By Susan Gately - 13 January, 2018
“Our first purpose is to give support and encouragement to the increasingly small Catholic community in the Holy Land,” says Bishop Donal McKeown.
Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown left Ireland early yesterday morning to join an international delegation of bishops who will meet young Palestinians and Israelis in the Holy Land.
Speaking to CatholicIreland before his departure, he said he was going “to encourage those who are building bridges out there”. Having grown up in Belfast during the Troubles, the Bishop has a particular sensitivity in relation to the difficulty of building peace between people hurt by conflict. “The last thing any conflict needs is people coming from outside advising them what to do,” he said.
During the month of the Kingsmill massacre in January 1976, much recalled in recent days, 38 people had been killed, he recollected. People said it was impossible to solve the situation, but “it is always possible to move forward”.
The Bishop of Derry, who is visiting the Holy Land for the second time in his life, joins a delegation of 15 bishops from across Europe, North America and South Africa, including one Church of England bishop.
The annual visit, organised by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, was set up 20 years ago at the invitation of the Holy See with the aim of visiting and supporting the Holy Land’s local Christian communities as they experience the political and socio-economic realities of living in Israel and Palestine.
Its first purpose is to give support and encouragement to the increasingly small Catholic community in the Holy Land, which Bishop McKeown said is “feeling squeezed”.
This pilgrimage focuses particularly on education and young people, and the bishops will have opportunities to meet young people in Gaza, at the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus (Jerusalem), and to visit schools in Bethlehem and Bayt Jala.
In addition, they will meet the ‘Parents Circle – Families Forum’, a body which brings together more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost a relation due to the prolonged conflict and who today, through various initiatives, support peace, reconciliation and tolerance.
On Sunday (14 January), the so-called ‘Holy Land Co-ordination 2018’ will celebrate Mass with the small Christian community in Gaza, followed by a visit to the Missionaries of Charity House of Peace. The next day, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem will present to the bishops its aim to promote education as an instrument of peace and justice. This will be followed by a series of visits to Christian schools administered directly by the Latin Patriarchate.
On Wednesday, in Emmaus El Qubeibeh, the delegation is due to visit a home for the elderly and will meet some young volunteers working there. Brother Peter Bray, Vice-Rector of the University of Bethlehem, will present the Qubeibeh Nursing Programme (QNP), a programme which offers job opportunities for young people in a largely rural area with high levels of unemployment and many social and political problems.
The Co-ordination’s raison d’être, it says, can be expressed through ‘3 Ps’ – Prayer, Pilgrimage, Persuasion: Prayer – as the framework; Pilgrimage – visiting Catholic communities individually and in groups; and Persuasion – when the bishops return home and speak to their own governments, Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors and the media about the issues which have come to the fore during the trip.
Bishop Donal McKeown was keeping an open mind about what might happen on his return next Thursday. He agreed that much can come about through personal relationships. “Who knows what could come out?” he said.