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Pontifical Mission for Palestine: An Expression of Papal Concern

For 50 years this papal agency has provided food, clothing, education and housing to people in need in the Middle East.

Quietly but effectively, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine has profoundly changed the lives of generations of people in the Middle East.

What Pope Pius XII established in 1949 as a temporary agency of the Holy See to feed, clothe and educate Palestinian refugees has become a permanent expression of the Popes concern for the well-being of Christians and Muslims, Palestinians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians. “Need not creed” is the fundamental criterion guiding the work of the Pontifical Mission.

What led to the creation of this papal initiative occurred in November 1947 when the United Nations voted to partition British-mandated Palestine into two independent states, Arab and Jewish, and to place Jerusalem under international jurisdiction. The departure of British troops from Palestine in May 1948, the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent war between the Arabs and Israel then provoked a massive refugee crisis.

Overnight almost a million Palestinians fled their homes – now in the state of Israel – for Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Some were driven from their homes; others believed they were leaving temporarily on the assumption that the Arabs military strength surpassed that of the Israelis.

In his 1948 encyclical letter, In multiplicibus curis, Pope Pius XII expressed his sorrow for the situation: “in the land in which our Lord Jesus Christ shed his blood… the blood of man continues to flow…men continue to fight and to increase the distress of the unfortunate and the fear of the terrorized, while thousands of refugees, homeless and driven, wander from their fatherland in search of shelter and food.”

From the start of the crisis, the Pontiff sent emergency relief to refugees through his regional delegates. He also blessed relief efforts such as the one sponsored in the autumn of 1948 by the United States Catholic bishops and led by Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, National Secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).

“Every day of those four months among the Palestinian refugees was filled with sorrowful thoughts and even more sorrowful sights,” Msgr. McMahon wrote years later. “From the day we landed at Haifa and began our trek through mud and snow in Israel, Arab Palestine, East Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, our pilgrims progress was beset with tears. Twelve years before we had accomplished the same journey, but then it was a holy pilgrimage to the sacred shrines…. Yesteryear we had gone among a happy and contented people. Now we found them herded together in terror.

“During those months at the close of 1948 and the beginning of 1949,” Msgr. McMahon concluded, “as I helped the bishops and a thousand priests and sisters for the relief of the Middle East, I could see the absolute need for a special Pontifical Mission for Palestine, coordinating the efforts of the whole Catholic world…. This had been the idea of the Holy Father and all those around him.”

One of those around the Pope was Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who had organized and directed Pius XIIs refugee relief efforts during World War II. At a November 1948 meeting, during which the idea of a papal mission to Palestine was discussed, Msgr. Montini penciled the name of McMahon as the candidate to lead such an agency.

When Msgr. McMahon returned to the Holy Land in the spring of 1949 he returned not only as National Secretary of CNEWA but also as the newly appointed President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Thus was forged an intimate link between the two papal agencies.

“It has been decided,” wrote Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, in a directive dated 18 June 1948, “to bring together under the Pontifical Mission, operating in the Holy Land, all those organizations and associations which are engaged in activities concerning the East, and which are scattered throughout many countries of Europe and other continents.”

In this endeavor Msgr. McMahon formed seven local committees for what are now the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Gaza. These committees included papal delegates, bishops, clergy, laity and leaders of charitable organizations. Field operations for the new Pontifical Mission were headquartered in Beirut, a central location providing access to the region from the West and access to those nations affected by the refugee crisis.

Together with local volunteers and a few colleagues in New York, Msgr. McMahon coordinated the activities of a number of organizations ministering to the needs of one million Palestinian refugees. More than half were under 15 years of age.

Partners in these relief efforts included the emergency relief fund of the U.S. bishops, the U.S. National Catholic Welfare Conference, the U.S. National Council of Catholic Women, the Catholic Medical Mission Board, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and CNEWA. Religious communities for men, particularly the friars of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, as well as religious communities for women working in the region, empowered the Pontifical Mission to carry out its service to the refugees. The Pontifical Mission also developed a strong relationship with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), founded in December 1949.

Manuel Abu Issa, who in those early years was responsible for the field operations of the Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem, remembered going out to the field every day and “visiting refugees in the camps set up by the United Nations. We would distribute wheat, rice, barley and sometimes sugar. We were always in the field,” he said, “and always pressed to do more.”

From a small room in the Old City, Abu Issa, Msgr. McMahon and Father Eugene Hoade, O.F.M., an Irish Franciscan who from 1949 was responsible for the administration of the Jerusalem office, distributed to refugees tons of clothing donated mostly by American Catholics.

Ten years after the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Msgr. Peter P. Tuohy (who in 1955 had succeeded Msgr. McMahon as President of the Pontifical Mission) stated that, in a nine-year period, the Pontifical Mission had distributed more than $34 million in food, clothing, medicine and services. More than 8,000 tons of food, 6,000 tons of clothing and 55 tons of medical supplies were distributed from 273 centers to an estimated 425,000 refugees, nearly half of the refugee population. The Pontifical Mission also sheltered some 20,000 people and educated more than 34,000 children in 343 schools.

Clearly McMahon had implemented the Holy Sees concern for Palestinian refugees. “Your name,” Cardinal Tisserant said in a letter to the retired priest, “is held in grateful memory by thousands of refugees from Palestine, who without your timely and effective intervention would have been lost.”

McMahons successor, Msgr. Peter Tuohy, furthered McMahons vision, declaring in November 1955 that “until the resolutions of the United Nations are implemented, the church shall continue her worldwide aid to refugees…. We shall continue this relief assistance until justice and charity have been rendered to every single Palestinian refugee.”

