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Mar 21
‘Destruction, fear and mistrust’ in the Holy Land
Bishops visit the Cremisan Valley (Credit: Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales) 
Every day in the news, we learn about the growing challenges faced by Christians in the Middle East—from economic pressures driving emigration from the Palestine Territories, to outright ethnic cleansing in Syria and Iraq. How can Canadians help support these vulnerable populations in the very lands where our faith originated? One way to help is through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association​ (CNEWA), a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support. We interviewed CNEWA Canada’s national director, Carl Hétu, following his recent visit to the region.

1. You recently returned from a trip with the Holy Land Coordination, an international delegation of bishops that travels to Israel and the Palestinian Territories annually. What changes did the bishops witness since their last visit?

We witnessed a lot of destruction, fear and mistrust amongst the people. This trip took place following a very tense time between Israel and Palestine. If you recall, earlier in the year three young Jewish men were murdered, followed by a Palestinian adolescent being murdered a few weeks later. Many believed this led to the 51-day war and isolated violent events up until last fall. Here is an excerpt from the bishops’ final statement that captures the essence of how they felt during this trip:

“We came to pray with and support the Christian community and to promote peace and human dignity in this divided land. We witnessed the tragic consequences of the failure of both local and international politicians to advance peace. […] After the failed negotiations and ensuing violence of 2014, we urge public officials to be creative, to take new approaches, to build bridges, not walls. We must humanize the conflict by fostering more interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. Peace will only come when all parties respect the fact that the Holy Land is sacred to three faiths and home to two peoples.”

2. The Canadian bishops have spoken out against Israel’s proposed extension of a security barrier through the Cremisan Valley in the West Bank. What is at stake there?

If the wall in the Cremisan Valley is built, it would separate 55 Christian families from their land, resulting in a loss in revenue and livelihood th​at would accelerate emigration. It became very clear to us that the Cremisan isn’t about security, but rather, a land grab.

In the coming months, the bishops will continue to oppose the building of the proposed wall. “This situation is tragically a microcosm of the reality of the land issue,” the bishops said in a statement. “We will also continue to oppose expansion of the settlement program, illegal under international law, which we witnessed acutely in Hebron. Its impact on the freedom of movement of Palestinians and the confiscation of lands is simply unjust.”

Housing project in Gaza (Credit: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales)

3. You also met with members of the small Catholic community in Gaza, where the 51-day war took place last year. Have residents been able to recover and rebuild since the fighting?

Six months later, the rubble is still there with no construction underway, so there are still over 110,000 homeless in Gaza. Gaza itself is totally closed in — nobody and nothing goes in or out without going through the sole Israeli security checkpoint. The big fight is about ensuring that the material going into Gaza will be used for the people and not to build more Hamas tunnels. Only some NGOs like Catholic Relief Services are allowed to build some very modest homes.

Let me share with you testimony from Mrs. Yousif, a teacher at Holy Family Catholic School. She said non-stop explosions over 51 days have shaken her family deeply. The material loss is one thing, but there is also the lingering psychological suffering. While crying, she told me, “at least the people in Syria and Iraq can leave their country to safety. Not us. We are prisoners here with nowhere to go. We can’t go through this again. At school, children of all ages have difficulty sleeping and concentrating, they suffer from post-traumatic stress. We have included special sessions to address this problem. But many will be marked for life.”

In part 2​ of our interview with Hétu, we will discuss his subsequent trip to Lebanon and Jordan to visit refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Photos courtesy of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales​.

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