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U.S. bishops affirm power of prayer for Israeli-Palestinian peace following pilgrimage

Pilgrim Nazareth

At Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation, Bishop Dale J. Melczek (center) prays with members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2014 Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land. Their message: Prayer is powerful; peace is possible. The Sept. 11-18 pilgrimage occurred just weeks after a ceasefire of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

(photo by Jen Hardy/Catholic Relief Services)

  

     WASHINGTON - U.S. bishops affirmed that prayer is powerful, peace is possible and that support for a two-state solution is an essential dimension of pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace in a Sept. 22 communique, following a Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land. Eighteen U.S. bishops, including Bishop Dale J. Melczek, made the September 11-18 journey to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     “There is no military solution to the conflict, but tragically violence on both sides undermines the trust needed to achieve peace. Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear,” the bishops wrote in their communiqué.

     Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led the delegation.

     The bishops celebrated Mass at Holy Sites and with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem and local Christian communities in Jiffna, Nablus and Gaza. They met with religious and government leaders. Religious leaders included representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Armenian, and Protestant leaders. Government leaders included former President Shimon Peres of Israel, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah of Palestine, and Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian National Council.

     The bishops expressed concerns about the rights of religious minorities, especially the dwindling Christian population of the region, as well as the challenges to the peace process posed by factors like the barrier wall, expanding settlements and other legal and socioeconomic restrictions.

     Text of the bishops’ communique is as follows:

     “We went to the Holy Land as men of faith on a Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace.  Motivated by the love of Christ and deep concern for both Israelis and Palestinians, we went to pray for peace, and to work for a two-state solution and an open and shared Jerusalem.  Arriving in the wake of the recent Gaza war, though, we encountered pain, intransigence and cynicism.  Even the young people are discouraged. But we also saw signs of inspiration and hope.

     “Prayer was the central element of our pilgrimage. Through daily liturgies at holy sites and local parishes, we experienced our comm in Christ with local Christian communities. We are grateful to those at home who supported our pilgrimage with prayers and interest. We also prayed alongside Jews, Muslims and other Christians. Prayer is powerful. We know peace is possible because God is our hope.

     “We met with people of goodwill, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who yearn for peace. We were inspired by the commitment of the staff and partners of Catholic Relief Services, The Pontifical Mission, and the local Christian community, who are providing relief to the people of Gaza; by the efforts of Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are building bridges of understanding; and by the mission of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. We were moved profoundly by our visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and were encouraged by Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution that is building bridges between Christians and Muslims as they study together to create the future of Palestine, and by the Church’s schools that are open to all.

     “We are compelled by the Gospel of Peace to share the fruits of our prayers and encounters with Israelis and Palestinians. Two peoples and three faiths have ancient ties to this Land. Sadly, Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is a sign of contradiction. We were told more than once that the city could erupt in violence as it has on far too many occasions.

     “The towering wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians is another sign of contradiction. For Israelis, it is a sign of security; for Palestinians, a sign of occupation and exclusion. The contrast between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is also a sign of contradiction. In crossing the border one moves from freedom and prosperity to the intimidation of military checkpoints, humiliation, and deeper poverty.

     “The situation of Christian Palestinians is an added sign of contradiction.  The Christian community is emigrating at alarming rates.  As we learned from Patriarch Fouad Twal, the unresolved conflict and occupation undermine human dignity and the ability of Christians to raise their families. Israeli policies in East Jerusalem prohibit Christians who marry someone from outside the City to remain there with their spouse, and security policies restrict movement and confiscate lands, undermining the ability of many Christian families to survive economically. The harsh realities of occupation force them to leave. Muslims also suffer similarly, but have fewer opportunities to emigrate.

     “As U.S. bishops, we humbly acknowledge that we do not understand all the complexities of the situation, but in faith we do understand some things clearly. We reaffirm the longstanding position of the U.S. bishops and the Holy See and support a two-state solution: a secure and recognized Israel living in peace with a viable and independent Palestinian state. The broad outlines of this solution are well known; but there has not been, nor does there appear to be, the determined political will to achieve it.

     “There is no military solution to the conflict, but tragically violence on both sides undermines the trust needed to achieve peace. Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear.  We witnessed the horrific devastation of whole neighborhoods in Gaza and heard about tragic deaths on both sides, especially a disproportionate number of Palestinian noncombatants, women, and children. The local Christian community in Gaza described the nightly terror they suffered during the war. Israelis in Sderot and elsewhere described their dread of Hamas rocket fire.

     “The route of the barrier wall, the confiscation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, especially now in the Bethlehem area and the Cremisan Valley, and any expansion of settlements threaten to undermine the two-state solution. Many reported that the window of opportunity for peace was narrowing dangerously. If it closes, the futures of both Palestinians and Israelis will be harmed.

     “Many persons with whom we met joined us in commending the recent initiative of Secretary of State John Kerry, but said renewed U.S. leadership is required for peace. For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, the United States must mobilize the international community to support both parties by adopting parameters for a lasting solution, including borders, an open and shared Jerusalem, and a timeline.

     “Pope Francis, in word and gesture, inspired hope on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. After another Gaza war, hope is now in short supply. One person on our journey told us that the Holy Land is the land of miracles. The miracle we need is the transformation of human hearts so each side is less deaf to the concerns of the other.  In solidarity with our brother bishops and all people in the region, we urge alternatives to the cycle of hatred and violence. Peace is possible.”

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