By Lydia O’Kane
Over the course of their a six-day virtual meeting, the Bishops Co-ordination group heard from Christians across the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel about their “mission, resilience and witness in these unprecedented circumstances.”
It was the first time they had been prevented from physically meeting in the Holy Land for the annual pilgrimage - which supports local Christian communities - due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Challenges of pandemic
In a final statement, the Co-ordination group said that through their dialogue it had “become painfully clear that there is today less cause for optimism than at any time in recent history. The health challenges of Covid-19, felt by the entire world, are compounded by conflict, occupation and blockade.”
The Bishops also noted that “the absence of international pilgrims has exacerbated widespread economic hardship, increased levels of unemployment and pushed many more families into poverty.”
They underlined that “the lack of political progress, along with relentless expansion of illegal settlements and the impact of Israel’s Nation-State law, continues to erode any prospect of a peaceful two-state solution.”
As their virtual meeting concluded on Thursday, the Bishops stressed, “Now is a critical moment for us all to strengthen our expression of solidarity with the people of the Holy Land.”
Quest for peace
The statement also highlighted the importance of “the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships recommitting to direct negotiations,” while the Bishops also called on their own governments and political leaders to “urgently to renew their active participation in the search for a just peace.”
Furthermore, it said, “the international community must hold Israel accountable for its moral, legal and humanitarian responsibility to make Covid-19 vaccines accessible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and encourage cooperation by the Palestinian Authority.”
They concluded their statement with a prayer for peace.
A Bishop’s experience
The Auxillary Bishop of Birmingham, William Kenny, has been making this annual pilgrimage nearly every year from its inception in the year 2000.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, the Bishop described this year’s meeting as “very different indeed” but said that, in the confines of what they could do, it was “very successful.”
“We were talking about the poverty among some of our Palestinian sisters and brothers,” he said.
“That has come because there are no pilgrims and many are engaged in all sorts of services to pilgrims… and so there just has been no work, and so many of them have already been pushed into real poverty.”
Bishop Kenney spoke of how heartened he was by young people in Gaza and the positive attitude of school pupils, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, on a “much more depressive note,” he said, “politically there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of hope. The situation just seems to get worse and worse, and I’m afraid there was no difference this year.”
As the Holy Land Co-ordination group’s pilgrimage concludes for another year, Bishop Kenney underlined the importance of prayer.
“People give me hope,” he said, “and there are so many many good women and men who are doing wonderful things for each other. I think again one always keeps saying to our politicians they have to engage, if we could really again get them to engage, and again to put people in the middle rather than power of influence or political advantage.”