Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem discusses Holy Land conflict during visit to Houston

August 19, 2014

HOUSTON — Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem was visiting the United States July 17 when Israel began its ground campaign into Gaza in response to a string of escalating events that began with the kidnappings and deaths of Israeli and Palestinian teens. Israel began airstrikes July 8 and by July 23, the Israeli death toll stood at 32 soldiers and three civilians; the Health Ministry in Gaza said more than 660 Palestinians had been killed and more than 4,120 wounded.

On July 18, the Latin Patriarch was in Houston on a visit hosted by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (see sidebar). Patriarch Twal attended the annual Archdiocesan Prayer Breakfast that morning and visited the University of St. Thomas in the afternoon before joining Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and members of the Holy Sepulchre for a dinner event.

In an interview with the Texas Catholic Herald, Patriarch Twal said that Church leaders in the Holy Land have a unique yet unrelenting challenge in regards to Christians amidst the Israel-Gaza Conflict. “The Church is the only voice to defend our people who speak for Christ,” he said. “But we are unable to stop this violence. People may not believe in our speech… (because) we cannot affect influence. We can pray. The people want to live in peace.”

In Washington July 22, Patriarch Twal met with members of the U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom, and he told the Catholic News Service he expected to meet with U.S. government security officials.

Patriarch Twal, whose patriarchate, similar to an archdiocese, includes Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus, said he did not understand why authorities do not want to dialogue. Instead of the military option, it is “better to find another way to look for peace,” he said. 
He also advocated ending the seven-year Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, which he said makes the area “an open-air prison.”

“It is better to be good neighbors forever than to be enemies forever,” he said, emphasizing, “Peace is for all.”

He noted that three of the patriarchate’s 118 schools are in Gaza, and there they have “more Muslims than Christians, maybe some children of Hamas leaders.” The schools teach them to “love God, love the neighbor,” he said.

“We teach them how to respect others,” he said.

“We believe that children, when they play together, when they eat together, when they study together, I think that’s the best dialogue we can teach them, from the beginning.”

He also said sometimes Hamas authorities receive Church officials when they visit schools or their parish in Gaza. “We must be friend with Hamas, we must be maybe grateful for Hamas, because we have more extremist groups in Gaza that only Hamas can control,” he said.
The Latin Patriarch said for Christians to stay in the Holy Land, “we have to improve the situation.”

“I said often our presence in the Holy Land is a mission,” he said. “We are there as a witness of our eventual salvation.

“We are a church of Calvary, of suffering. We have to remember that the Lord before us suffered in this land.

“To live, love, work in the Holy Land, you have to build your cross,” he added.

Patriarch Twal said when people ask him for help, he speaks of the three Ps: prayer, pilgrimage and projects.

“We still believe in the power of prayer,” he said, noting that was the most important P. He encouraged people to visit, noting, “That’s your mother Church, and there’s a moral obligation to come with this P.”

“Come to see us, to encourage us, to pray with us and for us,” he told the Herald. “Come see the institutions — the parishes, the schools, the people in their houses. When you come, we have the feeling that we are not alone … That we are Church.”

Finally, he said, “Do something. Move. Touch your pocket.” Get involved with a religious, educational or social project, he said. But, he reiterated, most importantly, “We ask you to pray for us, to pray for this peace.”