Gaza City, Nov 16, 2014 / 06:01 am
If you're looking for a way to support Christians in the Holy Land, consider making a pilgrimage, advises an Italian cardinal who himself recently visited Palestine and Israel.
"I believe that we must step up the pilgrimages to the Holy Land," Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa said in a recent interview with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
"This is possible and we need not be afraid. Our communities must overcome their fears and start visiting once more the places associated with the life of Jesus," he said.
"That would be a major boost for the Christian communities in the Holy Land."
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land seem to be already at an all-time high despite ongoing conflict in the region. Last year set a new record for tourism in the Holy Land, with the number of annual tourists hitting 4 million, according to some reports.
Even Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May 2014. His visit came just weeks before an outbreak of violence left more than 1,900 Palestinians dead, and 67 Israelis.
Cardinal Bagnasco traveled to the Holy Land earlier this month with the Italian bishops' conference, of which he is president. His trip included a stop in Gaza, and in the Israeli city of Sderot, both of which were heavily affected by air raids and rockets in July and early August.
Despite the trauma and mass destruction, Cardinal Bagnasco said he was impressed by the spirit of the affected communities.
"There was the hope that I saw on the faces of so many children," the cardinal explained. "It was like an explosion of joy."
"There was also a sense of dignity and pride of the people, who need so much but ask for nothing."
The cardinal said he was also impressed by the local Christian community's devotion to the faith. The Christian population in the Holy Land has been on the steady decline. Reports from 2013 suggest Christians accounted for about eight percent of Israel's population, and about one percent of the population of Palestine.
This sort of Christian diaspora is becoming more commonplace in the Middle East, but Cardinal Bagnasco said Christians must have a future in the region because "anything else would be a disaster for humanity, and not just for one religion."
"All men and people of good will and good sense must prevent the execution of any … plan to eliminate the Christian presence in the Middle East."
"It would mean the failure of the civilization that must strive for and ensure that individuals can profess their own faith in peace and be universally respected," Cardinal Bagnasco explained. "If this failure were the result of a concrete project…to wipe out the Christian presence in this country or other countries of the world; that would be even worse."
"That must not be allowed to happen."
The cardinal said education on the issues facing Christians in the Middle East is key to protecting Christians' future in the region.
And the Church plays a major role in that educative process.
"The Catholic Church in the individual countries of Europe needs to become more aware overall of the drama that is taking place in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East," the cardinal lamented. "(The Church) should also reflect on how it can express solidarity with the faithful in the region better."
"We must do even more," the cardinal added.
Cardinal Bagnasco suggested the Church promote pilgrimages to the Holy Land. He also suggested prayer and support of schools and hospitals in the region.
Another key factor in protecting the future of Christians in the Middle East is isolating and removing extremism, the cardinal said.
"From everything I hear from many sources, solutions are coming," the cardinal explained. "(These solutions) consist of creating an alliance of all moderates in the region in order to isolate the extremists. If such a sincere and effective alliance of moderates were formed, then the extremists would be left isolated."
"God-willing, (the extremists) would then be obliged to give up their evil project of constantly unleashing chaos and violence."
The cardinal told Aid to the Church in Need that he plans to share his experience in the Holy Land with Pope Francis. He said many people in the Holy Land were thankful for the Pope's recent trip and expressed hope that Pope Francis will visit again.
"They trust in the prayer and the word of the Holy Father, but also in the influence which he enjoys thanks to his authority at the level of international bodies, his ability to draw the world's attention to the dramatic situation here in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East."