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Catholic aid workers and priests in Jerusalem finding life difficult as tensions increase

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have increased

Catholic aid workers and clergy are finding that life in Jerusalem increasingly difficult as violence between Israelis and Palestinians mount.

Acts of violence, seemingly one retaliatory measure after another, have occurred since June. Then, riots broke out in Jerusalem following the murder of a Palestinian boy. Authorities said he was killed in retaliation for the killing of three Jewish high school students outside of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Since then tensions have spilled into religious sites, with the most recent episode occurring November 18 at a synagogue in West Jerusalem, leaving four worshippers, a policeman and two attackers dead.

Priests at the two Jerusalem parishes – St. Saviour and the Hebrew-speaking parish of the House of Simeon and Anne – have offered support to parishioners who have become accustomed to the rising violence.

Father Rafic, who leads the Hebrew-speaking parish in Jewish West Jerusalem and refrains from using his last name, said that during Sunday Mass silent prayers for peace are offered. While parishioners who live within the Israeli society may have differing political points of view, politics are not discussed in the church, he said.

People are worried about the tense situation but they are not yet experiencing a sense of trauma, he said. The prayers, which are said together, and the regular Mass readings which speak of peace and tolerance are a help to his parishioners, Fr Rafic added.

“We live with this daily,” Fr Rafic said.

Fr Feras Hejazin, whose St Saviour Parish is located within the Old City, said people have grown accustomed to living with financial, social and political instability.

“Nothing is stable in Jerusalem. No one can think about their future in their businesses because of the instability,” he said.

Many Christians are involved in the tourist industry, which has been hard hit in recent months as tourists and pilgrims refrain from visiting Jerusalem because of the violence, Father Hejazin explained. Other business owners also have suffered economically as well because people are less likely to go out nowadays, he added.

“It is a problem for us, many families are in need. Even before, it was not good,” Fr Hejazin said. “All we can do is to encourage the people.”

The support comes not only in words, he said, but financially as well as the parish tries to help the people most in need.

“We are with the people in their need,” he said. “Jerusalem is becoming difficult. There is no security.”

For Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the situation in Jerusalem has made finding funding for dialogue or peacebuilding projects challenging, said Matthew McGarry, the agency’s country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza.

“It is not a conducive environment right now,” he said, explaining that his office recently completed a budget proposal for a cross-border peacebuilding project, but that prospects for finding funding to support it are slim.

A three-year effort by CRS to partially fund a Jewish-Arab dialogue group is ending and McGarry is unsure if the agency will be able to secure funding for cooperation in other such projects.

The focus for the moment is on projects in Gaza, but representatives of the US bishops’ overseas relief and development agency are keeping an eye on other possible programs and partners in Jerusalem, McGarry said.

Like almost everyone in Jerusalem, CRS staff are “apprehensive and concerned” about the situation and are adjusting their movements according to security protocols, he added.

“It is very sad at the moment,” he said. “We are hoping cooler heads will prevail.”

Since June Jerusalem has been a difficult place in which to live and work and has become a city divided not only among Jews and Palestinians but by physical barriers, said Sami El-Yousef Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s regional director for Palestine and Israel.

“It is quite unfortunate that (with) this most right wing of all governments Israel seems to be continuously pouring fuel on the fire rather than trying to extinguish it,” El-Yousef said.

He expressed concern that the Israeli government is moving toward withdrawing the residency rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, creating a serious demographic change which he expects would escalate an already tense atmosphere.

“The answer is not to beat, isolate, demolish and confiscate, separate and build more walls, but (to create) new bridges and a real honest analysis of why we are where we are today,” El-Yousef said.

He suggested that efforts be made that will lead to tolerance and coexistence so that Jerusalem could be a joint capital of two states and “a symbol of peace rather than the city that sparked a religious war whose effects will not only tear Jerusalem to pieces but will have vibrations that will hit every corner of the earth.”

He urged both sides to learn how to “share” Jerusalem and “not to claim exclusivity.”

El Yousef also called the most recent attack on a Jerusalem synagogue in which four worshippers, a policeman and the two attackers were left dead “the most deplorable” of recent attacks taking place in a place of worship.

Although CNEWA is not involved in specific peacebuilding or reconciliation projects, the organisation is working to support and strengthen church institutions working in health care, education and social services, he said.

“Our previous experiences demonstrate that the best such programs are lived and not invented and short lived,” El-Yousef explained.

“There is no better peacebuilding and reconciliation effort than in a school where Christians, Muslims and Jewish students grow up together and learn to appreciate the human face in each other, where patients at clinics and hospitals who face similar life miseries and experiences deal with them and learn to receive support from each other.”