.- A group of bishops from around the world who visited the Gaza Strip this month has praised the “courageous” Christian communities continuing to live and work in the “seemingly hopeless situation” there.
“We were encouraged by our visit to tiny Christian communities, which day after day, through many institutions, reach out with compassion to the poorest of the poor, both Muslim and Christian,” the Co-ordination of Bishops’ Conference in Support of the Church in the Holy Land said Jan. 15.
“Their testimony of faith, hope and love gave us hope. This is precisely the hope needed at this moment to bring peace, a peace that can only be built on justice and equity for both peoples.”
The Holy Land Co-ordination was founded in 1998 at the request of the Holy See; the group visits Palestine and Israel each year to engage in prayer, pilgrimage and advocacy in solidarity with the Church in the Holy Land. The 14 bishops participating this year were from North America, Europe, and South Africa, and included Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines.
From Jan. 12-16, the co-ordination visited Christian schools and hospitals in the Gaza Strip; met with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv; and went to Bethlehem in the West Bank to meet Palestinian representatives and local Christians.
In their statement, the bishops voiced continued prayers and support for priests, religious, and lay people working in Gaza, noting their “ministry of presence,” their work in education, and their care for disabled children and the elderly.
They reported witnessing the “deep poverty of the people and the courageous presence of the small and vulnerable Christian communities there.”
“Gaza is a man-made disaster, a shocking scandal, an injustice that cries out to the human community for a resolution. We call upon political leaders to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, assuring access to the basic necessities for a dignified human life, the possibilities for economic development, and freedom of movement.”
The Gaza Strip is a 141 square mile area, part of Palestine, located to the west of Israel and home to 1.7 million persons. Since 2007, it has been ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas.
Since Hamas came to power there, Israel has conducted an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting the flow of persons and goods in an effort to limit rocket attacks on Israel launched from the territory.
Israel also conducts air raids against militants in the Gaza Strip; a Jan. 22 raid killed two militants, and according to Palestinian medics a Jan 16. air strike injured five Gazans, four of whom were children.
The bishops stated that “Palestinians and Israelis desperately need … a peace that can only be built on justice and equity for both peoples.”
After their visit to Gaza, the bishops spent most of their time in Bethlehem, located in the West Bank.
There they met with Palestinian representatives; students and staff from Bethlehem University; and projects supported by the Church.
They also visited the Cremisan valley, where a proposed Israeli security barrier “threatens the agricultural land held for generations by 58 Christian families” from the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, they said.
The latest peace talks come “at a critical time,” the bishops said.
“Now is the time to ensure that the aspirations for justice of both sides are fulfilled.”
They urged public officials to become “leaders of hope, not leaders of obstruction.”
Pope Francis’ words were incorporated into their statement. Earlier this month he told diplomats that resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are “a positive sign.” He encouraged “courageous decisions aimed at finding a just and lasting solution to a conflict which urgently needs to end.”
The bishops’ statement concluded with prayers.
“We pray that the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land will reinforce hope in the region. We believe a lasting peace is possible.”