European bishops are gathering in the Holy Land Sept. 11-16 to show closeness to Christians in the Middle East and to trace a path of hope for them, in an unprecented assembly.
“We are here to rediscover the source of our identity as people of God and of our mission as successors of the Apostles,” Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest said Sept. 11.
Cardinal Erdo is president of the Council of the European Bishops Conferences, which gathers together 39 bishops’ conferences from across Europe. The umbrella organization was founded in 1971 with the aim of realizing closer communication and cooperation between the European bishops and episcopal conferences, to promote evangelization in the European region.
The council customarily holds its plenary assembly in one of its member states each year. This year, its leaders decided to hold the assembly to the Holy Land at the invitation of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.
Patriarch Twal told CNA Sept. 14 he is grateful that the president of the bishops’ conferences in Europe came to visit in “a moment when the attention on us is overshadowed.”
The Patriarch said that “Christians come to visit us and to pray with us and for us.” He noted the Arab world’s problems in Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
He said “all the world’s attention is now focused toward the east,” especially regarding the threat of the Islamic State group dominant in parts of Iraq and Syria. The patriarch said “no one is talking anymore of the situation in the Holy Land.”
The patriarch said the presence of European bishops in the Holy Land aims to shed light on this peculiar situation, and eventually “to trace the path of hope for the Church in the Middle East.”
Among the problems at stake in the Holy Land is the construction of the wall in the Cremisan Valley on the border between Israel and the West Bank. The Israeli government has confiscated lands from 58 Christian families in order to build a security wall. The move has drawn protests of Christian communities there.
Echoes of this could be glimpsed in the lecture of Father Jamal Khader, rector of the Patriarchal Seminary in Beit Jala. He addressed the European Bishops Sept. 11 at Korazim, the place traditionally considered the location of Jesus Christ’s Sermon of the Mount.
“Promises of the Old Testament do not justify grabbing the land of one people and pass it to another people in the name of God… the recent history of Europe does not justify the silence over the injustices committed against Palestinian people,” he said.
Fr. Khader underscored that “Jesus did not respect the sensitivity of the powerful, he was not a diplomat, he did not look for a balance between oppressed and oppressors. He helped the poor people, and called the powerful to conversion and compassion.”
The first part of the gathering was held in Domus Galileae, a guesthouse in Korazim that St. John Paul II inaugurated in 2000. From Korazim, the bishops moved to Nazareth Sept. 12 and to the Melkite village Mil’iya in Northern Galilee the next day.
The plenary assembly had a two-part goal: to return to the very roots of Christianity in order to find a new evangelizing way for Europe; and to show that European bishops are close to the worries and preoccupations of the bishops of the Middle East, and particularly of the Holy Land.
Among the causes of concern for Christians in the Holy Land is the situation of the Christian schools, whose existence is in peril.
Over the past six years, the Education Ministry has reduced funding to Israel’s 47 Christian schools, which are attended by some 33,000 Arab-Israeli children. The schools have shuttered since the academic year began on Sept. 1 as a protest against the cuts.
“Christians are not asking for privileges, we are asking for what law has guaranteed us,” Bishop Giacinto Marcuzzo, auxiliary of Nazareth and general vicar for Israel, told CNA Sept. 12.
He said Israel has had a “well-balanced education system” since its founding in 1948.
“According to law, the state had to give every family the possibility of educating their children according to their beliefs, life styles, and way of living,” the bishop explained.
The church schools fall into the category of “recognized but unofficial.” This means they are not part of the state school system, but are accredited by the government. They normally receive 75 percent of the funding given to regular state schools. The remainder comes from tuition payments that average 4,000 shekels ($1,000) a year. Both Christians and Muslims attend these schools.
With the funding cuts, families would have to pay a higher tuition, but often this is not possible.
Awsi Bathish, a school principal and negotiator for the Church with the government, told CNA “families cannot afford it, as it would mean to pay two thirds of their monthly average income for each child.”
Bishop Marcuzzo added that for Israel’s Christians, school is “very important.”
“We are just 2 percent of the population. If we do not have a school system, we are going to lose our young people, as young people wants to emigrate. To keep them in our land, we try to provide them a qualified education so that they are able to find a job, marry, raise up a family and so stay here.”
Bishop Marcuzzo said the schools are high quality. Six of the 10 top-ranked schools in Israel are Christian, while 60 percent of university students attend Christian schools.
The issue was a topic of the Sept. 3 meeting between Pope Francis and Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin.
The European bishops when they arrived in Nazareth discovered a spontaneous sit-in at the Basilica of the Annunciation courtyard on the issue of Christian schools, which became a main topic of discussion. In Mil’ya, bishops took part in the annual procession for the Exaltation of the Cross, which ended in a Christian school courtyard.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, made a speech at the end of the procession. He told those gathered that “European bishops have come here to stay close to you, and now we know more about you. We have learned of your problems, also about your problems in the field of education. We support you.”
Another major topic of discussion was the migration of peoples from the eastern and southern Mediterranean into the European Union has also been a hot topic of discussion. In his initial remarks to the assembly, Cardinal Ouellet described the movement of peoples as “a very difficult and delicate moment.”
He said this is the reason holding the assembly in the Holy Land is “not a choice like any other.” He noted: “this is the place where every Christian is born.”
Patriarch Twal also discussed the scenario of the immigration in Israel. “Here, we live the dramatic situation of many Asians who come here to search for a job, with no legislation to defend them; but we also live the dramatic situation of Christians who leave the country in search of dignified life conditions.”
The European bishops were scheduled to move their assembly to Jerusalem Sept. 14. On their agenda is a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and with Israeli president Reuven Revlin. They were to visit Christian works of charity in Bethlehem on Sept. 15 and their assembly will close the next day.
By Andrea Gagliarducci