The Holy Land is considered holy because Jesus lived here. It is also holy because most of the prophets lived around here. But it is also important because here is where it all began: Christianity was born here. Today though, 2000 years later, we equate the Middle East with Muslims. We hear about Jews and Muslims in Israel and about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we never hear about the Christians here.
You may not know that there are Christians in the Holy Land, but there are and there have been for 2000 years (in fact, some still speak Aramaic). It is with the aim of meeting these Christians, that I joined a group of Catholic journalists on a trip to the Holy Land. We traveled here looking forward to meeting some of the people who could be direct descendants of those who heard the Good News from Peter on the very first Pentecost. We traveled to Jordan (that is also part of the Holy Land), to Palestine and Israel and visited many Christian communities of the region. I must say that it’s been a wonderful experience.
I am a people person and, while visiting holy sites holds some meaning for me, it does not beat sharing a meal with someone and so even though it would have been nice for my first trip to the Holy Land to include most of the famous shrines, I am very glad that instead, we took the time to meet people – not the empty buildings, the cold, dead stones – but the living stones, the church of the Holy Land.
In the weeks to come, I hope to write in more detail about our experiences, but for today I’d like to leave you with two thoughts.
First: Christians in the Holy Land are united in ways that we’ll never understand in North America. Even though there are various rites and denominations represented: Chaldeans, Coptics, Syrians, Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics, Maronites and Roman Catholics, as well as Lutheran and Anglican, to name a few, they all consider themselves “Christian.” No one cares if you are Orthodox or Latin – in fact in many villages, the communities worship together. For me, this is a lesson. Why focus on our differences (which are minor), when there are so many other things to worry about. We are all followers of Christ and that’s really the only thing that matters.
Second: Many Palestinian are Christian and they are caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of them told me that they have a difficulty finding their identity: are they Palestinian? Are they Arabs? Are they Christian? Muslims may not like them because they are Christian. Jews may not like them because they are Arabs. Israelis may not like them because they are Palestinian. Other Palestinians may resent those who have Israeli citizenship. Even those Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship can’t consider themselves completely Israeli because they are not Jews. We can’t continue to assume that all Palestinians are Muslims or that all Arabs are Muslims. We certainly cannot continue to assume that all Arabs are terrorists. They are not. In fact, most of them want a peaceful solution. Many prefer a non-violent response to the situation. But as Christians, we need to be in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to invite two of these Christian-Palestinians to our Perspectives
studio for a look at the meaning of peace. Since I am presently in the Holy Land, we felt appropriate to re-broadcast this episode with guests Fr. Samuel Barhoum, of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem, and his wife Susan. The question we asked was, “where does the peace process begin?” and we hoped that Fr. Samuel and Susan would be able to give us a different perspectives as Palestinian Christians from the Galilee. They most certainly did and left us with lots to think about. That episode will air tonight at 7 and 11pm ET and will repeat on Sunday and the same times.
Yesterday in Haifa, we met with Archbishop Elias Chacour, Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. He became well-known in North America some 20 years ago for his amazing book, Blood Brothers
, where he describes how his family was evicted from their little village of Biram in the Galilee in 1948. After speaking with us for almost two hours, Archbishop Chacour asked us to ask of you a favour. He told us that if you have friends who are Jews or supporters of the Jewish settlements or of the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land, do not stop being their friends. Do not stop supporting them. Stand beside them. But do not conclude that this means you have to be enemies of the Palestinians. If, on the other hand, you take the Palestinian side, don’t take their side blindly. Be critical thinkers regarding the issues in the Holy Land. The people here do not need one-sided friendship. They don’t need more cruelty and being one-sided regarding these issues, means being one more enemy. In short he is saying that it is not about taking sides – both sides have valid claims, valid fears and both sides are at fault. In some ways, both sides are victims (and there are more than just two sides). We need to be friends of both, so that we can truly help them remember how they lived in friendship before 1948.
My prayers are with you from this land of holy, living stones.
Photos: From top to bottom -- Pedro with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who work with Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan; Pedro with Fr. Bendelaymoun Al-Khouri, Greek Orthodox Pastor of St. George's Parish in Madaba, Jordan and Ra'ed Bahou, Regional Coordinator for Pontifical Missions for Jordan and Iraq; Sister Lara and her students at the Ephpheta Institute for the Hearing Impaired in Bethlehem; Archbishop Elias Chacour speaks with us.