Jerusalem Patriarch Discusses ‘Many Concerns”

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Jerusalem’s Latin patriarch said church leaders are “perplexed” by the complex situation in the Middle East.

“We are confronted by so many concerns and issues,” said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, who said people want “more stability and democracy.”

“The joy of Christmas is overshadowed by the staggering violence in Syria. We are full of compassion for the victims,” said in his message, noting that the Catholic Church in Jordan has been actively helping 250,000 Syrian refugees.

He noted that on 16 December he had made his first visit to the Christian community in Gaza following the violence in November, and witnessed the difficult situation in which they live.

“I denounce the severe restrictions that dehumanize the daily lives of 1.6 million people and generate feelings of hatred and hostility toward Israel,” he said in the message.

He noted that — unlike the Christian community in the West Bank, where emigration “appears to be slowing” — in Gaza the number of Christians decreases every year. This year there are slightly more than 1,330 Christians living in Gaza, he said.

“We can count them by numbers,” he told journalists at a news conference. “When they leave, they don’t come back. My message to them is to stay, stay, stay, but if they don’t stay I understand, without justifying this departure.”

He said the Israeli authorities have said they would provide 500 travel permits for Christians in Gaza to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem this year.

In response to a journalist’s question regarding persecution of Christians in the region, the patriarch said that the issue of persecution “should not be overstated.”

“We will never use this word persecution. It is not for us. Everywhere we have problems. In Europe, we have problems,” said the patriarch.

“We call it harassment in a limited scale,” added Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, who attended the press conference with the patriarch.

In a chart handed out to journalists, the church leaders listed 31 incidents of vandalism that occurred against Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, institutions and cemeteries over the past year. All of the incidents were carried out either by Jews or Muslims, Patriarch Twal noted. He added that Christian leaders viewed it a positive sign that the first to condemn such actions when they have taken place against Christian institutions have been Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.

Despite the best efforts of the police and interreligious initiatives, the vandalism continues and perpetrators are not caught, he said.

“Interreligious dialogue can only bear fruits in acts of mutual respect,” he said in his message. “I reiterate my dismay at the desecration of churches, convents, synagogues, mosques and cemeteries that offends everyone. We must take out the evil at its root by educating our youth in all schools.”

Patriarch Twal noted that the diocese in the Holy Land has been welcoming many immigrants, referring to the many mainly African refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, some of whom have entered Israel through Egypt in recent years.

“The church feels very close to these faithful and does not hesitate to raise their voices when these communities feel attacked,” he said.

He also applauded the decision by the U.N. General Assembly granting Palestinians observer status, calling it a “step toward peace and stability in the region.” At the same time, he told reporters, the planned Israeli expansion of settlements in the Jerusalem area would make it more complicated to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

In his message the patriarch also noted that, in the spirit of ecumenism, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land have decided that this year, Catholics will celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar, on May 5, together with the Orthodox churches in all parishes. This will not happen in Jerusalem and Bethlehem because of the Status Quo agreement and the influx of pilgrims. He said a decree might be approved by the Vatican to permanently establish this change as early as 2014.

He told journalists he hoped the Greek Orthodox would follow suit and agree to celebrate Christmas with Catholics on 25 December 2013.

“Although the Greek hierarchy was not [in favor of] this decision, the request came from the Greek Orthodox and Catholic faithful,” he said.

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