11 January 2024, The Tablet

Gaza war threatens West Bank and Lebanon

Cardinal Fernando Filoni appealed to Israelis and Palestinians to show the world that peace is possible as he ended a seven-day pilgrimage.

Gaza war threatens West Bank and Lebanon

A Sister of Charity in the Pro-Cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem on 1 January.
Marinella Bandini / CNA

Palestinian Christians marked Orthodox Christmas on 7 January with liturgies in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity but no festivities, as conditions in the West Bank deteriorated.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, appealed to Israelis and Palestinians to show the world that peace is possible as he concluded a seven-day peace pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

The cardinal, a former prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People, visited the Holy Sites concelebrated Mass with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem during his visit, as “a sign of solidarity”.

“At a time in which no one is coming here, we want to show that it's possible to be here, to restart the lives and livelihoods of so many who depend on pilgrimages and religious tourism,” he said, acknowledging the socioeconomic “shock” of the war for Palestinians.

Toine van Teeffelen from the Arab Education Institute in Bethlehem, a Pax Christi partner, said that its residents “feel particularly unprotected” and commonly use the express “First Gaza, then the West Bank”.

He added that, “it is not surprising that more people here are thinking about emigration”.  Checkpoints prevent people from travelling safely between cities and “the prices of gasoline, electricity, and food are rising, and employment is declining”.

In Gaza, the death toll has passed 22,000 since the Hamas terror attack on Israel on 7 October.  Three international medical aid groups announced this week they were pulling out of the Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza as military activity made their position unsustainable.

Last weekend, eight children in Gaza’s Catholic parish received their First Holy Communion, after completing their programme of preparation amid the war.

Daily Mass, with prayers for a ceasefire and a just peace, has continued throughout the past three months, with the parish producing its own hosts to distribute to the hundreds sheltering within its walls. The patriarch, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has repeatedly praised the parishioners in regular calls.

In Lebanon, bishops of the Maronite Church have warned that cross-border fighting between Hezbollah and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) threatens to drag the country into the war. Many Christians have fled southern Lebanon after their villages were hit in the “contained” conflict.

After a series of rocket attacks on northern Israel, an IDF drone strike in Beirut on 2 January killed the Hamas second-in-command. A senior Hezbollah commander was killed in an airstrike on 8 January.

The Maronite bishops issued a statement last week calling for the international community to offer “a clear and effective framework for peace in southern Lebanon” and bring a permanent ceasefire to the Holy Land. The Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Béchara Bourtos Al-Raï, insisted the spread of fighting was “against the will of the Lebanese” but promoted by Hezbollah’s “mini-state”.

A Hezbollah-aligned group last week accused two Catholic bishops of “treason” after they met Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, who holds an annual assembly for Christian leaders with congregations in Israel.

Maronite Archbishop Moussa El-Hage of Haifa and the Holy Land, and Syriac Bishop Mar Yacoub Ephrem Semaan, patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, Holy Land, and Jordan, were named in a complaint under Lebanon’s 1955 anti-normalisation laws, which forbid citizens to have contact with the state of Israel. Islamist groups have challenged legal exceptions for religious leaders administering to congregations.

In his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See on Monday, Pope Francis highlighted the responsibility of individuals and nations to foster peace.

He renewed appeals for a ceasefire on every front, including Lebanon, and the immediate liberation of all the hostages held in Gaza. He called for the Palestinian people to receive humanitarian aid and for hospitals, schools and places of worship to be protected.

“The present conflict in Gaza further destabilises a fragile and tension-filled region,” he said.

Palestinian protestors occupied three bridges in New York on Monday, demanding US support for a ceasefire in Gaza.  There were solidarity marches in Michigan and in Montreal, while Europe saw pro-Palestinian marches in Oslo and Copenhagen.

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