Patriarch Twal calls on Catholics to follow Pope Francis and visit and pray for the Holy Land
by Simone Cantarini
The Patriarch of Jerusalem talks about his meeting with the Pope. "The Holy Father is eager to visit the land where it all began." Syria's civil war, Israeli occupation and economic hardships are pushing more and more Christians to leave the Middle East. The patriarch mentions the work of new parishes set up in refugee camps in Jordan to help Christians and Muslims, and makes an appeal to pray for peace.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "Pope Francis will come to Jerusalem. He is eager and happy to visit one day the land where it all began," said His Beatitude Fouad Twal, patriarch of Jerusalem, who on Monday visited the pope along with a delegation from the Church of the Holy Land. "Two days ago, I co-celebrated the Mass with him," a moved prelate told AsiaNews. "It was nice to meet a person, a man so open and easy-going."

"In this Year of Faith, visit our land and our Church, mother of all Catholic Churches," the prelate said in an appeal to Catholics around the world. "We rely on the prayers and solidarity of you, pilgrims. Your embrace helps Christians in the Holy Land face adversity. "

During their meeting in the Vatican, Pope Francis and Patriarch Twal spoke of the plight of Christians in the Middle East, touched by Syria's civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and high unemployment, which are forcing more and more of them to emigrate, especially to Latin America.

Since 1967, about 35 per cent of Christians have left the Holy Land. If this trend continues, by 2020 they will be only 1.6 per cent of the population. The picture is made worse by 300,000 Catholics and Orthodox who fled the war in Syria and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians forced to leave their country because of ongoing Islamist attacks.

"Pope Francis," Twal noted, "is very close to our Church and to the Christians of the Middle East." The two religious leaders met for the first time in 2011 in Buenos Aires when, as the patriarch said, "I travelled to Argentina to visit families that had emigrated there. I was able to see how open and easy going Cardinal Bergoglio is."

Citing some of the stories the faithful told him, the bishop said that the cardinal took upon himself the responsibility of running parishes and dioceses left without bishops or priests. "Through the rapport he developed," he came to know and share the tragedies and difficult situation of the Church in the Middle East."

Among the issues discussed with the Pope, Patriarch Twal emphasised the great work of the Catholic community in Jordan, which has been involved for months with Caritas in helping thousands of Syrian refugees, many of whom found shelter within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate in Amman.

Near the Zaatari refugee camp, in the north of the country, the Latin Church has set up four new parishes to enable displaced Christians to go to church and school. "Children's education is available for all the families living in the camp," Twal said, "and schools are open from morning to evening."

The Patriarch of Jerusalem also talked about the efforts of the Latin Church in favour of interfaith dialogue in the Middle East, a region divided by ethnic and religious hatreds.

 "The Christians in the Holy Land are an expression of the universal Church," he explained. "Their mission is to be a bridge between Muslims and Jews." Unfortunately, that is not always possible.

"With the Jewish community, relations only involve religious leaders. Ordinary people tend to stay away from such openings because they are of a religious but also ethnic and linguistic nature. Christians in the Holy Land are mostly ethnic Palestinian and speak Arabic."

Relations with Muslims are easier. "With us, they endure the occupation of the Palestinian territories and suffer the same abuse. Both communities are struggling to find work, move from one place to another and often have to watch the destruction of their homes to make way for Israeli settlements. All are the victims of hatred and divisions triggered by the settlers' expansion. This is also harmful to Israel, whose people is increasingly isolated."

"As I told the pope," Twal noted, "we need the support, solidarity and prayers of Catholics around the world. Pray for the end of the Israeli occupation and for peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Middle East."