OTTAWA (CCN) — A Canadian bishop who travelled to Gaza with the annual Holy Land Co-ordination visit to Middle East Jan. 11 - 12 says fear is the biggest obstacle to mutual recognition of human dignity.
In an interview from Amman, Jordan, Jan. 16, Saint-Jean-Longueuil Bishop Lionel Gendron, co-treasurer of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he witnessed much fear on both sides.
Israeli parents fear for the security of their children, Palestinians fear for their livelihoods and their freedom while living under occupation, and the possibility of more fighting, the bishop said.
Gendron was one of 16 Roman Catholic bishops who took part in the annual visit to the Holy Land organized by the bishops of England and Wales. The group issued a statement stressing the importance of human dignity as God-given, since Muslims, Jews and Christians believe human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, he said, describing the call to human dignity as “the first and most important step toward peace.”
Upon his return to Canada, the bishop hopes to foster more prayer in his diocese and in the Catholic Church in Canada. “We have to intervene for Palestinians and for all refugees in all places in the Middle East.”
“We have to do our best to help these people to become to enjoy human dignity as much as possible,” he said.
A small group of bishops met with Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s Director for the Department of Inter-religious Affairs who was part of the delegation that met with Pope Francis during his visit to Israel last year.
Rosen told the bishops that governments were important, but it is also important for religious groups to reach out to each other, to share information on what is really happening and to put pressure on respective governments for peaceful resolution, Gendron said.
While he said he already has good relationships with Jewish and Muslim leaders in his diocese he hopes to step up the dialogue now that he has seen first-hand the impact of the conflict.
While in the Holy Land, the bishops tried to be objective, to understand both the Palestinian and the Israeli point of view, he said.
“There is a lot of fear maybe because there is a lot of ignorance,” Gendron said. He recalled returning through the border control process and one of the Israeli officials asked him what his business had been in Gaza. He told her he had been there to observe the destruction of hospitals, schools, houses and “all the fear these people have been going through for 41 days,” during the recent fighting.
She told him that while she felt sympathy, she admitted she didn’t know what was on the other side of the border she policed.
While there is a concrete wall between Israel and Gaza, “there is also a wall of ignorance between the two,” the bishop said. “There is no confidence, no faith, and no truth in the relationship. It is really difficult to overcome the situation now.”
It took the bishops seven to eight hours to get into Gaza, as authorities admitted only a few at a time. The wait, however, gave the bishops a good time to get to know each other and pray together, he said.
They prayed outside so they would be visible, then they walked to the place where their passports were verified, he said.
Gendron said he had heard about the destruction in Gaza, but seeing the devastation was something else. It reminded him of the destruction after the earthquake in Haiti. The only difference was that the streets were “as clean as possible” running among the bombed-out and collapsed buildings. With the present blockade in place, the Gazans “see no possibility for reconstruction,” he said.
Gaza “is practically a prison right now,” he said. The rocket launches against Israel have stopped, but people they met expressed fear of another war and clearly there is “not the same means to fight the war.”
The region has experienced an exceptionally cold winter that has included snow, he said.
While some people were living in the rubble, others were staying with relatives in parts of the city that were not destroyed, he said.
Despite the devastation, the bishops saw signs of hope inside Gaza’s small Christian community. While most of Gaza’s 2,000 Christians are Greek Orthodox, the 200 or so Roman Catholics under the Jerusalem Patriarchate run two schools, a parish, hospitals and food services.
The bishops visited the Catholic-owned schools where most of the students are Muslim, because the schools and services are open to everyone, he said. They met with students and teachers and one teacher began to weep and could not finish her talk. “People are still living the trauma they have gone through,” the bishop said.
Gendron found the Christian community “very vibrant.”
“What we perceived is there is much love, much help given to one another, with each supporting one another,” he said. This mutual help and support is not only among the Christians but open to the many people in need.
The children love going to school, especially because it brings them out of the circumstances they live daily, he said. They met with older students, one of whom expressed the importance of missing human dignity. He “insisted on the fact that our visit was quite important for them.”
Gendron stressed the importance of churches showing support for other Christians in the region.
The day after the trip to Gaza, some of the bishops visited the Israeli town of Sderot that is close to the border with Gaza. This town suffered rocket attacks and experience a great deal of fear even though the casualty levels were not as high as in Gaza, he said.
The trip to Sderot was very informal, Gendron said. The bishops were unable to connect with those who were supposed to accompany them on their tour so someone they met on the street showed them around, he said. The bishops toured a bomb shelter near a children’s park. They also visited the police station where they saw some of the missiles that had been launched against the town. Only a few kilometres from Gaza, one could see the whole region from one of its hills, Gendron said.
The bishops also stopped by the security wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, pausing for prayer at the same place Pope Francis had stopped last year. They also visited the Cremisan Valley where portion of the security wall is slated to be built. Gendron pointed out the proposed wall would divide the Christian community, separate farmers from their lands and block off a monastery and a school from Christian believers and students.
Gendron said the bishops did not have enough time to examine question of refugees even in Israel. He accompanied CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hetu to visit Iraqi refugees in Amman. They were also planning to visit Lebanon to meet with Iraqi and Syrian refugees there, he said.
“We have decided next year we should dedicate a lot more time to visit refugees,” he said.