Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the desperate plight of Christians the Holy Land during a meeting with His Beatitude Michael Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, and prelates from the Conference of Latin Bishops in the Arab Region (CELRA) held in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, last week.
During his address, the Holy Father said: "Sometimes circumstances force Christians to leave their country in search of a welcoming nation that enables them to live a better life. Nonetheless, it is necessary to give firm encouragement and support to those who decide to remain faithful to their land, in order to ensure it does not become an archaeological site without an ecclesial life."
The Pope assured the bishops of his firm support for their initiatives, which should "contribute to creating socio-economic conditions that may help Christians remain in their own countries". Pope Benedict concluded: "I wish to restate my solidarity with those people in your regions who suffer so many forms of violence. You may count on the solidarity of the Universal Church."
Earlier, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertoni, Secretary of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and Archbishop Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States, addressed a private meeting at the Vatican on Wednesday January 16, attended by the Latin Patriarch and other bishops of the Latin Rite.
Also at the meeting were members of the "Co-ordination Group of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land" who had just returned from visits to Israel and Palestine. This Group represents Catholic Episcopal conferences of Europe and North America and was formed in Jerusalem in 1998 at the request of the Holy See.
Reading a statement from the Group, Bishop Kenney: "Many people we met were pessimistic about current efforts by the leaders of Israel and Palestine, with the support of the international community, to reach an agreement on a just peace. But we also heard from many others that they yearn for a future of freedom, peace and security, for both Palestinians and Israelis."
"We found signs of hope in this visit to the Holy Land. We met young people at Bethlehem University and in various parishes; we also heard of growing inter-religious co-operation for peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
"Tragically we also saw signs of discouragement and division. The separation wall through which we passed was a vivid reminder of the security concerns of Israel, as well as the deepening division between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who lack the human contact which can help foster justice and reconciliation. We are particularly concerned for the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza which has worsened since we visited there a year ago (in January 2007)."
Bishop Kenney, who is spokesperson on European Affairs for the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, added that he personally expected to visit the Holy Land on at least three further occasions during 2008, and made a public promise that he would include a visit to Gaza.
Asked why people were pessimistic about current efforts by the leaders of Israel and Palestine, Bishop Kenney made clear that almost no progress had been made in the previous twelve months since the Co-ordination Group visited the region in January 2007.
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