Bishops Visiting Holy Land Consider Arab Spring

Annual Support Pilgrimage Under Way This Week

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JERUSALEM, JAN. 9, 2012 ( A group of European and North American bishops began their annual visit to the Holy Land on Sunday, aware that this year’s four-day trip holds a certain significance in lieu of the recent social and political changes that have taken place in the region. 

The group of prelates, known as the the Holy Land Coordination, began their tour in Gaza’s Christian community on Sunday with a celebration of Mass. Greeted by a band of 40 scouts, the bishops brought messages of support from their dioceses and respective bishops’ conferences. After Mass, there was an open meeting, during which the parishioners shared their experiences of living in Gaza, where the economic blockade and security situation make work and freedom of movement extremely difficult. 

The apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Franco, said in his homily that in celebrating the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, there was a call to act as Christians at all times as we share this baptism. «This is a faith that should always inspire us to act in love,» he said. «Jesus inspires us to overcome difficulties in life and this shared celebration is a signal of hope. The Universal Church, led by the Holy Father, shares its faith with you in this Church in Gaza and is united with you as you go through particularly difficult times.»

«You are not alone,» Archbishop Franco continued, «and with faith in the Lord we can together overcome difficulties. This Mass is a renewal of our faith and we ask for Mary’s blessings that we should always be Christian in the way we act and the way we live.»

Others gave words of encouragement to the members of the Christian community. Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England, told the parishioners: «What I want to say to you is ‘you are not forgotten.'» Also, Bishop Michel Dubost of Evry (a suburb of Paris) said: «Today everyone in my diocese is praying for you as they know we are making this visit. Last week, I asked prisoners in the largest prison in Europe (in Evry) to pray for you.»

Arab Spring

One of the central points of discussion for this year’s four-day meeting will be the impact of the «Arab Spring» revolutions which, since their inception Dec. 18, 2010, in Tunisia, has brought about monumental change throughout the Arab world. 

According to Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, England: «The ‘Arab Spring’ is a reality which has many different aspects, some positive, some negative for Christian Communities and there is great uncertainty as to what will happen in the coming months. In such a small region what happens in Damascus cannot but have an effect on what is happening in Bethlehem and what happens in Egypt must touch Gaza. […] Anything happening in any one of those countries inevitably touches them all.»

Participants in the meeting will also hear addresses from His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem, presentations from academics and a view from both Israelis and Palestinians about the impact of the Arab Spring and the socio-political changes in the region.

With the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, the opening session of the Coordination took place today. In addition to the prayers, liturgies and formal visits to other Catholic rites and Christian denominations, on Tuesday there will be a visit to Haifa, during which there will be an interreligious exchange with Jews, Muslims, Druze and Bahai. Political meetings will take place with both Israeli and Palestinian ministers and other politicians. 

Since 1998, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has organized the annual meeting of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church of the Holy Land and at the invitation of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. It is often more simply called the Holy Land Coordination.

Mandated by the Holy See, the Holy Land Coordination meets every January in the Holy Land, focusing on prayer, pilgrimage and persuasion with the aim of acting in solidarity with the Christian community there and sharing in the pastoral life of the local Church as it experiences intense political and social-economic pressure. 

The Christian community of Gaza is made up of 2,500 people — 300 of whom are Catholic — in a country where the population is approximately 1.5 million. There are religious sisters who run a home for the elderly, a center for the disabled, and a kindergarten; along with the parish of the Holy Family, they are also involved in the running of the Catholic schools for the community.

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