Looking to the future of the Holy Land Coordination

By Harry Hagopian
January 10, 2016

The Holy Land Coordination (HLC) may sound a bit of a mouthful, or even a tad pretentious – but in the words of its organisers and facilitators, this important acronym brings together a bench of Catholic bishops from Europe, North America and South Africa who travel to the Holy Land every January for a few days. It was set up at the end of the 20th century upon the invitation of the Holy See, and its key purpose is to visit and support Arab Christian indigenous communities in the Holy Land.

In the words of Alexander DesForges, Head of Media at the Catholic Church, three P-words have come to express the remit of the HLC: Prayer, Pilgrimage and Pressure. Perhaps there should also be a fourth P: Presence. The bishops are indeed present every year, and by their very presence they hope to remind the “living stones” (1 Peter 2.4-5) of the Christian communities in the Holy Land that they are not forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the other corners of our global village. After all, do these communities not often remind us in the West that they feel like the ‘Forgotten Faithful’?

Pilgrimage is one of the most transformative aspects of this annual journey. The bishops going to Israel, Palestine and Jordan do so to visit those local Catholic communities and share in their Sunday liturgy, meet their civic leaders or local politicians and engage with their parishioners. Over the years, the visiting bishops (I sometimes refer to them as the ‘flying bishops’, but not in the Anglican sense of the word!) have often heard pleas for more pilgrims to come from their home countries in order to show solidarity with the local communities. In fact, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales – the organising body for the HLC – to encourage pilgrimages where people take the time to walk and talk rather than simply jump in and out of tourist buses.

Pressure, a softer version of which might be Persuasion, refers to the work to be done once the bishops go back home where they speak to their own governments, deputies or parliamentarians, Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors and – more critically – the media about a wide range of issues blunting the lives of local Christians. In so doing, those members of the HLC delegation underline the need for dignity, justice and peace for those communities in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and across the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

In January 2016, for instance, the organisers of the Holy Land Coordination chose to focus on the vulnerable Christians in Gaza and Beit Jala who often experience marginalisation, disenfranchisement and even ostracism from their own communities. The focus also fell this year on the refugees from Iraq and Syria in Jordan.

From a faith-centred perspective, or at least on paper, all this might sound quite impressive. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of such a delegation that visits the Holy Land year-in-year-out?

I suppose that the three or four P’s guiding this movement undergird the very ethos and strength of the group visiting those different towns and meeting with the differing communities. There is a sense of solidarity and togetherness that energises Arab Christians who see their fellow believers from faraway climes telling them their woes are not ignored and that they are part of the Oneness of the Body of Christ.

However, there are in my opinion four critical points where the HLC fails to meet its challenge:

First, the meetings in the Holy Land should be more ecumenical and must go beyond the Catholic constituencies in an attempt to interact with other Churches. After all, the Holy Land is a koinonia of thirteen traditional churches, and focusing only on the Catholic dimension at the expense of the other communities - be they Greek Orthodox, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox, Lutheran or Anglican - diminishes the outreach and effectiveness of such a potent movement.

Second, the HLC remains quite hierarchical in its approach. The meetings gravitate around the leaders of churches or communities. I would be much more heartened if they meet the plethora of NGO’s and CRO’s that are doing a wonderful job in Israel, Palestine or Jordan - be they in terms of justice and peace issues or else for the refugees that need more attention. In fact, some of the Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s have a much better understanding of the realities in the Holy Land than church leaders whose very vocation could be self-limiting at times.

Third, the visits should also be more proactive and daring in terms of their inter-religious dimension. It is a fact that Christians do not constitute more than a few meagre percentage points of the overall populace in those biblical lands. Christians, as I have often emphasised in the past and much to the annoyance of some leaders, are devoutly Christian by faith but broadly Muslim by culture. In our troubled world today, with the Arab uprisings, no appreciation of the Christian presence and witness could be complete without introducing the Muslim component into it.

Fourth and finally, and perhaps much more critically, the Bishops who take part in the HLC travels should be willing to speak out boldly about the injustices they witness during their travels. They should stop acting like politicians who massage their words and cherry-pick their ideas and opt to speak out the truth instead – harshly and unabashedly if necessary – whether about the vagaries and excesses of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands or the growing fear of radicalism by Islam and its wearying effect upon those small Arab Christian communities. Tiptoeing around those issues in order not to offend anyone, or conversely saying too much with an exiguous understanding of the issues, is counter-productive and does not subscribe to those four ethical P’s. As Pope Francis has shown the world since 13 March 2013, it is vital at times to cause discomfort and not be weak-kneed with our responses.

The Holy Land Coordination distinguishes itself as a unique and laudable project for bringing the considerable moral weight of the Catholic Church and its social teachings into play. But it should recall the eight Beatitudes that Jesus spoke of in his Sermon on the Mount. So how much of an impact will those annual travels have depends largely on the bishops themselves and their organisers.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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