By Matt Hadro
Catholic News Agency - Reflecting on their recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, US bishops have cited relationships there between Christian and Muslim students as a sign of hope for peace in the region.
A delegation of 18 bishops from the US made the pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel September 11-18.
“What was really positive about this was the tremendous work being done there by Catholic Relief Services, by the Knights of Malta, the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre and a lot of these Catholic organizations that … doing really good work,” Bishop Richard Higgins, an auxiliary of the military archdiocese who was among the pilgrims, told CNA.
“The other really positive thing, that I think the bishops would agree on, was the experience of Bethlehem University … that university has over 3,000 students, and over 70 percent of them are Muslims. The rest of them are Christians of different denominations.”
“Having young people of that age being educated together and living basically together spiritually where there are particular cultures day by day, that is a very positive force as far as I am concerned… I believe the resolution down the road will be between educated people who have lived alongside each other for years and understand both cultures and respect each other.”
The entire group of bishops said they were "encouraged by Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution that is building bridges between Christians and Muslims as they study together to create the future of Palestine."
During their trip, the bishops said Mass at pilgrimage sites and with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal and with Palestinian communities. The bishops also met and prayed with Jews and Muslims, as well as Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Protestant Christians.
"Motivated by the love of Christ and deep concern for both Israelis and Palestinians, we went to pray for peace, and to work for a two-state solution and an open and shared Jerusalem,” the bishops said in a communique following their return.
They described Jerusalem, Israel's border wall, and the situation of Christians Palestinians all as signs of contradiction in the region.
The border wall, they said, is for Israelis “a sign of security; for Palestinians, a sign of occupation and exclusion. The contrast between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is also a sign of contradiction. In crossing the border one moves from freedom and prosperity to the intimidation of military checkpoints, humiliation, and deeper poverty.”
The bishops lamented that “the route of the barrier wall, the confiscation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, especially now in the Bethlehem area and the Cremisan Valley, and any expansion of settlements threaten to undermine the two-state solution.”
In addition, they noted with alarm the rate of emigration of Christian Palestinians.
“The unresolved conflict and occupation undermine human dignity and the ability of Christians to raise their families,” the bishops wrote. “Israeli policies in East Jerusalem prohibit Christians who marry someone from outside the City to remain there with their spouse, and security policies restrict movement and confiscate lands, undermining the ability of many Christian families to survive economically. The harsh realities of occupation force them to leave. Muslims also suffer similarly, but have fewer opportunities to emigrate.”
Bishop Higgins commented that “it's probably not news to you that the number of Christians in the Holy Land is diminishing and will continue to diminish. Especially if they’re Palestinian Christians,” citing “the restrictions placed upon them.”
“Their attitude is that there’s not much of a future for you in the Holy Land if you are a Palestinian Christian. So they … emigrate as soon as they can.”
The leader of the pilgrimage, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, shared that sentiment in an interview with Wyatt Goolsby of EWTN News Nightly.
“One of the great disappointments that we came upon was the realization that I think about 10 or 15 years ago, 12.5 percent of the population was Christian. Today, only 1.5 percent,” he said.
“So the Christians are really being squeezed, and we have to advocate for them also among both the Muslim and Jewish sisters and brothers because it is the Holy Land, which we consider to be so sacred and special.”
Bishop Pates emphasized that hope is possible because of prayer.
“The power of prayer is truly something that we have confidence in.”