Bishops from North America and Europe gathered in the Holy Land this past week to demonstrate their solidarity with the local Church and provide support and encouragement to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in seeking peace.
The meetings, held from January 11 – 16, were a part of the annual Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land, begun at the urging of the Holy See in 1998. Its purpose is to advocate on behalf of the Christian community in the Holy Land, press for a peaceful resolution to violence in the Middle East and to communicate to the conditions of the Church in the region to the wider Catholic Church.
The delegation from the United States, which included Cardinal Francis George, president of the conference, the General Secretary Monsignor David J. Malloy, and Steve Colecchi, the director of the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace, joined bishops from Europe and Canada to meet with leaders from the local Church.
The USCCB delegation visited a local parish in Ramallah, while other bishops visited parishes in Bethlehem, Rafidia, Jenin and Zababdeh. They also met with students and faculty from Bethlehem University
During their meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit in Jerusalem, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayed in Ramallah, the delegation called for a just peace.
In a statement issued at the conclusion of the meetings, the bishops described signs of hope they had witnessed during their visit.
“At the University, Christians and Muslims study together harmoniously. We were impressed by their commitment to their studies, their energy and enthusiasm, their wish to stay in the land of their birth and their hope for a just peace that will bring them, and all people of the Holy Land, a better future. We also heard of growing interreligious cooperation for peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
The bishops encouraged “Catholics in our own nations to come on pilgrimage to the Holy Land—visiting both the holy places and the living Catholic communities that witness to Christ in the land of his birth.” The people they met with “yearn for a future of freedom, peace and security—for both Palestinians and Israelis.” A frequent refrain was a call to respect the basic human rights of all, including security for Israelis and security and freedom for Palestinians.
The bishops also pointed to the existing security wall that continues to divide Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land as a symbol and a reminder of fears that continue to separate these people, who, through lack of human contact, risk deepening divisions.
They concluded, however, that for Israel and Palestine, “It is a time of both opportunity and danger.”
“Our sincere hope and prayer,” they said, “is that the leaders and peoples of Israel and Palestine, with the full support and encouragement of our own nations and the international community, will find a path to a just peace…God’s grace gives us hope.”