By Judith Sudilovsky
JERUSALEM (CNS) — With pandemic restrictions almost fully lifted, churches and shopkeepers alike are hopeful that the streets of Jerusalem will fill up once again as Easter, Passover and Ramadan converge.
Joseph Hazboun, regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association-Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, noted that the pandemic has left its mark not only on people in the tourism industry but also on some monasteries and convents that depend on the sales of their homemade products. Though there are signs of returning pilgrims, he said, it is still a long way off from the high numbers of three years ago.
[Related: U.S. Catholics Urged to Donate to Good Friday Collection for Holy Land]
And with the continuing unchecked vandalism attacks on church property, especially but not only in Jerusalem, Christians feel threatened, he said.
“It affects the presence of Christians and the church,” he said.
In addition to vandalism, in March, Israelis and Palestinians saw an increase in violence. In early March, seven Palestinians were killed in separate clashes with Israeli forces, and in late March three terrorist attacks that killed 11 people left Israelis reeling.
On April 2, the patriarchs and heads of local churches of Jerusalem condemned the violence and called on Christians, Muslims and Jews to show mutual respect for one another at the rare confluence of the three major religious holidays. They called on government authorities to “exercise policies of religious tolerance, restraint of force, and de-escalation of conflict,” commending them for the extent to which they have done so thus far.
“In these coming weeks that are sacred to our respective religious traditions, we encourage all people of good faith to walk in the pathway of peace that is so central to the symbolism of Jerusalem, the City of Peace. In this way, we can be true witnesses to the world of the common vision of peace/ shalom/salaam that is enshrined within the heart of our separate but intertwined religious beliefs,” they said.
This is not the first cycle of violence the Holy Land has experienced, said Sami El-Yousef, chief executive officer of the Latin Patriarchate, and the region has always found a way to rise above it all during religious celebrations.
“If we are faithful to our religion — regardless whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian — the upcoming season must present a different track to take us all back to the basics and celebrate the majesty of Jerusalem.” He said the season must be “the symbol of unity and peace rather than division and violence.”
“I am optimistic that we will all rise above the current cycle and strengthen our faith and that special relationship with our one God in the coming weeks.”
Having just returned from Gaza, El-Yousef noted that the Christian community was “very happy” that this year, for the Easter holiday, 720 Israeli travel permits for 80 days were issued. Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Gaza Strip for more than 15 years.
In the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Reem Abunassar, 46, who teaches religious education at St. Joseph Catholic Parish, is still traumatized by the riots last year in Israeli mixed cities at the end of Ramadan, when violence broke out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Her four young adult daughters were attacked by a Jewish mob in front of their house.
During Lent she has been praying for peace, she said.
“To get into the spirit of Easter, I pray each and every day that there will be peace in the world,” she said. “I don’t believe in any violence, in any terrorist attacks, in killing of any kind. This is not in my religion. I believe in peace, and I believe that peace will one day prevail, because I pray a lot for this.”
Sister Bridget Tighe, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood and general director of Caritas Jerusalem, noted that while this Easter season people are hoping the economy will slowly get back on track, especially with the return of tourism in Bethlehem, West Bank, it will take time, and there is still need for assistance.
In his call for the Good Friday Collection for the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, noted how the unprecedented situation of the past two years has affected the Christian communities throughout the Middle East.
“With difficulty we have tried to support materially the weakest communities: the community of Bethlehem and that of Jerusalem, with no more pilgrims and no work; the communities of Lebanon, devastated by an increasingly economic and political crisis; those of Syria, which remains like a prisoner of a war that seems to never end. Also this year on Good Friday, please remember us, your brothers and sisters who live in the Holy Land. Help us according to the generosity of your heart, remembering the words of our Lord Jesus: ‘There is more joy in giving than in receiving'” he said in the statement.