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A Letter From the Holy Land

Editors’ note: Pope Pius XII founded the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in 1949 to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid in care of the refugees fleeing the first Arab-Israeli conflict. He entrusted its administration to CNEWA. As the conflicts in the Middle East grew, so did the mission of this unique task force of the Holy See, which today functions as CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East with regional teams based in Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem. Always, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission works through the local churches, responding to emergencies — rushing basic life needs, such as water, food and medicines — supporting education and formation programs, health care and other social services and, in a region beset with crises, post-traumatic counseling.

For many years, both in my personal relationships and as regional director of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office, I have been promoting, especially among young people, the importance of staying steadfast in our homeland, the land of Jesus.

I encouraged my three children to study subjects at local universities that would be useful to the local economy and enable them to build a future for themselves in the land that we as Christians have been calling “home” for some 2,000 years.

In meetings with youth groups, I encourage them to learn more about the history of the Christian community in the Holy Land, especially the first seven centuries of the Christian era. When I realized there was insufficient information in Arabic about this period, I began translating a book, posting on social media and organizing a workshop, which resulted in the first book in Arabic published on the history of “Christian Palestine.” Another book on this topic is in the making.

Joseph Hazboun, second from right, kneels before the stone of unction at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (photo: George Jaraiseh)

Whenever my wife or my children speak about pursuing possibilities abroad, my answer has always been: “No way. Life in our homeland is beautiful. Challenges exist everywhere.”

When donors or visitors have asked about the persistent threat to the Christian community of migration, I have always replied that I do not believe in predictions about Christians leaving the Holy Land or that churches will become museums. I have always insisted that at least my family and I will remain.

“God watches these tragedies with a heavy and compassionate heart.”

However, since the horrific attack on Israel by Hamas on 7 October and Israel’s response with an uncompromising military assault on Gaza, I have been struggling with two main issues: The first is how one can bring consolation to families and friends who have lost loved ones; the second is my position on remaining steadfast in front of the heavy price that is being paid.

In mid-October, one of our project assistants in Gaza, Sami, and other young community leaders were doing heroic work to support the 900 people taking refuge at the Church of St. Porphyrios and Holy Family Church.

The rubble of the building that collapsed in the compound of the Greek Orthodox St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza. (photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images)

I recall that, as we tried to figure out what the situation would be at the end of this war, I told Sami: “If the majority decides to leave Gaza for good, I can’t blame them. But at least you, Rami and George [two other colleagues] must stay there to rebuild it.”

However, with the ongoing devastation since then, the number of lives lost, the bombing of Al Ahli Arab Hospital and the Arab Orthodox Cultural Center, I have begun to develop doubts deep in my soul.

The night of 19 October will be unforgettable: A building in the compound of the Church of St. Porphyrios collapsed under fire, killing 17 Christians, including Sami’s parents and 6-month-old niece. I will never forget Sami’s shaky voice when I called him as he was struggling to find his parents.

“No, we are not okay,” he said. “My mother is dead, and I can’t find my father.”

When we hung up, I called Rami. 

“The situation is tragic, there are people dead and others under the rubble,” he said.

My family and I were all shaken at home, too, not knowing what to do. The events have dramatically affected my family. My two daughters have been part of the “We Are Not Numbers” project organized in Gaza. They have never been to Gaza, yet this program, aimed at putting a face and a story to the names of the youth in Gaza, has fostered relationships with their peers there. Layal, my eldest, has been in touch with Maram, a girl in Gaza, and other friends daily.

“Today, there was heavy bombardment,” Maram writes. “Today, my uncle’s family moved in, as they lost their home… Today, the bombing is coming closer and heavier, so we all left for Khan Younis in the south at our relatives, it is safer there.”

A couple of years back, my wife became friends on social media with Ali, a man with physical disabilities from the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City. She had been receiving messages from him as he struggled to stay safe throughout the bombardment. As I write this letter, it has been two days since she last heard from him. 

As a committed Catholic, I believe God watches these tragedies with a heavy and compassionate heart. Yes, it is difficult to feel his presence during these difficult times. It is easy to slip into the feeling that our prayers are in vain. It is easy at times like these to fall into the temptation of blaming God.

Then I recall that the psalmist also felt as we do today: “Why, LORD, do you stand afar and pay no heed in times of trouble? Arrogant scoundrels pursue the poor; they trap them by their cunning schemes” (Ps 10:1-2). This cry seems so much like my own today. Therefore, deep within, I know this is not the end; God has never forsaken his people — and he never will.

Aid workers, supported by CNEWA-Pontifical Mission, distribute mattresses to people seeking refuge in the compound of St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza in mid-October. The building in the background, which served as the Scout Troop Quarters, collapsed under fire on 19 October, killing 17 people. (photo: Sami Tarazi)

Our Lord has already walked the path we are walking today, having been persecuted, eventually tortured and put to death. When we face tribulations ourselves, we experience firsthand how challenging and tragic it is to see people lose all their belongings or killed.

The Gospel is a message for every believer, everywhere and in every time. The words in the Gospel of Matthew, “You will hear of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place … they will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you” (24:6-9), are not tales of past events. This is a message for us all today.

“Now is the time to stand tall, to draw strength from our rooted faith, from our certainties and beliefs, so we can spread courage and hope.”

Now is the time for us to show our faith in the Gospel. Now is the time to stand tall, to draw strength from our rooted faith, from our certainties and beliefs, so we can spread courage and hope. Yes, it is painful, it is costly, it is frightful.

Only a few months ago, I read the fourth-century book of St. Eusebius, “The Martyrs of Palestine.” What helped the Christian martyrs of Jerusalem and Palestine endure the persecution and offer their lives for their faith should and will continue to guide us and strengthen us today.

Franciscans take part in the Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace at St. Saviour Monastery in Jerusalem, 17 October. (photo: OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

These are the powerful words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).

What is the use of faith, if we do not draw strength from it when we desperately need it?

To conclude, I will repeat what I have said again and again: Those “remnant,” as Isaiah calls them, who opt to remain steadfast and believe they have a future in their homeland, the homeland of Jesus, we will encourage and support. Those who opt to leave, seeking a place without conflict and bloodshed, may God bless them and grant them peace wherever they go.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

About the Author: Joseph Hazboun

Joseph Hazboun is the regional director for CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office.

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