Dear friends and faithful of the Holy Land,
Christmas leads the eyes of the world to look towards Bethlehem. It is from here, in the midst of conflict and violence tearing our Middle East apart, that the mystery of Christmas gently rises and spreads throughout the world.
At this time, we cannot forget in our hearts, the inhabitants of Syria, and among them the refugees in our neighboring countries, as well as all those around the world, who suffer in body and spirit. I think especially of our Filipino migrants who live and work in our diocese, in Israel, Jordan and Cyprus, whose families are deeply affected by the devastation caused by the deadly typhoon in the Philippines last month.
To you, our journalist-friends, thank you. We continue to rely on your willingness to report to the world the news from the Holy Land, so that what happens here is not forgotten. While the world’s attention has shifted from the situation in the Holy Land to the tragedy in Syria, it must be stated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains crucial to the region and is a major obstacle in the development of our society and stability in the Middle East.
With this in mind, I want to draw your attention to important events of the past year, with happy and difficult events. This is an opportunity to plan and prepare for the coming year.
1. The Holy See
I was present at the Installation Mass of Pope Francis in Rome on March 19, and had the opportunity to meet him a few more times thereafter. He cares about the Holy Land and the Middle East. His statements evidently express that the Holy See maintains a consistent interest for our region. Before all the patriarchs and archbishops of the Eastern Catholic churches gathered in Rome on November 21, Pope Francis expressed his “great concern” for us, urging us “to not resign ourselves to an East without Christians.”
Concerning the economic agreement that is about to be concluded between Israel and the Holy See, I would stress that the Ottoman Empire, the British, Jordan and Israel for more than twenty years have respected the status quo, which included tax exemptions for Churches. Now Israel wants to introduce changes. Paying a little more or a little less is not the core of the issue. What is the important thing is not to ‘touch’ East Jerusalem, as the issue is still on the negotiating table. We do not want these agreements to have a political implication that changes the status of East Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1967.
2. Life in the Mother Church
Our diocese concluded the Year of Faith on November 17 in Nazareth, in a celebration attended by 7,000 faithful from the Catholic Churches of the Holy Land. It was an occasion to remember that there is a very important relationship between the life of faith, solidarity and the search for peace. We thank the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for providing the infrastructure and logistical support, which contributed to the success of this event.
In the spring of 2013, we gladly welcomed the appointment of one of our priests, Most Reverend Ilario Antoniazzi as Archbishop of Tunis.
This summer, we had the joy of sending 120 of our young people from the Holy Land to the World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro.
3. Political Situation
The situation in the Middle East is becoming more complex and dramatic. The scenarios in Syria and Iraq may be repeated elsewhere, as seen in Egypt and Libya. The instability affects everyone, but especially our faithful who are tempted to emigrate. In Gaza our people are suffering from the effects of the embargo imposed by Israel and even Egypt. To prevent the conflict from spreading like a wild fire in the whole region, a ‘sustainable’ ceasefire in Syria should be immediately established and prevent any entry of outside weapons. As the Syrian problem cannot be resolved by the force of arms, we call on the political leaders of our Region and the Western world to assume the responsibility for finding a mutually acceptable political solution that will end the senseless violence, and uphold respect for the dignity of people.
You are all witnesses to the suffering of victims and Syrian refugees, especially during this cold winter season. The Latin Patriarchate expresses its gratitude to Caritas Jordan for its service of charity and solidarity with these poor people.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in late July, after three years of interruption. But the efforts are hampered by the continuous building of Israeli settlements. As long as this problem is not resolved, the people of our region will suffer.
The verdict on the Cremisan process in April 2013, approving the continuation of the construction of the separation wall, as well as the demolition of a house of the Latin Patriarchate in East Jerusalem a few weeks ago, are signs of a worsening situation and do not in any way facilitate the peace process. A fait accompli by force cannot become a source of a new law. And we do not have the right to remain silent.
On the other hand, on December 16, the European foreign ministers have promised that the European Union will support “unprecedented” political, economic and security of Israelis and Palestinians, if both parties succeed in concluding the peace agreements. It is a good reason for hope.
4. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue
Catholics of the Holy Land (with few exceptions) celebrated Easter on May 5 this year, together with the Orthodox. Unification of the date of Easter is not easy, but it is a first step towards complete unity and this requires efforts from everyone.
An International Summit on “The Challenges of Arab Christians,” was convened by the King of Jordan on September 3 and 4 in Amman. No less than 70 patriarchs and heads of Christian communities in the region participated. They studied and discussed the interreligious impact from the Arab spring and had the courage to speak and suggest a necessary amendment to the constitution of Arab countries, so that Christians can feel at home like all other citizens, with all the inherent rights and duties (including religious freedom), and gain access to mainstream media.
We condemn all forms of religious fundamentalism. In Gaza, a law to be implemented mandates to end mixed classes and to introduce separate classes for boys and girls in private schools. This requires from the Latin Patriarchate, the construction of new classrooms and hiring of new teachers!
We realized that in our Diocese this year, there has been an increase in acts of vandalism that affected some twenty holy places or places of worship carried out by extremists.
5. Priorities and projects of the Patriarchate
To build peace and to deal with the extremist currents with a prophetic spirit, the Catholic Church runs 58 schools in Palestine, 20 in Israel and 40 in Jordan, including three universities. The American University of Madaba was inaugurated on May 30 this year, in the presence of the King of Jordan, members of his government and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Holy See’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
In February and March, the keys to the 72 apartments of the new Beit Safafa residential complex were handed over to the residents. This housing project aims to encourage the Palestinians to do community projects to address the challenge of housing in Jerusalem.
6. Agenda 2014
Upcoming events for next year include:
– The World Economic Forum in Istanbul (April 27, 28 and 29);
– The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land planned for next May, first in Jordan then in Israel/Palestine;
– A visit to our Christians in the Diaspora in the United States in July 2014;
– The Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held in Rome from October 5 to 19, 2014, with the theme: “The pastoral challenges facing the family in the context of evangelization.”
In closing, together with my Vicars, priests and the faithful of Holy Land, I raise my prayers to God, that Christians, Jews and Muslims may find in their common spiritual heritage, their shared values in order to end injustice, oppression, ignorance and all evil acts that destroy God’s gift to us – the dignity of the human being.
May the Infant Jesus give peace to all peoples of the region. Have a joyful Christmas.
Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem