05/07/2020, 17.39
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Priest in the Holy Land: COVID-19 boosts solidarity and thirst for God

The pandemic has led to the rediscovery of religion and enhanced Islamic-Christian collaboration. Physical distancing, social media, the Internet and television have become the tools of a form of new evangelisation. Three activities have been proposed for the month of May aimed at boosting participation and ecumenism. Some US,000 have been raised and two tonnes of food collected for Bethlehem. Muslims have also joined the initiative.

Reneh (AsiaNews) – Many positive elements will emerge from the crisis and the difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this according to Fr Raed Abu Sahlieh, parish priest at the Saint Joseph the Worker parish in Reneh (Reineh), Galilee, three kilometres from Nazareth.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that the first good thing to come out of this crisis is the "the desire and thirst for God", as well as a "renewed sense of spirituality" and a "greater search for the Church. Even people who usually did not attend [church services] now complain about the closure” of places of worship.

An atmosphere of "generosity and solidarity” seems to prevail “among people, even among Christians of different confessions as well as Muslims,” he explained. “I hope this can continue in the future.”

Now daily life is different as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, which did not hit Israel and Palestine as badly as Europe and the United States. “When we lost our normal life, people began to appreciate health, the freedom of going out, working, doing simple things like going to a restaurant or travelling. Families rediscovered the role of the home Church.”

"At the community level,” Fr Raed said, “we increased the use of the media and boosted evangelisation on new social messaging platforms like Facebook, Zoom,[*] and WhatsApp. We made the most of them and turned them into tools to keep ties alive.”

His diocese covers three countries: Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Since travel from one area to the other was no longer possible, "as priests of the patriarchate we promoted online meetings, with Fathers studying in Rome, or in the United States. We realised that instead of travelling we can use these tools to their full potential in the future, once the pandemic is over.”

Fr Raed Abu Sahlieh was born on 25 June 1965 in Zababdeh, Palestine. He entered the minor seminary of the Latin Patriarchate in 1977, and was ordained priest in 1990. In 2013 he was appointed secretary of Caritas Jerusalem, becoming its general director the following year.

On 15 August 2017, he came to Saint Joseph the Worker parish in Reneh, a village of about 20,000 people, including 3,000 Christians divided in Latins, Greek-Melkites, Anglicans and Orthodox.

"To strengthen evangelisation,” he said half-jokingly, “I developed a small mobile TV since the start of the coronavirus outbreak that I bring with me when I visit people, thanks to which I can show Masses, rosaries, services.”

“For the month of May, which is dedicated to Our Lady, the parish is undertaking three activities.” The first is “the recitation of the Rosary with one family at a time, a brief meditation and a Mass with a small group of people,” up to 20 today.

The second activity is family visits to seniors and the sick, with the priest and nuns distributing the communion to everyone in the family, “carried live on social media, so family members abroad can follow,” Fr Raed said.

The third and last activity, on Fridays, involved inviting “a priest from a different Christian community to say the Rosary with me. Tomorrow the Anglican pastor will come; next week it will be the Greek Melkite pastor; last will be the Orthodox,” all this in a spirit of ecumenism.

Solidarity goes beyond Christian communities, and embraces Muslims as well. “The city has handed out boxes with food to more than a thousand families, including 300 Christians, without discrimination. We at the parish have contributed more than US,400. Our scout group worked hard to deliver the parcels to Christian and Muslim families.”

“We also held a day of solidarity with Bethlehem, which has been on a lockdown since 25 February. As it depends on tourism and pilgrimages, it is facing hard times. In one day, we raised US,000 and collected 13 tonnes of food. Several Muslim families in Reneh also joined with enthusiasm ... At the end of the day, I was truly amazed by such a lively and supportive community.”

The authorities shut down all activities in March. Schools closed on 13 March, but the Christian school (founded in 1878) continues to operate with the remote education. “We have 1,150 pupils of different ages.

“Recently, some have gone back to the classroom, especially those who had to take an exam. For the rest, we are providing remote education programmes, which have been enough of a success, even among the younger students, that they received the congratulations of the Education Ministry.”

During this period of closure and distancing, “we have used technology and our pastoral creativity to help the community fully experience Easter celebrations. These initiatives continue even now. Every evening at 6 pm I ring the bells and recite the Angelus and offer a brief reflection with the loud speaker, ending with a blessing. Muslims also listen and participate.”

“On 22 April, at the start of Ramadan, I sent greetings from the church bell tower and Muslims thanked me, sending me numerous invitations to an Iftar dinner to mark the end of the daily fast.

“Until today, I have not been able to accept any invitation because of travel restrictions, but I join them in fasting, every Friday. Tomorrow, for the first time, I will be able accept an invitation and I will visit a Muslim friend.”

[*] A video-conferencing app.

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