On Monday 16 November 2009, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem addressed the Bishops of England and Wales at the Bishops' Conference meeting in Leeds.
Eminences, Excellencies, Reverend Fathers, Brothers in Christ,
I am honoured and delighted to be invited to address you. We, at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, owe a debt of gratitude to the Episcopal Conference and to the venerable Church in England and Wales for their solidarity and support throughout the years. We, in the Church of Jerusalem, never to cease to pray for our benefactors and you have a pride of place among them.
The importance of the mission of the Church of Jerusalem and the other ancient Churches of the Middle East was emphasized by the Holy Father's historic visit to the Holy Land. We continue to thank God for the visit and we seek ways to perpetuate its fruit. The words of the Holy Father to us in Bethlehem still ring out loud and clear: “Above all, be witnesses to the power of life, the new life brought by the Risen Christ, the life that can illumine and transform even the darkest and most hopeless of human situations. Your homeland needs not only new economic and community structures, but most importantly, we might say, a new "spiritual" infrastructure, capable of galvanizing the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development and the promotion of the common good. You have the human resources to build the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children. This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!”
The mission of our Church has now been underscored by the Holy Father’s calling for a synod for the Middle East. In September, I, together with the other Patriarchs from the Middle East, met with His Holiness and the decision for a synod was taken. It will be held in the fall of 2010, and we are already moving briskly ahead to prepare for it. We are all aware that the Church of Jerusalem has a central role to play in this synod which will be convened under the dual motto of "unity and witness". The eyes of all Christians turn to Jerusalem and many come as pilgrims. In Jerusalem though we live as a small presence in the center of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, in our unity as Catholics and, more widely, as Christians, we bear our witness to the one Risen Lord.
Our situation continues to be a difficult one with many obstacles blocking our way. Undoubtedly, the biggest difficulty is the lack of justice, peace and security. Initial optimism at the election of President Obama has not dissolved completely but we have not yet seen any concrete steps taken to alleviate the suffering and push the parties towards serious negotiations. On the ground, the situation is deteriorating yet again.
- Ordinary Palestinians were first consoled by the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict – also known as the Goldstone Report because it bore witness to the disaster that was the war in Gaza. However their relief has turned to outrage that this report has been disregarded because of pressure from the US.
- In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on the Israeli government’s plans to wrest Arab East Jerusalem from its Palestinian residents. House demolition, expropriation and new plans to unilaterally define much Jerusalem territory as "national park land" are threatening not only the peace of Jerusalem but also its multi-confessional identity. An important segment of this land belongs to different Churches. Alongside this, the government continues to sponsor settling Jews in Arab East Jerusalem, building neighborhoods and enlarging the existing ones. Most worrying is the fact that the Haram al-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount, is again becoming a locus of tension as radical Jews do not hide their intention to remove the Muslim shrines there in order to reconstruct the Third Temple.
- Particularly disturbing to many Christians in the Holy Land is the support radical Jewish Israelis receive from Christian fundamentalists who have developed their own form of Christian Zionism. It exploits and manipulates the Bible in order to justify continued Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians. This perverted vision of the Holy Land is propagated by influential lobbies in the US and in Europe who warmonger in the name of "love for Israel" and the "fight against Islamic terrorism".
- The general instability in our area has led to an influx of refugees into our diocese. They are living in difficult conditions and we are challenged to help them, care for their pastoral needs and make place for them in our parishes. In Jordan, there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and among them tens of thousands of Catholics. In Israel, there are thousands of Sudanese, the majority of them Catholics.
- Finally, our Christian faithful are more and more demoralized and the constant temptation is to seek a future elsewhere. Our communities are shrinking and we must redouble our efforts to persuade Christians to remain in the land of their ancestors, in the land that is at the center of our history of salvation.
The difficulties are myriad; however we must try and keep alive the determination to bear witness to the Gospel. As the Holy Father exhorted Christians in Nazareth to construct "prophetic places of peace education", calling on Christians to be preachers of the Kingdom. The vocation is "to break down walls and to be a seedbed of encounter, dialogue, reconciliation and solidarity". Furthermore, he encouraged the Christians "to persevere in bearing witness to the Gospel, to be confident in the triumph of goodness and truth, and to trust that God will give growth to every initiative which aims at the extension of his Kingdom of holiness, solidarity, justice and peace".
