BEIT JALLA, West Bank — A U.S. bishop visiting the Holy Land for the second year in a row said Palestinians whose land has been divided by the Israeli separation barrier "have lost hope."
"It was very sad to see the present situation where individuals have their lands confiscated and trees uprooted," said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M. "This is a sign of something much larger. It seems to be a diminishing of the rights of Palestinians to be there and a lack of acknowledgment of their legitimate right to be present whether in the state of Israel or in Palestinian lands."
Cantu and 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America visited the Cremisan Valley Jan. 10 as part of the Holy Land Coordination, in which they come to show solidarity with Palestinian Christians.
More than 55 Christian families had their land confiscated by Israelis in this agricultural valley adjacent to the village of Beit Jalla to make room for the Israeli separation barrier, despite years of legal attempts to have the route of the barrier moved. The barrier is a series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads snaking across part of the valley.
Meeting with Cremisan Valley landowner Nahleh Abu Eid, 76, who had 15 trees uprooted and lost free access to his remaining agricultural land, helped the bishops remember the situation was not "simply politics" but about "people's lives and about their dignity," said Cantu.
"They had held out hope the land would be saved," he said. "Getting their hopes up [only to have them broken] does no good."
Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian Authority spokesman and Nahleh Abu Eid's nephew, told the group that the same young people who, last year, had been attending Mass every Friday to bring attention to their plight were now throwing rocks the Israeli checkpoint.
"They have lost hope," said Cantu.
The elder Abu Eid told the bishops their visit was a sign that they were sharing in the difficult situation of the Palestinians.
During the visit to the site where construction has started and a smoothened dirt road cuts through a wide swatch of the land where olive trees used to stand, border police arrived. After initially requesting that the bishops leave, they waited as the bishops received a briefing from lawyer Raffoul Rofa of the Society of St. Yves Catholic Center for Human Rights. Rofa explained that, in theory, the landowners are to be allowed to reach their land to harvest their olives through a series of gates, but past experience has shown that such a system rarely works as it should and usually, in practice, the farmers are unable to gain access to the trees or to harvest as they normally would.
As they left, some visitors spoke with the border police, one of whom asked to be photographed with the bishops. South African Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town was the only one who agreed to the photo.
"Coming from apartheid South Africa I realize ... that the people involved were not bad people, they were caught up in a particular situation and they didn't question and didn't know what was going on," he said. "Therefore, I don't see these two soldiers as bad people, but they are part of a system and they don't understand the injustice and oppression being caused."
At a Mass at the Beit Jalla's Annunciation Parish, concelebrated with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the patriarch told the parishioners the bishops' visit was significant not only because the Holy Land Coordination has been coming in a show of support for the local community since 1998, but also because of the important work of advocacy they do when they go back to their countries.
"They are the voice of the local Christians and express our fears for the future," said Twal. Their message, he said, was one of "prayer and pilgrimage."
"Military strength cannot give us the peace. The most important thing is the prayers. The world seems not to be listening, but we continue our prayers, and that is a very important message. With your faith, with your prayers we can make a difference, we can make a change."
After greeting the parishioners as a Scout marching band regaled the bishops with bagpipes and drums, Cantu noted the importance of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, especially during difficult times.
"The violence has not hurt tourists and pilgrims. There are skirmishes here and there, but generally pilgrimages are very safe. It is most important to come on pilgrimage to support the Christian community here when tourists are staying away," he said.
"Christians are effectively being squeezed out and understandably at any opportunity they can, they [leave] ... because of the checkpoints, their inability to reach their jobs so they can make a living, in Gaza they can't get out to visit family," he added. "Our job is to encourage them to stay here if they can and to advocate for them politically so they have the space and energy to work and live in peace and flourish."
Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.
After two days of visits in the West Bank, the bishops left Jan. 10 for Jordan, where they were to meet and celebrate Mass with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.