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On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a plan for the partition of Palestine. With the withdrawal of British forces from the area on the termination of the British mandate, Arabs and Jews would be left to resolve their claims to this land by armed struggle.

In the Vatican, Pope Pius XII followed this situation with special concern. The relative harmony among residents of the birthplace of Christ was disintegrating. Local Arab Christians were in jeopardy. The holy places sacred to Christianity were threatened. Innocent people were being displaced from their homes, and massive suffering was inevitable.

On May 1, 1948, the Holy Father asked for public prayers for world peace, especially for a resolution of the problems in Palestine. He beseeched the faithful to pray “that the situation in Palestine may at long last be settled justly and thereby concord and peace be also happily established.”

The British High Commissioner left Palestine two weeks later, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. Full-scale warfare erupted between Arab and Jewish forces for control of Palestinian territory. As hostilities continued in the following months, the Holy Father’s concern deepened. He again called for prayers for peace in Palestine. The pope expressed his sorrow at the bloodshed in the land of Christ and his distress for the thousands left homeless and hungry.

Pope Pius XII sought to attain justice and peace in Palestine “without abandoning the attitude of impartiality.” Through his representatives in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt he provided emergency relief to all in need. At the same time he encouraged Catholics in various countries to undertake efforts to aid displaced people of the region.

Even though an armistice began in February of 1949, displaced Palestinians were in need of continuing support – food, medical care, housing, and other essential services. The Holy Father again drew the world’s attention to their need on Good Friday of that year. He wrote, “The condition of these exiles is so critical and unstable that it cannot longer be permitted to continue.”

In such a volatile political situation, an independent mission of emergency relief was essential. The Holy Father wanted to unify the humanitarian and charitable efforts of the Church among the refugees in the Holy Land.

In April of 1949, Pope Pius summoned to Rome Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon, told him of his intention to organize a special mission for Palestine, and named him its president. The national secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association was well acquainted with the challenging task he faced, having completed a fact-finding mission to Palestine the previous year on behalf of the American bishops.

The field headquarters of the Pontifical Mission was established in Beirut. Seven local committees involving the papal representatives, hierarchies, clergy, laity, and charitable agencies were organized for Arab Palestine (West Bank), Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Gaza.

Close collaboration with local churches and their leadership became the hallmark of the Pontifical Mission. Working with indigenous priests, brothers, sisters, and laity, it made resources available for humanitarian relief and development in the name of the Holy Father. Thousands of priests and religious volunteers of many nations came to work in these efforts.

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Tags: CNEWA Middle East Palestine United Nations