Despite the many difficulties, we do have good news to share too. The Lord is faithful and gives us constant signs of His solicitude for His little flock:
- The Holy Father's visit continues to inspire us. Although many were doubtful before he came that his visit would strengthen us, by the time he left we were full of gratitude for this precious time in which the voice of the Church consoled, encouraged and spoke prophetically. We listened attentively to his words as he spoke of our "persevering presence and witness" that "are indeed precious in God's eyes and integral to the future of these lands". Soon every Christian will be able to have a book with the Holy Father's words as an important resource for meditation and prayer.
- Another important and hopeful event took place in Bethlehem during the summer when the Fatah movement, which is the present governing body on the West Bank and the principal partner in dialogue with the Israeli government, held its first general Convention in 20 years. This convention introduced significant reforms, strengthened the government of President Abbas and reaffirmed the path of negotiations with the Israelis.
- Another positive step this last summer was the meeting of the “Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land”. This US sponsored forum of Holy Land religious leaders decided to sponsor the study of Muslim and Jewish religious textbooks and their presentation of the religious other. This very practical project might bear important fruit for the teaching of tolerance where intolerance reigns supreme. It was encouraging to see the open attitudes among the religious leaders present, and their commitment to promoting co-existence and the findings of the study will be presented in our meeting next summer.
- Another significant sign of the vitality of our Church is the ongoing development of the planned university linked to the Latin Patriarchate in Madaba. We are convinced that our large, established and respected Catholic school system has had a significant and positive effect upon the life and culture of Jordan, and has been no small factor in Jordan’s role, as a force of moderation and tolerance in the Middle East. We wish to expand that effect by opening this university, which we expect will attract students from the entire region, and not just from Jordan. I urge you to take this new initiative to heart and be involved. ‘Involvement’ does not only mean financial support but help to make strong connections with English and Welsh universities.
- In this connection, I might mention the excellent work of our Latin Patriarchate schools throughout the diocese. These schools that are of a high standard and promote Christian values need your support too. We truly believe that through these schools we are making a difference in our region.
- Finally, I would like to thank God and proudly proclaim the beatification of a holy woman from our diocese. On November 22, in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, co- founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Rosary will be beatified. This is the occasion for Christians throughout the Middle East to affirm and celebrate their faith and ask the intercession of the holy men and women that have lived within the Church of the Holy Land. We can now say with even greater intent: Blessed Mary Alphonsine, pray for us.
In the face of the many obstacles and yet without forgetting the many blessings, I dare say to you: There is still much to be done. We are grateful for all you have done and for what you are doing but we continue to need your support. More than ever, the Churches throughout the world must take responsibility and involve themselves in the life of our Church in the Holy Land. We are at a crucial moment and it is now that your solidarity, support and practical help is necessary to guarantee that Christians will stay in the Land, find their place there and continue to be witnesses to the Risen Lord. In this regard, I want to pay special tribute to the initiative of one of the former lieutenants of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Dr Michael Whelan, who has initiated a new support organization, the Friends of the Holy Land, affiliated with your Bishops' Conference. May the Lord bless and strengthen this organization and I ask you to encourage and support this initiative in your Diocese and Parishes. It enables your local communities to identify with our issues and provides for both prayer as well as financial support. May local groups be formed in all Parishes over England and Wales. We need your help more than ever in order to realize the prophetic words of the Holy Father, spoken when facing the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: "The Church in the Holy Land, which has so often experienced the dark mystery of Golgotha, must never cease to be an intrepid herald of the luminous message of hope which this empty tomb proclaims. The Gospel reassures us that God can make all things new, that history need not be repeated, that memories can be healed, that the bitter fruits of recrimination and hostility can be overcome, and that a future of justice, peace, prosperity and cooperation can arise for every man and woman, for the whole human family, and in a special way for the people who dwell in this land so dear to the heart of the Savior".
Our priests and our religious, our lay activists and our students depend on your solidarity in our parishes, our schools, our clinics, our hospitals, our social welfare institutions for the handicapped, the abandoned, and the elderly. Our needs are many and varied and we depend on your generosity and promptness. Among the very many projects that need to be developed further are:
- Help for our schools and for the development of the University in Madaba and our students in the rest of the diocese
- Housing, employment and social welfare frameworks to encourage our faithful to see that they have a present and a future in the Holy Land.
- Help for the Catholic refugees in our diocese: Iraqis in Jordan, Sudanese in Israel.
Please continue and intensify your efforts so that the Church of the Holy Land might indeed become more and more a flourishing garden of life in the midst of the wilderness of war and bloodshed.
May God bless each one of you and your dioceses and parishes. Please convey the prayers and blessings of the Church of Jerusalem to them. We hope that you might all come to visit us, refueling your faith at its geographical sources and coming to pray with the living stones that make up the Church of Jerusalem.