CNEWA

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Facing Facts in the Middle East

A trip to the Middle East, to listen.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed a committee to advise them on their statement on the Middle East. Committee members traveled to the Middle East on a fact-finding mission, visiting Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt to meet with church and government leaders, as well as men, women and children in cities and villages throughout these troubled regions. John Cardinal O’Connor, a member of the committee, traveled to Lebanon one month earlier.

I accompanied Archbishop Roger Mahony, chairman of the committee, and Archbishop William Keeler who is also vice president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association on their journey last July. Msgr. Robert L. Stern, secretary general of our Association, and the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, counselor for social policy at the United States Catholic Conference, who are consultants to the committee, were part of the delegation. Staff members from the regional offices of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine arranged meetings for these visitors with local groups, organizations and individuals. For 10 days the delegation made its way from country to country and gained firsthand experience of the difficulties facing these lands.

“In every country, public officials and private citizens expressed the conviction that peace in the Middle East requires an active, engaged U.S. policy, one committed to justice and security for the Palestinian people and the people of Israel,” Archbishop Mahony said.

Before beginning their mission, the group met with Vatican officials in Rome. The delegation then traveled to Damascus, Syria, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Most often, people spoke Arabic, thus multilingual translations were a daily ingredient in conversation. By the end, however, the delegation was tossing off Arabic expressions, much to the delight of our hosts.

The purpose of the trip was to listen. As we wound our way through the crowded streets of Damascus, representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities spoke of their problems and needs. “What is it that the U.S. bishops have in mind to do here in Syria and the Middle East? It is very important for us to see that the bishops are so interested in their brothers in the Eastern churches. We are one church.” Another voice in this interfaith dialogue stated: “We Christians and Muslims share a common brotherhood.”

We found out that Damascus is crowded because so many Syrians have moved from their native villages to find economic security in the big city. Consequently, Damascus is busy, intense and hot. But also vibrant. After meeting with the vice president of Syria, Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs and parish people, the delegation quickly discovered how many Arabs respect the U.S. Church, how the local community is concerned about the lack of security throughout the Middle East and how they are desperately searching for solutions to the problems they face. People opened their hearts and homes to us. It is clear that their hope and faith are in God’s fidelity to His people.

From Syria, we traveled to Jordan. Once again Arab hospitality engulfed us. Meeting people in these ancient lands is serious business. Visits of significance are treated accordingly, and yet they were not merely ceremonious. At every stop, the discussions were substantive and challenging.

“We are glad you are here. It is great to know there is humanitarian concern for our people, especially in America. We are brothers. We suffer, but we are not the only ones who suffer. There are many who suffer. It is very important for all of us to listen to those who suffer.” This was told us by a Palestinian who has been living in the Baqa’a refugee camp since 1948. He is straightforward and full of conviction. He and another companion smiled but both sets of eyes stared attentively. I will not forget their hope that the delegation might help them and their people.

After a briefing session with leaders in the refugee camp, we walked through the dusty streets to visit an old woman whose shack burst with little boys and cats. While the sting of homelessness lingers, the dangers elsewhere are absent on this side of the Jordan River. At least for now.

In Jordan, even with the shadow of the intifada across the river, the pace is calm and familial. In this predominantly Muslim country, Christians are, nonetheless, a vital part of the culture. “It would be helpful to have a good statement from the U.S. bishops, one that addressed the situation in the Middle East, especially with the Palestinians’ need for recognition,” said a young Muslim.

Leaving Amman, the capital of Jordan, we drew closer to barren land and fragments of abandoned buildings, ghostly reminders of past conflicts. We arrived at the Allenby Bridge, which links Jordan and Israel. There were questions, suspicious looks, papers, passports, and much waiting around. Nothing was wrong, but nothing was right either.

Ironically, the Allenby Bridge is tiny. The sun blazes. Soldiers peer out of bridge bunkers. A representative of the Israeli Government greets us – and welcomes us to Israel. Once again papers, passports and explanations are produced. Cold beverages are served while we await permission to enter Israel and the Israeli-Occupied Territories.

