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URGENT APPEAL FROM THE HOLY LAND

24th June 21001
From the Custos of the Holy Land

To the courteous attention of all you persons who love the Holy Land.

My dear sisters and brothers,

I would like to thank all of you for your kind attention towards us and for your valid help towards our various apostolates in the Holy Land. I would also like to illustrate briefly the situation and the conditions in which we are living and working right now.

This year the political, economic and social situation in the Holy Land, as you all very well know, is particularly difficult. The mass-media inform you every day about the serious problems of this country, and I do not deem it necessary to explain what is happening. However, I would like to add that nobody has remained surprised regarding the explosion of this "second Intifada". The tensions between the two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have been dragging on for a long period of time and they have become ever more evident. Many a time, the agreements between Israel and Palestine have remained and still remain without any real application on terrain. This dichotomy between diplomacy of words and the real life of the people has fuelled sentiments of exasperation, which have finally developed in the current revolt.

From this conflict we can already draw some conclusions. I will limit myself to two, which I deem to be the principal ones:

1. As a result of the Oslo Agreements we have not witnessed a culture of peace. On both fronts – Palestinians and Israelis – there still remain reciprocal suspicions and lack of trust. Everybody was speaking about necessity of reconciliation, but nobody has ever embarked upon true and concrete attitudes of reconciliation. When one hears the shouts in the streets, liberally invoking: "Death to the Arabs!" or "Death to the Jews!", one cannot pretend to witness the formation of reconcilied consciences between the two peoples. In this sense we, as Christians, must become workers of peace since we know that we have roots in Christ, who is the source and author of peace. It may be that we have not done enough and that the message of "Peace and Goodwill" of Saint Francis remains actual more than ever before.

2. Israel has not understood the frustrations of the Palestinian population, even on the economic level. The continual expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the indefinite application of the Oslo Agreements and of subsequent negotiations for peace in particular regarding the handing over of occupied territories, the high rate of jobless Palestinian youths, difficulty of movement, etc., have created a situation of a quasi-total lack of trust.

Excepting the relative calm of these last days and the timid references to the resumption of contacts, it will be necessary – if we truly want to begin to work seriously in favour of peace – to implement concrete attitudes of peace, built upon justice and mutual respect and acceptance, because we have all been created in God's image (cf. Gen 1,26-27) and we all have a right for the same dignity.

Concretely, the current economic situation for many persons is serious. In the West Bank, as a result of the closure of the means of communication, there is an acute shortage of basic necessities: gas, fuel, wheat, cereals, etc. The situation is, however, serious even in the rest of the country. The tourist industry is practically reduced to nothing. More than a thousand persons, who were employed in hotels and in other touristic activities, have been dismissed from their jobs. To this we add the near total loss of the small commercial activities, such as the manufacture of souveniers, which was often the only means of income for a great number of families. The majority of welcome hostels for pilgrims are closed. As a result of the closure of the Territories, in which lives the majority of the work-force, labourers are few and many works have come to a standstill. At the same time, the workers who live in the Territories and who work in Israel, have been without work and wages for many months, because nobody, or only a few, manage to obtain permission to cross the check-points.

This situation is involving all of us here present in the Holy Land, and is seriously hampering all our activity.

The situation in the Sanctuaries.
In the Sanctuaries of Galilee, Jaffa and Ramleh there are no difficulties for movement. The same applies in the area of the Dead Sea and in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Jericho is totally closed. Bethany and Bethlehem have only limited access. Some groups have managed to enter without serious difficulties. The access is limited according to the danger which the various incidents cause. Up till now, in all cases, in our Sanctuaries we have not encountered danger or serious problems for the pilgrims. The only, and certainly principal danger, is that since the month of October of last year the pilgrims have stopped coming altogether or come only in small groups of courageous persons.

This situation is resulting in the fact that the Holy Places which mark the roots of our faith, and which in normal circumstances are visited by thousands of pilgrims, are now empty and our work has been reduced to their conservation. On the other hand, the Sanctuaries which could be administered by proper funds or by other parochial activities centred upon them, are now without pilgrims, and consequently are in dire need of funds which are lacking with the passage of time.

The pilgrims.
As we have already stated, the affluence of pilgrims has been reduced to a mere trickle. Nearly all the groups have cancelled their pilgrimages, and are hoping for better times to return to the Holy Places. Some groups still arrive, in spite of everything. Recently we have had groups coming from New Zealand, Slovenia, Poland, Corea, Mexico and Chile. From Western Europe we are not receiving any more bookings. The great presence of pilgrims at the beginning of the Holy Year has been practically transformed into a total absence.

The Case Nove
Our 4 Case Nove remain closed. In Nazareth there are 20 employees and 3 sisters, in Tiberias 4 emplyees, in Jerusalem 35 employees and 4 sisters, and in Bethlehem 30 emplyees and 1 sister. All these workers are young people or fathers. We cannot leave them without any means of livelihood. We are continuing to pay them with 75% of their wages, because they can not and should not be dismissed from their jobs. The Christians are not receiving anything from anybody. However, it is evident that this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. The movement of pilgrims will start again only after months of calm and peace which, frankly speaking, cannot materialise in a short time. <

Other apostolates.
Our four schools in Jerusalem and Bethlehem are always in need of funds, but now about 80% of the parents of the students live in great difficulties and cannot contribute towards the scholastic expenses as much as they would like. Practically, more than half of this percentage of parents are in a state in which they cannot do anything. These same families now need food and are asking us for food packs.

The families who live in the houses built by the Custody of the Holy Land, under normal circumstances, could pay a symbolic rent or a very low rent, but now they are in serious financial straits, and some cannot contribute anything. However, with the help of Divine Providence, and with the good will and generosity of many, we are continuing to help these families so that they can get over this difficult moment and remain in the Land in which they were born and where, without their presence, the Holy Places would become mere archaeological sites or museums.

In order to meet this urgency and prevent such a tragedy, besides what we have already accomplished, on 30th June of this year, we shall inaugurate at Er-Ram, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, new houses for 10 families. Unfortunately, another project of this kind with more than 90 apartments, which has already been inaugurated, will have to wait better times for its complete realisation.

We need help from abroad to be sure that at least in our houses and for the poorest families, there would be a concrete means of livelihood. Give a thought for the refugee camps of Bethlehem! I turn to you, brethren and friends, with humility and trust, so that you will help us also this time to sustain as much as we can those who are most in need, in the knowledge that every deed we do for just one of our brethren is a good deed done for Christ (cf. Mt 25,40).

I give to all and to each one of you my fraternal greeting of Peace and all Good!

Jerusalem, 24 June 2001, Solemnity of the Birthday of St. John the Baptist

Fr. Giovanni Battistelli OFM
Custos of the Holy Land

Fr. Vincenzo Ianniello OFM
Secretary of the Custody of the Holy Land

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