The Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem is His Beatitude Fouad Twal. Don’t let his name or title intimidate you — the Patriarch is extremely kind and hospitable, making everyone comfortable from the moment he enters the room. Walking at his side is a parish priest, Rev. Firas Aridah, known by some Catholics in the United States who followed his struggle to protect his former parish of Aboud against the encroachments of Israeli settlers.
Father Firas now assists the Patriarch several days a week while he rebuilds and refurbishes his new St. Joseph’s Parish school in the town of Jifna, also in Palestine. Already he has found the resources for new computers, screens, and the addition of an entirely new 3rd floor.
The Patriarch obviously appreciates the gifts and accomplishments of Father Firas, and the way he has helped to make the struggles of Catholics in the Holy Land better known in the United States. His Beatitude speaks to us at length about the need for peace and an end to the “humiliation” of occupation. In fact, he comes back to “humiliation” several times in both his comments and his answers to our questions. He offers the example of his priests in Bethlehem who cannot bring their parishoners to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Bethlehem, for all intents and purposes, is completely surrounded by walls and settlements, a city tourists can get to through the checkpoints but residents get out of only with special permits.
When asked about the reasons for Christians leaving the Holy Land, he described the economic hardships of the Israeli occupation, but added that a number of Christian families left in 1948 when their land was taken by the United Nations to create Israel. That comment prompted me to ask about the reports of Muslim violence against Christians that have been blamed for the shrinking Christian presence.
“Oh, yes, there have been incidents, especially in Bethlehem,” he said. “But they are part of this larger problem of economic and political hardship.”
Patriarch Twal insists it’s a mistake to focus on the Muslim issue, because it will only be improved when the political and economic restraints are lifted from the West Bank. Gaza, of course, is a different situation entirely. It also falls under his jurisdiction, but has only one parish, three schools, and 280 Catholics. “Most of our students are children of Fatah and Hamas,” he admits with a smile.
As we were leaving, I asked Father Firas how Catholics in the U.S. could help Catholics in the Holy Land. This is what he said: