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Six days in the Holy Land with CRS

When I accepted my appointment to serve as Chair of the Catholic Relief Services Board of Directors, I recognized the importance of providing occasional reports to the people of the Archdiocese regarding these duties, especially when they take me abroad on CRS work.  CRS carries out the commitment of the U.S. bishops on behalf of Catholics in the United States to assist the poor and vulnerable oversees.  From this perspective, I act as your ambassador to demonstrate our solidarity and support for our suffering brothers and sisters in more than 90 countries around the world. 

Many of the places where CRS serves are hard to access and life in those places is often unpredictable.  My recent trip as part of a small CRS delegation to the Middle East demonstrated this reality in spades.  Shortly before our scheduled departure to Lebanon we were advised to forgo this stop because of current security issues in that country.  As I was departing from Oklahoma City to begin the abbreviated itinerary in Jordan, mechanical problems caused a travel complication which eliminated that part of the itinerary as well, at least for me. That left the Holy Land. 

The journey was part pilgrimage and part humanitarian visit.  After arriving in Jerusalem, we made time to pray and celebrate Masses daily at sacred sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and on the Via Dolorosa at the Church of the Flagellation.  It is a powerfully moving experience for any Christian to walk the paths that Jesus and the Apostles walked and to witness the historical and living continuity with the Christian community that still flourishes there today, though under increasing political pressures and economic hardships that make life very difficult.

The Holy Land is a land sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.  But it is also a violent land that yearns for a just peace.  One of the important reasons for travelling to the Holy Land at this time was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of CRS’ service in that part of the world.  It has actually been 52 years, but, as I said, life in some parts of the world is often complicated by circumstances beyond our control, so we were celebrating 50 years a couple of years late.  We had two celebrations, one in Jerusalem and one in Ramallah, the commercial center of the West Bank.  We marked the Jerusalem celebration with a Mass and reception attended by many of our CRS staff, partners and special guests. The principal celebrant of the Mass was the Latin Patriarch, His Beatitude Patriarch Foad Twal. The principal concelebrants included Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, Apostolic Nuncio to Israel and Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine. 

 

The native Christians of the Holy Land are Palestinian.  As such, they suffer under many of the same hardships that their Muslim brothers and sisters endure in the West Bank and Gaza where most live.  Life for Palestinians in the Holy Land is marked by very high unemployment, exacerbated by a lack of freedom of movement, which often separates families from one another and farmers from their fields and flocks.  There is little opportunity for economic development.  This is particularly evident in Bethlehem which has become a walled city.  As one approaches the “Little Town of Bethlehem” it looks like the approach to a maximum security prison, complete with 30 foot high walls, razor wire and armed checkpoints.  Hebron, the site of the ancient Herodian Tomb of the Patriarchs, is also a divided city, where life is complicated by the security zones that prohibit free movement and the encroaching Jewish settlements, which are so evident throughout the occupied West Bank. 

Historically, Gaza is a strategically important city on the Mediterranean coast.  We visited the local parish called Holy Family.  Its sanctuary is decorated by a mural depicting the Flight into Egypt because tradition holds that the Holy Family would have passed through Gaza as they fled Herod’s murderous attempt on the life of the child Jesus.  CRS supports the works of the parish among its many other projects in Gaza. 

In the Gaza Strip we encountered conditions which are far worse than anything I had imagined.  In a land just 25 miles long and five miles wide there are more than 1.8 million inhabitants crowded together and living under very harsh inhuman conditions.  More than 50 percent are considered refugees because they were relocated there during the partition of Palestine in 1948 that created the State of Israel.  The weaponized security zone that surrounds Gaza and the gunboats that patrol the shore certainly contribute to the sense of a battle zone.  There is certainly no freedom of movement in and out of Gaza.  Some of the CRS staff members in Gaza who were given permission to attend the 50th anniversary celebration in Jerusalem were leaving Gaza for the first time in their lives! As we were visiting a beautiful home for severely disabled children operated by the Missionaries of Charity and supported by CRS, one of the sisters directed my attention to a dull buzzing sound overhead.  “Those are the drones,” she observed matter-of-factly. 

Gaza is a desperately overcrowded strip of land that lacks even reliable power to run its sewage treatment plants.  The generators are shut down several hours each day because of a lack of fuel to operate them.  This results in raw sewage being pumped into the once pristine waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  We smelled it long before we saw it.  It is truly a humanitarian and ecological disaster. 

Amidst these difficult circumstances, CRS works in a variety of ways to alleviate crushing poverty and provide food security, to provide small-scale economic development opportunities such as Fair Trade cooperatives, to encourage peace-building efforts and to provide direct support for the Christian community.  As part of the universal mission of the Catholic Church, CRS works with Catholic institutions, as well as other organizations, to assist people on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality.  If you would like more information on CRS work in the Holy Land or elsewhere, please visit crs.org.