The Pope Should Go to Gaza

Newly elected Pope Joseph Ratzinger of Germany waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Tuesday, April 19, 2005. (AP Photo/ Andrew Medichini)

Deal W. Hudson
April 13, 2009

“The Holy Father should not be coming to the Holy Land without visiting Gaza.” The bitterness in his voice was obvious as the professor at Bethlehem University talked to me about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit next month. I found that his attitude is the rule, rather than the exception, among Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

In interviews conducted with over twenty Palestinian Christian leaders last week, I was surprised to discover no enthusiasm whatsoever for the upcoming papal visit. “The pope’s visit here will only legitimize the recent Israeli operation in Gaza and the intentions of the right-wing government elected in February,” the professor explained.

Palestinian Christians have expressed their concerns directly to Benedict. In a little-noticed letter of February 20, 40 members of the Christian community in the Holy Land told the pope his visit would only serve to endorse Israeli government policies, “leading to more cooperation from the United States and Europe.”

Nidal Abu Zuluf is associate director of the YMCA in Bethlehem and coordinates a network of Christian organizations. As he gave me a copy of the letter, he asked, “Why now? It’s a bad time for the pope to come, and there is no clear message unless he goes to Gaza.”

From what I saw and heard there, adding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on December 28 and the ground invasion a week later on January 3, 2009. Monsignor Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox).

Unfortunately, the itinerary of the trip, set for May 8-13, does not include Gaza – it basically repeats the schedule of Pope John Paul II from March 2000. Benedict arrives in Amman, Jordan, before visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The problem, according to Abu Zuluf, is that the Holy Land is a “very different place” than it was in 2000. Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.

Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth. Abu Zuluf, a native of Bethlehem, has not been able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem since 1993, even though it is just a few miles away. Sadly, his situation is typical for Christians in Bethlehem and the adjacent, largely Christian cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

According to Br. Jack Curran, vice president for development of Bethlehem University, students in religion classes are routinely denied permits to travel out of the city. Even worse, he told me, “We can’t get permission from Israel for any students to attend the university from Gaza.” In spite of the government obstacles, Bethlehem University has mounted a new effort to engage students from Gaza. Brother Curran told me, “The university needs help from American Catholics both politically, to get Israeli permission for these young people to come to Bethlehem, and financially, to support their living and educational costs.”

The Christians living in the Holy Land will view Benedict’s visit through the lens of the recent Israeli offensive, which left 1,417 dead in Gaza, including 313 children. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-20s, who comes from one of the oldest and most prominent Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. Imagine the power of the Holy Father speaking from a Catholic parish in the midst of the devastation of Gaza. Benedict could not only speak to the issue of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but could also issue an invitation to Catholics around the world to follow his example and visit the Holy Land.

A significant and lasting increase in Catholic pilgrims would provide financial help for both Israel and Palestine, moral support for Palestinian Christians, and an opportunity for Catholics to see the situation on the ground for themselves. The Palestinian Christian community is on life support, and the pope cannot ignore it.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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