Reflections on return from the Holy Land
A blog by Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand Director Julianne Hickey on 29 November 2019.
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord."
Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem.
(Psalm 122: A song of ascents. Of David)
I arrived back from my trip to the Holy Land two weeks ago with a great deal to think about.
Through meeting Caritas staff from the Holy Land and around the world, I gained some understanding of the conflict in the Holy Land, but cannot comprehend the enormity of the many issues that lie behind it. Nor can I comprehend the deep suffering by people living there as a result of the many years of struggle.
Essentially, at the centre of this ongoing conflict is the claim by both Jews and Palestinians to the same land, exacerbated by the ongoing construction of a wall of separation between Israel and the West Bank. Construction of this wall began in 2002 and is near completion, at which point its total length will be approximately 760 kilometres.
The Wall highlights the enormous division between the two peoples living in the Holy Land. Aggravating the stand-off is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the harsh living conditions imposed on Palestinians in occupied areas. The issues can be overwhelming - the need for Israeli security, the fate of over4 million Palestinian refugees and extremists on both sides who deny the other side's right to existence as a nation and state, and sometimes as people. In essence, providing a home, safety and the end of dispersion for one people by creating the dispossession and homelessness of another, remains at the heart of this conflict.
During my time there, even before this latest strike, I witnessed first-hand the devastation from years of deprivation and inhuman treatement imposed on the Palestinians. We were able to get permits to visit Gaza. There are nearly 2 million people living in the Gaza Strip, which is no more than 365 km2. To give that some context, Christchurch is 1,426 km2, and has a population of around 380,000. Conditions in Gaza are appalling. Food insecurity is experiencd by 68% of the population and around 14% of children under five years have a minimum acceptable diet and 96% of groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. Eighty five percent of families in Gaza depend on international aid. Dr Jehad H. Elhissi, a Health & Nutrition specialist who works among those in need in Gaza, accompanied our group during our visit. His insights and knowledge on the challenges facing health professionals in Gaza provided great learnings for all of us and we had the opportunity to visit Caritas clinics and outreach programmes there.Until these contradictions are resolved, they will continue to fuel hatred, despair, and insecurity for both Palestinians and Israelis. Only days after I left, there was a fresh bout of fighting, including an Israeli bombing that had killed eight members of a Palestinian family, including five children.
Since its inception, Caritas Jerusalem has been active in responding to humanitarian emergencies caused by the ongoing conflicts in the Holy Land. They presented us with their proposed strategic plan, including current activities, funding gaps and proposed new projects. The people who participate and benefit from their programmes, from a range of religious backgrounds, number around 30,000 in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Among the highlights of my visit was having the privilege of travelling along the Via Dolorosa (Latin for "Sorrowful Way"), a processional route in the Old City of Jerusalem, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. I spent time at the Church of the nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall, Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. There I lit candles for the many intentions you passed on to me.
A significant take-away for me from the trip is just how difficult it is for dialogue between different groups largely because of barriers, walls or checkpoints. Restrictions on people based on faith or ethnicity abolish the opportunity for dialogue. When in Bethlehem, I wondered if Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Angels and Magi would get into Bethlehem today? Maybe not, simply because they wouldn't get the permits and permission to travel...
Visiting Bethlehem University where fellow kiwi, Br Peter Bray is Vice Chancellor was delightful, and filled me with hope. Around 80% of pupils at the University are women, with almost three quarters Muslim. I found Bethlehem University "an oasis of peace" but saw areas for which more support is needed, such as their work in therapeutic interventions and physiotherapy.
Despite the despair and division, I did come away from my visit to the Holy Land with a sense of hope inspired by the work of those determined to make people's lives better. We witnessed people of all faiths working and studying alongside each other, striving for peace in extremely challenging conditions.
Thank you for all your support you've given in the past towards our work in the Holy Land and the Middle East. It was truly wonderful to see how this has been used and this visit really reaffirmed for me just how critical that support is. Under the current US administration, the aid offered by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has gone from Gaza, and so the need to support our partners there is greater than ever. If we're not there, then who will be?
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels."
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, "Peace be within you."
Yours in Christ,
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand