Sister Orella Narag from the Philippines, who works with Filipino migrants, at the West Bank campus of Bethlehem University, chats with a visiting American bishop Jan 9.

CNS PHOTO | DEBBIE HILL

Sister Orella Narag from the Philippines, who works with Filipino migrants, at the West Bank campus of Bethlehem University, chats with a visiting American bishop Jan 9.

February 4, 2013
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith returned from a Jan. 5-10 visit to the Holy Land both "moved and impressed" with the "hope and resilience" of the people he met.

Despite "overwhelming difficulties" and a "reigning pessimism on the real prospects for peace" between Israel and the Palestinians, Smith said he found the Christian parishioners and young people remain resilient.

They "want to continue to work for peace, to speak up for the rights of all," while "upholding human dignity," he said.

The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) took part in an annual meeting of the International Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land.

The reason for their hope, they say, is their Christian identity, said Smith. "Darkness does not have the last word. That belongs to God, who is light. We in our lifetime might not see substantial changes but we know there will be a better day."

Smith joined bishops from Spain, the United States, Germany, France, England and Wales, and Iceland.

CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) Canada national secretary Carl Hétu accompanied Smith on the visit.

REFUGEES

In addition to visiting Christian communities in the West Bank, Smith visited neighbouring Jordan where 10 per cent of the population are refugees who have fled persecution or fighting in Iraq and Syria.

There, they met people with Caritas Jordan, who "in the name of the Church, in the name of Caritas Internationalis are on the ground seeking to reach out to refugees who are living in horribly difficult circumstances."

That puts "amazing pressure on any country's resources," Smith said.

Caritas' outreach doesn't go unnoticed, Smith said. He praised the work of CNEWA in the Holy Land "as another sign of the care and concern of the universal Church for this area we call holy."

"The presence of the Church reaching out to those in need is seen in a tangible way as vitally necessary for their life together there," he said.

Christians in the Holy Land did not express fear of Islamic extremism, Smith said.

The frustrations among the Palestinian people seem to be more about the divisions that exist even among themselves on a political level. "It's not about Islamic extremism but the lack of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and how that filters down to the people."

Smith said the bishops encountered "encouraging testimony" from the University of Bethlehem, a Catholic university in the West Bank that has a majority Muslim student population.

"They, in their daily interaction with one another, have developed friendships, unity and a common purpose."

"What's happening at the grassroots and among the common people is evidence of beautiful Muslim-Christian cooperation and living together," he said.

HUGE BARRIER

However, while relationships can be forged between Muslims and Christians, it is much more difficult for those of either faith living in the disputed territories to forge relationships with the Israelis due to the security wall, he said.

"They certainly feel it is a justice issue. When you see the wall itself, it is huge and it is imposing."

What is important is what the wall represents, he said. "It's a world of borders, on the physical and geographical level."

"There's a lot of mistrust among the people there that keeps them separated more dramatically than the security wall would," he said.