Patriarch Encourages Pilgrimages to Holy Land

BETHESDA, Md. (CNS) — The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem says the dwindling population of Christians in his city needs to be bolstered by the support of Christians around the world and by their visits as pilgrims.

In an interview Sept. 20 at the suburban Washington offices of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Patriarch Fouad Twal told Catholic News Service that the Christian population in Jerusalem is about 10,000 — Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians combined. There are about 240,000 Muslims and 455,000 Jews.

He said the small number of Christians “reminds us about the words of the Lord, ‘You will be the salt of the earth,’ and salt is the small quantity.”

Just as only a small amount of salt is needed to flavor food, he said, “I hope we can do our work as a small, small group, to be an example of witness, of charity, to be a bridge between these people, to be an element of peace, an element of tolerance.”

A significant portion of his work as patriarch of Jerusalem — the equivalent of an archbishop for a patriarchate that includes all Latin-rite Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus — includes traveling the world to visit the displaced Christians of the region.

He noted that last year’s Synod for Bishops on the Middle East included a focus on the diaspora “and our obligation to visit them and their obligation to come back or to help with a project as much as possible.”

In response, Patriarch Twal has visited Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Honduras in the last year. His trip to the United States in September brought him around the country — his message, in part, encouraging Christians who have left Jerusalem to come back.

He recognizes that the key to making that possible is peace, he said. But until that day comes, he said he asked people to help with various efforts “and to not forget those who are still there.”

Pope Benedict XVI, as well as King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli President Shimon Peres, are among the leaders who encourage him to keep up that effort. “They have often told me, please keep your people in the Holy Land, don’t lose them.”

“We don’t need only all the beautiful buildings, all the antiquities,” Patriarch Twal said. “We want this living community, these living stones. That’s why we are doing our best to give them hope.”

He said one thing that gives Christians in Jerusalem hope is when pilgrims come. For now, it’s easier for pilgrims to visit Jerusalem from the United States, Europe or Asia than it is for those nearby.

“We need any parish priest to come with his parish group, from all Palestine, Jordan and the Arab countries, to visit the Holy Land, to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” he said. But the threat of violence and the unsettled political situation make it very difficult for nearby Christians to visit, the patriarch said.

“When we see pilgrims in the Holy Land, it says ‘you are not alone, we are with you,’” he said.

Bishop Mansour consecrated the chapel with holy water, incense and chrism. In blessing the altar, Bishop Mansour prayed that it would become “a table that give life” from which God would “grant peace and forgiveness of sins to all the children of the holy church, the living and the departed.”

As he dedicated the chapel, the bishop prayed that God would “look with kindness” upon the whole church and “keep her firm on the rock of truth” and protect it from “heresy and division.”

Among the projects he hopes will help bolster the Christian presence in the Holy Land for the long term is the new American University of Madaba, set to open in October in Patriarch Twal’s home city in Jordan, not far from Jerusalem. The Catholic university has an enrollment so far of about 200 and eventually will accommodate up to 8,000 students, said the patriarch.

Pope Benedict blessed the cornerstone of the university in May 2009. Programs available include engineering, science, health sciences, information technology, business and finance, art and design and languages and communications.

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