Our first visit today took us to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Pope Benedict visited this camp in 2009 and gave a famous speech in front of the entrance to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people who have suffered so much in the two intifadas, which devastated much of this holy city.
Upon entering the camp we were greeted by the director of the Al-Rowwad Center, which offers young people a special creative environment to learn drama, photography, art and other areas of study that encourage them to express what the center calls a “beautiful resistance.” The resistance is not violent in any way but creatively allows the young to learn together how they can express their feelings in a constructive way. They are very proud of having dance and drama troupes that have performed in a number of countries, including the U.S.
As a somewhat serious photographer, I was really impressed with their exposition prints adorning the walls. I was also impressed that they literally take their performing skills “on the road,” in the form of a mobile stage for their performing arts programs. They even use the offensively high and sterile wall put up by the Israeli government as a “screen” for showing movies.
We had a walk through the camp and our host pointed out in many places the remnant of bullet holes fired from the military and we could even still see in the street the marks of the tank treads, a reminder of the full occupation by the Israeli military.
From this community-based center, we proceeded to a peaceful home for unwanted babies and expectant mothers rejected by families. It’s called the Creche of Bethlehem. What a fitting name. The director of the facility is named Sister Sophie and she is something special. This sister is the embodiment of the protector of little babies and the unwanted. She loves each and every one of the 91 childen cared for at the Creche.
She took us to a room with little ones ranging in age from a few days old to about nine months. One of the babies was left at a big garbage dump, another at Sister Sophie’s doorstep. Some children were dropped off for various reasons. There is no legal system for adoption in Palestine and Muslim tradition does not allow for it, so this is a big challenge. But Sister Sophie, her staff and her many volunteers still present loving smiles to all who visit.
CNEWA has offered some help here in the past, but the main source of support comes from the Knights of Malta. God bless them.
From Bethlehem, we traveled north of Jerusalem to a rather barren and hilly area about a half-hour out of the city. There we visited an all-Christian village named Taybeh. There are three Christian churches here — Latin Catholic, Melkite Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox. To arrive here is to arrive in an oasis of peace, beauty and tranquility. The pastor of the Melkite parish was our host and first took us on a tour of his parish facilities, which included some improvements provided by or assisted by CNEWA. CNEWA is now helping to repair a fallen ceiling. The pastor, Father Jack, expressed many times over his profound thanks to all of you for your kindness.
A real surprise in the visit was entering the excavated ruins of one of the oldest Byzantine churches in all of Palestine, which dates to the fifth century. The view from this hilltop was magnificent, allowing us to see all the way to Amman, Jordan. This was actually part of the ancient town of Ephraim mentioned in the bible.
After our tour, we had lunch with a group of young people from the town who openly and honestly engaged us in a dialogue. They shared with us their frustrations, their dreams, their disappointments and their hopes. I responded that, first and foremost, they had to challenge themselves in their faith and I offered that we cannot give them money to accomplish their dreams but we can offer other forms of assistance such as technical help. But faith is the starting point. I admired them for their honesty, and I think that we gave them a broader view of ways to develop themselves as individuals and as a small Christian community.
The final event of the day was a Mass with the staff of our office here in Jerusalem and their family members. Mass was followed by a delectable meal prepared by Tony Za’rour, who is a very accomplished chef. It was delightful to meet the family members and to see how well they related with each other, especially with the many children of Pontifical Mission staff. The staff gave me a beautiful Jerusalem cross pin, which I will proudly wear on my suit jacket.
Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, has done a tremendous job of hosting us. There is a huge amount of planning and execution that went into all these arrangements. He and his staff have truly been a family to me and I am most grateful.
Tomorrow, Father Guido and I will begin our day with an early morning Mass at the site of the Mount of Calvary, and then we will visit the Papal Nuncio. After that, I will have time for a personal mini-pilgrimage with Father Guido. Finally, our day will end with a video conference call with the entire staff in New York, so as to include them in a personal way with my pastoral visit to Palestine.
You will all be remembered tomorrow morning at Mass at the site of the death of Our Lord.