For four days Jerusalem, the holiest city of all, was home base for our explorations. The Government of Israel arranged meetings and visits to communities throughout the country. Every day we visited Arab and Jewish communities such as Nahalin, Alfe Manashe, Bethlehem, Manara, Tel Aviv and Gaza. Heads of state and heads of humble households welcomed us into their lives. We visited one of the original kibbutzim in Israel. We listened to the story of Manara’s struggle for survival. We also saw stores closed, roads blocked, people ready to speak and people desperate to remain silent. We met grandparents who were village elders. We met an Arab widow and a Jewish widower, both of whose spouses were killed.

A female doctor from the West Bank exclaimed: “I am so happy you are here. Your visit gives us esteem, a sense of dignity.” Unemployed as a teacher following the closure of schools, she kept busy helping others care for themselves. The doctor nurtured other women to bring some kind of order to their unpredictable existence during the intifada. “We are involved in the slow, boring process. We are committed to this, but, of course, this does not make dramatic news coverage. Many of our people left, but we need to stay here now and have our voices heard. We want you to take back the positive story of a people who have discovered themselves and are quite excited about who we are.” I was excited to see such hard work, matched with hope, patience and gratitude.

“What is an intifada? Look at the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10. ‘Shake off the dust.’ It is only right for people to seek the freedom which God has given them.” A Palestinian priest thus expressed frustration with the reality he faces every day. “Blessed are the peacemakers. But we have so many peacekeepers who work in vain, for there is no peace. The longer the situation goes on, the more rigid both sides become.”

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem maintains that “the church must always stand with those who are suffering, whoever they are.”

We noticed that women on the West Bank have become more visible. “We are struggling for Palestinian statehood and a new freedom for women in our society,” stated a forthright woman we met. When I asked her about children, she said, “They may look like little children but they are not. They are the same children who have seen violence. They are serious about the intifada, like everyone. That is why they don’t seem frivolous to you. Think about what they live with every day.”

On the West Bank, we also visited barbed-wire refugee camps. We toured several clinics that serve needy children and the deaf. We heard a Christian mayor plead for support for the peacemaking process. We heard a Jewish mayor express his views on seeking peace and a just occupation. A church leader said, “It is good this committee has met with local leaders. They will be encouraged. They will spread word of your interest, but they will have great expectations from the bishops and from the United States. We thank you for your love. We are still the land of the Good News.”

Soon we found ourselves being whisked through tight airport security in Tel Aviv to board a plane for Egypt. We shared a meal with our Israeli host and promised to remain in contact.

As we touched ground in the land of the pharoahs and pyramids, a group of eager church leaders welcomed us. Egypt, though predominantly Muslim, is home to the largest group of Christians in the Middle East. Like Damascus, Syria, at the start of our journey, Cairo is a crowded, bustling city of contrasts. We arrived to find the Muslims involved with ritual preparation for the solemn feast of the Sacrifice of Abraham. We also met the President of Egypt who told us: “We must build the hope; otherwise, we will not be helpful to all the peoples of the Middle East.” Both church and Government leaders expressed concern about the tensions in the region.

A Coptic bishop asked us: “Do people in the United States understand the needs of Christians in Egypt or other parts of the Middle East? Do they think we are a few old men wearing costumes from another time? I don’t think they realize we are as alive as we are ancient.” A Dutch Jesuit who has worked in Egypt for over 15 years asked, “What do you do in the States to educate Catholics about the Eastern churches?”

But when we told our hosts what organizations like Catholic Near East Welfare Association are doing in Egypt, Israel and other areas, they were surprised that we served Muslims as well as Christians. But we explained that need, not creed, has always been the operational basis for all Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s efforts.

Exhausted, but enthusiastic about our mission, the delegation returned to the United States, with a stopover in Rome. Having shared our findings with representatives of the Holy See, the committee then set out to draft the statement on the Middle East.

The listening continues.

Joseph Cornelius Donnelly is associate secretary general, communications, of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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