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A Sign of Hope in the Holy Land

Cardinal’s visit underlines 75th anniversary of Pontifical Mission

The armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, which threatens to expand within the Middle East, did not keep Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and chair of CNEWA, from making a long-planned pastoral trip to the Holy Land in mid-April.

The visit marked the 75th anniversary of CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, Pontifical Mission for Palestine, founded by Pope Pius XII in 1949 to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid to the most vulnerable in the Holy Land. Today, as an agent of healing and hope in the troubled region, Pontifical Mission underlines the complexities of life lived by all those in the region, regardless of their religious, ethnic, political or national identity.

“This is an area deeply divided, but yet united almost in its heartbreak, united in its tears,” said Cardinal Dolan. “I don’t know if they are Israeli or Palestinian, or whether they are Muslim or Christian.

“I see mothers and babies. I see elders. I see married couples. I see grandmas and grandpas. I hear people, wherever they’re from, say: ‘We just want to be at home, secure with our families.’ ”

The cardinal was accompanied by Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, president of CNEWA and Pontifical Mission, and Michael J.L. La Civita, director of communications for CNEWA-Pontifical Mission and lieutenant of the Eastern Lieutenancy (U.S.A.) of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a chivalric order of the Catholic Church that has long collaborated with CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

The trip, scheduled for 12-18 April, was cut a day short when return flights to North America were canceled after the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Iran took a dramatic course; Iran fired some 300 missiles and drones on Israel on 13 April. The CNEWA delegation sheltered in place that night in the basement of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.

“This is an area deeply divided, but yet united almost in its heartbreak, united in its tears.”

The launch was in retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic building in Syria on 1 April, which killed 12, including two Iranian generals. Israel linked one general to the planning of the 7 October attack in southern Israel by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people and took about 240 people hostage. Israel has retaliated for the Hamas attack with an ongoing military assault on Gaza that has killed some 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.

During his visit, the cardinal met privately with family members of Israeli hostages, nearing their 200th day of captivity in Gaza. He remarked how these families gave him “great hope.”

“They said, ‘We will not let this shatter our dreams. We dream of having our people home. We dream of a secure place to live and raise our children. We dream of a free Palestine, of freedom from terrorism. We dream of an Israel that can be secure and open and neighbors of Palestinians. And those dreams will not be shattered.’ ”

He also met with Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, as well as with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whom he urged to work toward achieving a just and lasting peace.

Cardinal Dolan celebrated two Masses of thanksgiving to mark the 75th anniversary of Pontifical Mission: the first in Jerusalem concelebrated with Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and the second at the Church of the Annunciation in Beit Jala, about 2 miles northwest of Bethlehem.

“We want to thank God for the privilege of helping the church and the Christian community in the land called holy,” Cardinal Dolan said in Beit Jala. “In America, we say never forget where you come from. We Catholics, we Christians, never forget where we come from. We came from here. That is why it is such a privilege and an honor to cooperate with you in Pontifical Mission for Palestine. It is a duty and a joy.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari listen to community leaders at the Aida refugee camp in Beit Jala, 14 April. (photo: George Jaraiseh)

After Mass, the cardinal met with leaders from the Aida refugee camp, located on less than half a square mile between Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Jerusalem. It is home to 6,000 people whose families were displaced from 28 villages in western Jerusalem and western Hebron areas. Established in 1950, it is one of three refugee camps near Bethlehem and is surrounded by the Israeli separation wall and military towers.

“Pontifical Mission witnessed the emergence of the refugee issue and the Nakba and it was one of the first international organizations that stood beside the refugees, even before UNRWA was established,” Said al Azzah, head of the camp committee, said. “It played a distinguished role in providing relief to the refugees, preserving their dignity and calling for justice for them according to the law.”

Khouloud Daibes, who serves as director of Bethlehem Development Foundation, told the cardinal in a private meeting that Christians play a vital role, providing more than one-third of the Palestinian population with health care, education and social services.

Pontifical Mission “was one of the first international organizations that stood beside the refugees.”

“Providing assistance for 75 years is a sign of Pontifical Mission’s commitment and great will to help,” she told ONE. “It also connects the global Christian community with the Christian community in Palestine and shows the concern of the Holy See in the welfare of Palestinians, especially the refugees. It contributes to the resilience of their presence. It contributes to improvement of the quality of life under challenging situations.”

Pontifical Mission is a “sign of hope” for Palestinians, she said, and is appreciated as it continues to respond to current needs.

During the cardinal’s visit, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission coordinated a Christian-Muslim seminar on the Mount of Olives on the incitement of hatred and the use of social media to this end. The discussion included educational initiatives intended to nurture greater understanding, tolerance and interreligious dialogue within the Palestinian community.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the rehabilitation of the Home Notre Dame des Douleurs, the only non-private nongovernmental nursing home in East Jerusalem, Joseph Hazboun, regional director of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, said Christians represent only 1 percent of the Palestinian population, but serve almost 35 percent of Palestinians through CNEWA-sponsored institutions.

Combined, he said, these institutions contribute about $450 million annually to the local economy, provide more than 10,000 jobs and are the third-largest employer after the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations.

These institutions are also “a hub of interreligious encounters where people of different faiths live dialogue on a daily basis and promote understanding and cooperation,” he added.

Diana Safieh, 83, moved into the nursing home last year. Seated in a wheelchair and relying on an oxygen tank to breathe, she recalled watching the construction of the home as a schoolgirl in 1950.

Ms. Safieh, who never married and whose siblings left Jerusalem after Israel took the eastern part of the city in 1967 with the Six-Day War, said the home is very important.

“More and more people no longer have their children in the country, so they need to be assisted. This place is very, very needed,” she said.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari visit with Salesian Sister Vartohie Melkon in the Cremisan Valley. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

Funded by the European Union East Jerusalem Program and implemented by CNEWA-Pontifical Mission, the renovations are expected to improve services and double the number of residents and staff once completed in October 2026.

At the nearby convent of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, Sister Anna Maria Sgaramella, C.M.S., spoke about the work of her religious community along the border of East Jerusalem, where Israel’s separation wall runs along the perimeter of their property and divides the village of Bethany.

The sisters run a kindergarten and vocational programs for the Bedouin communities in the Judean Desert outside Jerusalem. Their institutions are always appreciated and all the people they serve and employ are Muslim, she said.

At the kindergarten, children are taught to respect and appreciate others and their traditions, regardless of creed, and no forms of violence are tolerated, including toy weapons, she said.

Cardinal Dolan summarized his pastoral visit as an experience of “resurrection,” having seen both “darkness and light.”

“The path to peace is not about military weapons, not even about a lot of money, not even a lot about politics — although all of those are important,” he said. “It is all about love and service and caring for those who are suffering.”

Conexión CNEWA

Pontifical Mission for Palestine marks the 75th anniversary of its foundation this year. As CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, Pontifical Mission has a decades-long commitment to serving communities in need in the Holy Land, regardless of religion, ethnic or national identity. Since 7 October, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s provision of social services promotes peace, encourages dialogue and instills healing and hope.

To support this crucial work of CNEWA in the Holy Land, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Judith Sudilovsky is an award-winning journalist who has been covering issues of faith, hope and life in Israel and Palestine for more than 30 years.

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