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Facing Facts in the Middle East

text and photos by Joseph Cornelius Donnelly

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The National Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed a committee to advise them on their statement on the Middle East. Committee members traveled to the Middle East on a fact-finding mission, visiting Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt to meet with church and government leaders, as well as men, women and children in cities and villages throughout these troubled regions. John Cardinal O’Connor, a member of the committee, traveled to Lebanon one month earlier.

I accompanied Archbishop Roger Mahony, chairman of the committee, and Archbishop William Keeler who is also vice president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association on their journey last July. Msgr. Robert L. Stern, secretary general of our Association, and the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, counselor for social policy at the United States Catholic Conference, who are consultants to the committee, were part of the delegation. Staff members from the regional offices of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine arranged meetings for these visitors with local groups, organizations and individuals. For 10 days the delegation made its way from country to country and gained firsthand experience of the difficulties facing these lands.

“In every country, public officials and private citizens expressed the conviction that peace in the Middle East requires an active, engaged U.S. policy, one committed to justice and security for the Palestinian people and the people of Israel,” Archbishop Mahony said.

Before beginning their mission, the group met with Vatican officials in Rome. The delegation then traveled to Damascus, Syria, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Most often, people spoke Arabic, thus multilingual translations were a daily ingredient in conversation. By the end, however, the delegation was tossing off Arabic expressions, much to the delight of our hosts.

The purpose of the trip was to listen. As we wound our way through the crowded streets of Damascus, representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities spoke of their problems and needs. “What is it that the U.S. bishops have in mind to do here in Syria and the Middle East? It is very important for us to see that the bishops are so interested in their brothers in the Eastern churches. We are one church.” Another voice in this interfaith dialogue stated: “We Christians and Muslims share a common brotherhood.”

We found out that Damascus is crowded because so many Syrians have moved from their native villages to find economic security in the big city. Consequently, Damascus is busy, intense and hot. But also vibrant. After meeting with the vice president of Syria, Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs and parish people, the delegation quickly discovered how many Arabs respect the U.S. Church, how the local community is concerned about the lack of security throughout the Middle East and how they are desperately searching for solutions to the problems they face. People opened their hearts and homes to us. It is clear that their hope and faith are in God’s fidelity to His people.

From Syria, we traveled to Jordan. Once again Arab hospitality engulfed us. Meeting people in these ancient lands is serious business. Visits of significance are treated accordingly, and yet they were not merely ceremonious. At every stop, the discussions were substantive and challenging.

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Tags: CNEWA Middle East Christianity Muslim Occupation