UK Charity Director a Witness to Mideast Violence

Reports Christians’ Hope for Pilgrims

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BETHLEHEM, MAY 17, 2011 ( War is never far away, a resident in south Lebanon told the U.K. director of Aid to the Church in Need, who was in the Middle East to witness Sunday’s clashes between Palestinians and Israelis.

Masses of Palestinian protesters headed for the Israeli border at different locations Sunday, where they were met with gun fire on the Syrian border with the Golan Heights, and the Lebanon and the Gaza Strip borders. Perhaps nearly two dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more injured.

Aid to the Church in Need U.K. Director Neville Kyrke-Smith was in the area visiting Christian communities supported by the Catholic charity.

«It has been a very tense past few days and you could feel that tension in the outlying streets of Bethlehem,» he said.

Every May 15, there is an annual heightening of tensions as Palestinians mark Nakba (“Catastrophe”) Day, the creation of the Israeli state. Israel celebrates its independence day a few days earlier. This year, the hostility was particularly notable as the Arab spring sweeps through the region, and Palestinians aim to seek statehood at the United Nations in September.

Kyrke-Smith described heightened security in Israel as well as the West Bank, saying that he was stopped at three check-points between Bethlehem and Jericho.

«The Israeli forces were obviously concerned after uprisings and incursions on their borders. They had brought in some heavy security,» he said.

Kyrke-Smith also reported the quick clean up by Palestinian armed forces in preparation for Monday’s visit to Bethlehem of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Napolitano announced that Italy is joining several other European nations that have upgraded Palestinian representation to diplomatic status, giving its representative the role of ambassador.

Meanwhile, Kyrke-Smith noted a plea from a nun in the region: «Help keep the frontier open,» she said. «Please come,» referring to the importance of pilgrimages to the Holy Land as a form of solidarity for the Christians there.

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