After 10 years, however, it was clear the situation would not change; emergency relief was no longer sufficient. Development programs were needed. “If you want to help a man,” wrote Carol Hunnybun, a 20-year veteran of the Pontifical Mission, “you dont buy him apples; you help him plant an apple tree.”

In 1960, Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan was appointed President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Ryan had already spent a year and a half in Beirut, directing the Pontifical Missions activities, which included an emigration program in partnership with the U.S. National Catholic Welfare Conference. This program, based in Beirut and Jerusalem, sought foreign visas for those Palestinian refugees willing to emigrate and settle in the Americas, Europe or Australia.

One of the Pontifical Mission’s first steps in forming human development projects was the establishment in September 1961 of the Pontifical Mission Center for the Blind in Gaza. This center, which combined primary schooling with job training, was a joint project of the Pontifical Mission, UNRWA and the government of Egypt, whose armies occupied Gaza until 1967.

“At one time the only way a blind man could make any money was to sit on a street corner and beg,” remarked Helen Breen, who co-administered the Jerusalem office from 1966 to 1982. “Now those blind adults are trained to work in the refugee camps at special ‘Service Centers’ run from the Pontifical Mission Center for the Blind.”

Ninety-nine percent of the graduates, who first enrolled in the primary program at the age of five, had found employment. Girls learned to weave and knit, boys learned carpet-making and cane work. Many continued their academic studies, enrolling in secondary schools and universities.

One event in the early 1960s dramatically affected the Pontifical Mission: Pope Paul VIs pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Following the death of Pope John XXIII in June of 1963, Giovanni Battista Montini was elected pope. The new pontiff, who chose the name Paul, furthered the reforms of Vatican Council II, emphasizing the councils pastoral nature and outlining its purposes: the renewal of the church; the restoration of Christian unity; and the initiation of dialogue with modern society.

In December 1963, during the council, Paul VI announced his intention to begin his pontificate with a “pilgrimage of prayer and penance” to the Holy Land:

“We will bring to the Holy Sepulchre and to the Grotto of the Nativity the desires of individuals, of families, of nations; above all, the aspirations, the anxieties, the sufferings of the sick, the poor, the disinherited, the afflicted, of refugees, of those who suffer, those who weep, those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Fired with the Gospel message of hope, the Pope met with heads of state and religious leaders in the Holy Land. These visits culminated with his embrace in Jerusalem of Orthodoxys spiritual leader, Patriarch Athenagoras I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Before departing the Holy Land, Pope Paul VI assured Msgr. Joseph Ryan, who accompanied the Pontiff, of the Holy Sees commitment to the refugees and encouraged Ryan to further the Pontifical Missions efforts with Palestinians.

Paul VIs pilgrimage resulted in social rehabilitation and development projects that, with support from the Pontifical Mission, changed the lives of many: Bethlehem University; Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children; Tantur Ecumenical Institute; and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center. These diverse initiatives testified to the Popes belief in the church as an instrument of reconciliation and hope.

The Six-Day War in June 1967 challenged the Pontifical Mission to renew its refugee relief efforts while building up its human development projects. The Israelis occupied lands formerly under Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian sovereignty, forcing a second wave of refugees, many previously displaced in 1948, to urban centers in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

To coordinate relief efforts, the Pontifical Mission sponsored a conference in Beirut of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the area immediately after the cessation of hostilities. The Holy See responded by providing funds and dispatching Msgr. John G. Nolan, who had succeeded Msgr. Ryan, on a mission of aid. While in Amman, Msgr. Nolan announced that the Pontifical Mission would open an office in the Jordanian capital, where an estimated 150,000 Palestinian refugees had settled.

The Six-Day War had a calamitous impact on the Middle East, resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees; Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands; rising violence between Jews and Palestinians; and civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon.

Overwhelming need, triggered by the renewed refugee crisis, encouraged the NGOs to strengthen their relationships, coordinate their efforts and relieve the tragedy of exile. Projects with the Pontifical Mission included relief work, the support of schools, hospitals and dispensaries, institutions for children and the elderly and a small business start-up loan program.

To accomplish these works, major assistance was received from groups such as Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Near East Council of Churches and the Mennonites. These partnerships continue to this day.

Marking the Pontifical Missions 25th anniversary in 1974, Pope Paul VI wrote in a letter to Msgr. John Nolan that its work is “one of the clearest signs of the Holy Sees concern for the welfare of Palestinians, who are particularly dear to us because they are the people of the Holy Land, because they include followers of Christ and because they have been and still are being so tragically tried.” He reaffirmed his support, expressing “heartfelt sharing in their sufferings and our support for their legitimate aspirations.”

Expanding the mandate of the Pontifical Mission beyond Palestine, the Pope continued. “In addition to continuing its assistance without distinction of nationality or religion to those who have suffered or are suffering in any way as a result of the repeated conflicts which have devastated that region, the Mission will have to expect, in the situation which is now evolving, to contribute to projects of aid, of rehabilitation and development.”

Msgr. Robert L. Stern took up this challenge when he assumed the position of President of the Pontifical Mission in 1987. Under his direction the papal agency embarked on a new course, supporting health care programs in Gaza and the West Bank; building reconciliation programs among Palestinians and Israelis; rebuilding village communities in Lebanon destroyed during the civil war; restoring agricultural lands in rural Lebanon; offering health care to Iraqi refugees and supporting village self-sufficiency programs in Jordan; and supplying medicines to clinics and hospitals in Iraq.

Building bridges between Christians and non-Christians has been a major focus of the papacy of John Paul II. His visits to Christian and non-Christian countries reinforce his commitment to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

In this spirit, the Pontifical Mission builds bridges between Catholics and other Christians, Muslims and Jews, thus affirming in practice that we are all “children of Abraham.”

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.

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