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HOLYLAND-BISHOPS (UPDATED) Jan-9-2013 (860 words) With photos. xxxi

US bishop says young Palestinians he met showed hope, vision

During a visit to Bethlehem University Jan. 9, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., smiles alongside Sister Orella Narag from the Philippines, who works with Filipino migrants, at the West Bank campus. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Young Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and West Bank demonstrate "a great deal of hope and vision," despite the reality they face, said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.

Bishop Kicanas told Catholic News Service Jan. 8 he was especially moved by the "daunting spirit" he found in the young people of Gaza.

"While they have experienced trauma, disappointments and restrictions, they are advancing," said the bishop, who was participating in the 13th annual Holy Land Coordination Jan. 5-10. "Their hopeful desire is to somehow, in the near future, be able to use the skills (they are gaining in their studies) to help their society. It even gives me hope, though the situation does not seem to improve and might (even) be getting worse."

Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains discouraging, with Israel expanding settlements and encroaching on Palestinian land, religious leaders must forge a sense of hopefulness, said Bishop Kicanas.

"The situation is bleak and, yes, one of darkness but ... we continue to hear of light in the darkness, moments of hope," he said.

One helpful way of understanding the complexity of the situation in the Holy Land is to make a pilgrimage and meet the people to experience the circumstances of their lives, he said.

"That the protection of Israel is important is clear," he said. "But the other piece of the situation is not well known, the feelings involved when one is in a situation of occupation and limitation."

The annual Holy Land Coordination is designed to show support for the churches there, and the focus this year was on the "suffering and vulnerable people in the Holy Land." The bishops were calling for a more effective response from the international community for the humanitarian needs of refugees from the Syrian civil war as well as other Mideast wars.

Braving a brewing winter storm, Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the Board of Catholic Relief Services, was the only bishop who was able to cross into Gaza through the checkpoint at the Israeli border. For "unclear" reasons, including the possibility that permit applications were filled out incorrectly, the other bishops scheduled to visit Gaza did not receive their permits.

In Gaza, Bishop Kicanas met with parishioners who revisited their experiences during the recent fighting with Israel, and he viewed areas bombed by the Israelis. He noted that the sites appeared to have been "very strategically" bombed.

"Not whole neighborhoods were (hit) but individual houses," he added, though neighboring properties did suffer some damage as well because of their proximity to the targets.

CRS was helping repair the Rosary Sisters School windows shattered during the bombings. Locals confirmed that two soccer stadiums that had been targeted by Israel had most likely been used as a warehouse for weapons, he said.

One mother recounted how she was able to use the skills she had learned as a participant in the CRS risk-reduction program to help her children through difficult moments of the war, Bishop Kicanas said.

"She was able to anticipate what to do in that situation," he said.

Meeting with the parishioners and listening to their stories was a "heartwarming, moving experience," he said.

Other bishops participating in the coordination included Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, Alberta, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops; Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops' Department of International Affairs, and Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop Michel Dubost of Evry, France; Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, Germany; Bishop Peter Burcher of Reykjavik, Iceland, representing the Nordic bishops' conference; and Archbishop Joan Vives Silicia of Urgell, Spain.

Prior to the start of the coordination, they visited Jordan and met with Iraqi refugees. A planned visit to a Syrian refugee camp on the border was canceled by Jordanian authorities, but they met with the Caritas aid workers who work with those refugees.

In Bethlehem, the group met with Latin Patriarchate Fouad Twal and the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Cyprus, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto. They were also briefed by nuns working with the most vulnerable communities of African refugees and asylum seekers, migrant workers and Christian prisoners.

The church leaders met with Bethlehem University students who spoke of their desire to stay in their country but also of the difficulties they face finding work once they graduate.

"The economic situation is very bad for the simple reason that (this) is a closed economy," said Fadi Saleh, 25, a computer information system student. "That is why the most brilliant minds of our generation like to go abroad. It is really a loss for our country. It is sad because these are the youth and power of Palestine, and they are exported outside."

What gives them hope in such a situation is the love and support of their families, said Georgina Mukarker, 18, in response to a question by Kicanas.

Father Peter-John Pearson, director of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office and a participant in the coordination, urged the students to have the courage not to give up.

"The fight is yours, but victory will also be yours," he said.


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