Planning a Spiritual Retreat:
Last November 2015, the Catholic Coordination Committee (CCAO) in Jerusalem- a consortium of 13 Catholic aid and Church entities, had its regular meeting and in my capacity as Chair of the committee at that time, received an invitation from the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” to plan a spiritual retreat on the theme Caritas Christi urget nos on the occasion of the Year of Mercy. A committee was established and plans were made to have the retreat during Lent -on Wednesday 9 March 2016. A couple of weeks ago, a beautiful program was created and many of us were anticipating the time off from our busy schedules to spiritually reflect on our work and the Year of Mercy; to contemplate the meaning to be a Christian, working in a Catholic institution and the ways we can apply the teachings of our Lord to our work, and come to reason with the violence, hate, and inhumanity that continues to ensue in the Holy Land.
Another day in Jerusalem:
This morning, I set out with two colleagues from our office at New Gate and crossed the street to the Notre Dame Center. We were to meet other colleagues from sister institutions and drive to the retreat in Bethlehem. As we were waiting in the parking lot, gunfire erupted just outside of the Notre Dame Center. Out of curiosity, we made our way to the street to see what had just happened and suddenly, another round began and we quickly retreated. We could see police surrounding a car that was riddled with bullet holes and shattered glass. Two dead bodies were dragged out of the car, stepped on and guns pointed at them while other police officers stripped off their clothes right in the middle of the road. In the mass hysteria, I could see a number of civilians getting out of their cars, drawing their guns while running to the scene. All I could think was: who are all these “civilians” and, why do they need to draw their weapons when there was a heavy police present at the scene? Clearly, the armed “civilians” were trying to become heroes, participating in a killing match and were eager to speak to reporters who had arrived at the scene thereafter. Still in shock at the scene that had just unfolded before us, we were abruptly ordered by police to stay inside the Notre Dame property. What we could gather from previous reports that two armed Palestinians shot at an Israeli bus in the settlement of Ramot -to the north of Jerusalem, and fled the scene. Police traced and chased the car until it reached the traffic jam at the Notre Dame entrance. Once the car was cornered by the traffic, police moved in and a shootout erupted killing both men inside the car, with no regard to other drivers, car passengers or pedestrians. The use of excessive force has been the trend since the latest violence started in October 2015 where any Palestinian who commits or acts in suspicion to harm Israelis should be killed (not neutralized) on the spot. Questions can be asked later, as the instructions are very clear. A few months ago, The Swedish Foreign Minister raised the issue about what appears to be excessive use of force and the possibility of extra-judicial killings, however she was verbally attacked by the Israeli government for her statements, and thus no real debate or questioning has taken place since then.
The violence gets closer to home:
After a few minutes, one of our dear collaborators, Jamal Qaqish, who is a security guard at the Notre Dame, came from the scene in panic, his jacket drenched with blood. Evidently, he was coming to work in a car with his neighbor, Imad Abu Ali, another Christian from East Jerusalem. Their car was right next to the targeted car. Imad could not escape from his driver’s side door and was hit by a bullet in the jaw and had fainted on Jamal’s shoulder. He was later taken to the hospital in critical condition. According to Jamal, he had asked “why did they shoot at us?” before fainting.
The what‐if scenarios:
My colleagues and I could not help but ask the “what if” scenario that could have happened to other innocent bystanders – those that could have been seriously hurt as the hundreds of bullets sprayed indiscriminately in all directions in just a span of a minute or two. The “what if” scenario with all the commotion and hysteria by not just the police and special forces, but also of ordinary Israeli citizens armed with handguns who feel they have the right to interfere in such situations. We can’t help but to think of our good friend, Reem Akroush of the German Association of the Holy Land, who walked to the Notre Dame and reached its gate just a minute before the shooting. She was clearly shaken and confided that if she had been one minute late, she would have been caught up in the crossfire. Our dear friends from the Secretariat Solidarity, Saint Yves Society, Caritas Jerusalem, and Society of Saint Vincent de Paul all reached the area just minutes, if not seconds before the incident unfolded. As a matter of fact, I went up to the Chairman of the CCAO, Tony Khashram and thanked him for being late since he was the reason why we were waiting in the parking lot and not in the middle of the shooting! To think that just a split second of precious time – many good men and women, who work in our charitable institutions and were heading to the retreat at that time, would have been caught up in harm’s way! As the roads and checkpoints were shut down for some two hours, we had no choice but to cancel the retreat.
Need to remain focused ‐ Mercy at work:
The tragedy that could have been points to the fact that someone was truly watching over us and the act of mercy was directed upon us. I thank God that we are all safe today and that even though we did not have our retreat, it was still a day of reflection of God’s many graces.
In the midst of all the violence of our land, we have an obligation to be faithful to the Works of Mercy as communicated to us in the documents circulated by the Pontifical Council:
“The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities” and plan our life and work to fulfill “ the seven corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; Between New Gate and Notre Dame Center Scene of the attack shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead; as well as to honor the seven spiritual works of mercy: counsel the doubtful; instruct the ignorant; admonish the sinner; comfort the afflicted; forgive offences; bear wrongs patiently; and pray for the living and the dead.”
God was certainly merciful, and during this Lent, I pray to God to give us the strength to cope with our circumstances and the violence that surrounds us; to help us focus on the positive so that we do not lose sight of who we are and where we work, and more importantly, of our sacred mission to serve those who are less fortunate than us. May God watch over those in need as he watched over all of us today.
Please keep us in your prayers.
CNEWA – Pontifical Mission