26th January 2007
Q: The group officially known as the Co-ordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land has just returned from their 7th trip to the Holy Land. The group was set up in 1998 by the Holy See. Could you highlight the activities and experiences of the previous years?
Primarily it has been to learn from listening to all our sisters and brothers of the Holy Land what is their situation. What is it like for them to seek to be faithful to our Lord? What is it like for them to seek truly to be Church and Church, of course, is much more than simply the worship through our Lord Jesus Christ to the Father. It reaches out to schools, to hospitals, to hospices and all our life is of concern for us. But we were also very clearly made aware that it is the Holy Land. Therefore over the years we focused our meetings in Bethlehem, Jerusalem but then in Jordan and this year in Galilee. So we were conscious, both of a great sense of unity among those different places, but of their diversity too.
Q: In 2006 it was suggested that the activities of the group be focused in terms of 3 “Ps”: Prayer, Pilgrimage and Pressure. What do you mean by “pressure”? And how were these goals achieved?
In many ways the pressure flows from the other two. Because first of all, sincere prayer seeks to understand the situations of those for whom you pray and for example in my own cathedral in Liverpool this year the BBC broadcast Midnight Mass and we made sure we were conscious, not just of what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but of what happens in Bethlehem today. And a graduate student from Bethlehem University read the word of Saint Paul as part of that celebration of Mass in the Aramaic the language of Jesus himself. So I looked there for a rise in the desire for pilgrimage. But when you go there as a pilgrim, you will see the reality for our Christian sisters and brothers and indeed for all the inhabitants of the Holy Land because what is clear to me it is true that there is suffering for Israelis and for the Palestinians. It is not just one group that is suffering. So there arises the question of pressure. Is there anything we can do because occasionally we are allowed – especially as bishops and archbishops – to have privileged access to members of Parliament and to Government ministers and whenever those opportunities arise we are able to raise what the situation is in the Holy Land. And very often on our return we are asked by the media to speak about what we have heard and what we have seen and by raising consciousness it may make things happen.
Q: During your visit you met the local Catholic groups, politicians. How would you summarize the experience, impressions?
I would sum it up in a word which I have learnt to respect. People say ‘are you optimistic?’ And I always say no. Optimism tends to be what we can do by our own efforts. I use the word “hope” which means that I am convinced that we know that the Lord can change hearts and minds. Now I was very conscious that it has been a very difficult time, not least in the West Bank and in Gaza. There has been violence between Palestinian and Palestinian. And many would say the situation is particularly bad at this time. My own reading is that in fact there are small positive stirrings. I have the impression that there is a new determination on the part of the administration of President Bush to seriously address the questions of the Holy Land. Condoleeza Rice was there while we were there and she has promised to return within a month. And there is a new sense of urgency, precisely to try to do the possible: to move forward on the Road Map towards peace. So there is something new happening there. The same is true that Mr Blair from my own country has declared this has to be in the focus. And part of it, of course, that on the day when we were having these conversations. The news from Iraq and Afghanistan is absolutely appalling and yet what everybody issues in those countries it is clear from what Pope Benedict said: unless we seriously address justice and peace for the Holy Land, we will not be able to resolve these other issues.
Q: A lot of international organisations have joined to the “mission”. What was their role in the trip?
Their role is, first of all, to take the opportunity to learn as we learnt. But also some of them, for example, from my own country. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre is a group who seek to raise funds to help especially schools across the Holy Land and they find it useful to come with bishops so that together with the bishops they can discern what the priorities should be. There is also a group who continually seeks to encourage pilgrimages. And last but not least it was good that there was someone from Vatican Radio with us. That was I think a very good thing that this person was welcome in all our sessions and can talk to us about things and then has the opportunity to discern what things will be useful to share and so those kind of broader caterings have proved very valuable.
Q: On the 15th January the Patriarchs and the Heads of local Christian Churches in Jerusalem turned to the Palestinian people with a message in which they state: “It would appear that all kinds of mediation and attempts at reconciliation have so far failed, resulting in a deadlock in the situation.” Could you comment on that?
I think there is that feeling. There has been a feeling of deadlock and indeed if we think that for some 60 years it has just not got further on the road to justice and peace. This time we wanted to show quite genuinely that we were aware of the double suffering. We gave two examples. One example of an Israeli mother who spoke of her fears for her three children. So she would never send them all to school on the same bus in case there were bombs. She sends one child and when she heard one child arrived she would send the second and then the third in case she faced the loss of all three at once. So there are people living in great fear. When we listened to the Palestinian stories, the problems with road blocks makes it impossible to visit their families in hospital, the difficulties of students coming to Bethlehem’s wonderful university because, again, of the restrictions. I’m so very conscious that the whole land is suffering and therefore of saying that what has been tried has not been working. Is there a way to say we need a new approach? And I think it is almost as if such a depth of sorrow has been reached that there are small stirrings saying that we have to converse, we have to talk, we have to find another way. We will have to do it largely among ourselves but the international community must accept the part it can play as well.
Q: Regarding the inter-religious dialogue, what is the situation like?
This time we met in the Galilee where there are strong relationships between the Muslim people who live in Israel and the Christians, usually Arabs who live in Israel. We were able to hear something about their dialogue and, indeed, similarly, there are very practical relationships between a parish priest in Gaza, Father Emmanuel, who is a remarkable man and when he met us he was joined by several of the sheiks and Muslim leaders who escorted us throughout the whole of our visit to the Gaza and joined us for lunch. So clearly there is a very strong working relationship. It would be very foolish to pretend there are not issues which are needed to be addressed, like in the question of the Palestinian Authority, what will be the position of the Islamic religion, what will Israel be? Those issues have to be seriously addressed, but, similarly, there are issues in terms of the Christians’ ability to have the freedom they need to be a truly Church across the whole of the Holy Land.
Q: How much has the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel been implemented?
This is an issue of very great concern because it has not been yet totally agreed and once more in our statement and in our conversations with political authorities in Israel we talked about this. The issue is not that at the end good decisions are not reached on particular issues like property or land or about visas, but because there is no juridical framework. Each one is a particular decision which can be delayed or depend on who the particular person is to whom one is speaking. It needs a strong juridical base for the life of the Church which of course amazing. We forget that the Holy Land, its position and way of living have been built up over centuries and the challenge that Israel is trying to address is that of how do we both recognise that while being a modern, liberal, democratic state there are issues to be resolved. I have the impression that they are recognised as being issues which have to be addressed and, in a way, I think what we would say is that we want to make sure that the Church as Church can live its life. For example, in my diocese of Liverpool, I discern I need a certain priest working in one parish to move to another I don’t need to consult any civic power about doing so. That is not true in Israel. It is the same with religious communities that their members, of course, come from the whole of the Holy Land, from Lebanon, from Jordan, from Palestine areas, from Israel all in one community. Now the normal life of a community, even internationally, now, is that there are relatively few problems if you say we need this one sister exactly here at this time, but in Israel there can be a big problem because there is not a clear legal framework.
Q: Plans for the future?
With the group we will go again next year and I am satisfied that it is appreciated what we do there, we had conversations while we were there with the Apostolic Nuncio in Jerusalem and while in Rome I have had conversations at the Secretariat of State as well. So that we are sure that what we are trying to do is truly a united concern and one which we can speak about coherently wherever we are.
Viktoria Somogyi of the Hungarian Section of Vatican Radio