Journey to the Holy Land: Arriving in Bethlehem

Msgr. Kozar reports on his pastoral visit to the Middle East, including his visit to the Ephpheta Institute and the Pontifical Mission Library.

Our day began with an early morning Mass and then we headed to Bethlehem. This was an exciting drive for me, to know I was about to enter Bethlehem, the place of Our Lord’s birth and only three days away from celebrating Christmas there.

Along the way, our host Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, showed me some of the demarcation lines between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, how settlements keep encroaching on Palestinian land and little by little the size of the territory earmarked for Palestinian people diminishes. There are walls of concrete that keep Palestinians locked inside one boundary and excluded from entering other boundaries.

We arrived in Bethlehem and went straightway to the Ephpheta Institute, a school for the hearing and speech impaired. We were warmly greeted by Sister Carmela de Marco, the superior, along with some other sisters and lay staff. After a chat about the program there and the type of instruction used with the children, we enjoyed a coffee together before beginning our full tour.

Of course, the highlight was being with the children, all 125 of them. The very youngest receive wonderful one-on-one training and speech therapy, rendered in a most loving way. After a few years of such intense instruction and training, the children are ready to begin primary school education. It was so edifying to see the progression of the children as they learned first to repeat sounds, then words, then to speak in sentences. The biggest surprise was the upper level kids who were actually bi-lingual, speaking in Arabic and English. I was so proud of each and every one of them.

Some of the older kids were doing some work on their computers and were excited to tell us about their studies and their dreams. One 10th grade girl very openly said to us: “I would like to come to America.” Another young man said to me: “Can I have the website address so that we can read your blog?” They were excited to hear about the blog and that I would be writing about them in this report.

From the Ephpheta Institute, we proceeded to the Pontifical Mission Library, located adjacent to Bethlehem University. He we were welcomed by a group of young married women, who were participating in a regularly scheduled personal and family enrichment session. This was really an impressive group. They offered to share with us the challenges of being a mother, a Palestinian and a Christian. Every one one of them affirmed how important the library has been in their lives. Under the very tranquil and hope-filled direction of administrator Ms. Monnitte Velasco and her great staff, these women were being enriched with instructions in cooking, in family values, self-development through reading, music instruction and many more programs. Father Guido and I felt very uplifted by the testimonials given by each one of them and have a very strong appreciation of the library.

As with our library project in Amman, Jordan, I will add that calling it a “library” doesn’t do it justice. It serves so many needs, it is more like a community center and resource for people of every age, including little children. After a lovely lunch prepared by Monnitte and the other young ladies — and after filling our plates several times! — we departed and walked next door to Bethlehem University.

Sami worked here for 24 years, in administration, so this visit was a sort of “homecoming” for him and a welcome to Bethlehem University for me. CNEWA was instrumental in the founding of this University, and has maintained membership on the Board of Directors, so my visit was all the more special.

Two De La Salle Brothers — Vice Chancellor Brother Peter Bray and Director of Development Brother Jack Curran — were our hosts and led us first on a tour of the facility. It is a beautiful campus with the original building renovated from its origins as a high school. There have been plenty of new buildings in recent times and another major building project is near completion. We even had an opportunity to engage some of the students. They seemed very happy and are thankful for the opportunity, as Palestinians, to seek higher education for a chance to have a better future for themselves and their families.

Our hosts made mention that the highest point in all of Bethlehem is the statue of Christ atop the original building on campus. How fitting that Jesus, in the town of his birth, would be the most dominant figure looking over the city and into Palestine and Israel.

On another note, the brothers also showed us some bullet holes in their home, left there as a reminder of the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted in the fall of 2000.

Everywhere, we hear that education is the key to the future of the Palestinians and higher learning is no exception. This university stands as one of only two Catholic universities in all of Palestine. And 70% of the student body is female, which is also a good sign of how this university can make a big difference in the future of Palestine.

From the university, we proceeded to visit the Catholic Action Sports Center. This project is housed on a large campus with everything from a gym (the largest and best in all of Palestine) to an outdoor swimming pool, weight training and fitness machine room, meeting and training rooms, outdoor picnic areas, large hall, etc. The Franciscan Custody owns the property and has a great partnership with CNEWA/Pontifical Mission in sponsoring basketball classes and league play.

We watched as a group of girls had a session with a very skilled trainer. It is an impressive center and is the only such facility in all of Bethlehem. Another great outreach of CNEWA/Pontifical Mission, thanks to all of you in your generosity!

The final visit was to Sami’s house for a superb dinner prepared by his dear wife. The very specials guests included His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali (whom we had met on our first day in Jerusalem), and Father Emil Salayta, Director of the Ecclesiastical Court. The meal was exquisite and the company superb. The Patriarch was very comfortable and shared with us some important insights into how the Church functions in an environment filled with many complications, conflicts and restrictions. Bishop Shomali also asked many questions about CNEWA/Pontifical Mission and it afforded me an opportunity to present a broader view of the many services we to offer, not just financial grants, but also with technical support and counsel.

Our stomachs were full and the hour was getting late, and I still had to write this note to all of you, so we departed. I had also realized that we would be leaving early the next morning for our first trip of the day, to Aida Refugee Camp.

So goodbye for now and God bless all of you. The Patriarch sends his best regards along with a blessing.

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