Testimony of Father Juan Maria Solana, Director of the Magdala Project, Israel
Given the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has halted the tourist activity in the Holy Land, the holy places and Christian institutions, as well as Christian workers, are not receiving the income generated by these activities.
In this connection, Father Juan Maria Solana highlights the importance of the Good Friday Collection for the Holy Land, held worldwide and postponed this year until September 13, given that these resources make possible the subsistence of the local Church in this well-known geographic area and, eventually, “for modest growth or life insurance.”
In fact, as Father Solana points out, the Catholic community and institutions would not be able to be maintained if there wasn’t a reserve from this means.
The Magdala Project
In 2005, Father Solana, priest of the Legionaries of Christ, began the Magdala Project, located in the area of Israel known as the ancient city of Mary Magdalene.
From the beginning, the idea was to point out Jesus’ ministry in the area of Lake Galilee, its art to attract people and transform their lives. The intention is to use the place for prayer, praise, meditation, formation, and the spiritual growth of people of all religions.
Last November 24, Magdala opened a new hospitality center for pilgrims and visitors. The project — carried out in the main by Mexicans, including its present Director, Father Solana –, is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the north of Israel.
The Center has 160 rooms, the majority with balconies and a view of the Sea of Galilee, as well as the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala, and includes ample areas for prayer, meditation, and reflection.
Zenit talked with Father Solana to learn more about the situation in the Holy Land and in Magdala, after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and of Christians in this sacred place.
Father Solana said that, as is the case of all Catholic institutions in the Holy Land, the health emergency has affected Magdala “indirectly.” Israel was one of the countries that implemented security and prevention measures faster, and this included “not letting people enter the country or if they were allowed in, the imperative to follow the quarantine regime of isolation.
Israel was “shielded completely” and measures were taken immediately of confinement, social distancing, the use of masks and gloves, public places were closed and meetings of more than 10 people were banned.”
The above resulted in a “complicated “ social situation. Holy places were obliged to close from one day to the next.
Disappearance of Pilgrims
As a result, pilgrims disappeared “practically from night to morning,” said the priest, and, as in the rest of the holy places, hotels and pilgrims’ houses, Magdala “was emptied immediately.”
The closure of Magdala has caused “very serious and painful challenges,” given the lack of income and the necessary measures that the Center’s staff must observe. The community itself has had to limit itself to “the indispensable minimum,” a very exacting quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Progressive Lifting of the Confinement
Despite all, the situation has its positive side: Israel is one of the States with the best data on the coronavirus. “Although more than 13,000 were infected, the number of dead has been very low.” In many cases, the latter were people with underlying health issues.”
Now, “after a month,” Israel is beginning to lift the confinement progressively, and “some establishments have been allowed to open,” as well as factories producing basic goods.
The Christian Community in the Holy Land
The Christian and Catholic community in the Holy Land is very small, “a very “small minority of Israel’s population” and of that of the Palestinian territories. According to the latest figures that Father Solana is aware of, Christians number no more than 250,000 people.
As a minority, the Christian community has to assume these adverse circumstances: with much solitude, frequently without consistent support of its rights.” Moreover, this group lives in the main from pilgrimages and religious tourism. The ceasing of activities has meant the collapse “of many businesses,” at least temporarily.
The Importance of Tourism
“Hotels, guides, drivers, buses, transport, restaurants, souvenir shops, holy places, everything is closed, and the majority of their workers are Christians.
The Mexican priest believes that the Christian sector of the population is one of the most affected and that will take longer to recover economically, as their activities are not “of strict necessity,” as are food, hygiene, and education.
The delay in the reactivation of tourist activities does not only have to do with the fact that the places are closed, but with the new economic situation of people, generated by the pandemic’s economic slowdown, which means they won’t be able to travel to the Holy Land and other places.
The “Tsunami Effect”
“Thank God, and the efficacy and care of the Government’s measures, Israel has not suffered the health crisis witnessed in other countries. Nevertheless, there has been what the Legionary of Christ priest calls a “tsunami effect.” This means that it’s necessary to maintain many institutions without economic resources or with very scarce ones.
Father Solana referred to institutions and individuals that have debts and the time they’ll need to service them. The economic recovery is certainly a “great challenge.”
Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue
The Magdala Pilgrim Center has always kept in contact with Christians of different denominations, and with Jews and Muslims. Nevertheless, like all relations, the ecumenical and inter-religious have also been affected.
Although activities have been suspended, Father Solana said that ecumenical and inter-religious prayer events have been held “asking God” for the speedy defeat of “the coronavirus and its consequences.”
For instance, a “profound and beautiful moment of prayer and union” was organized in Jerusalem, which brought together Muslims, Jews, Druze, and Christians of different denominations.
“When we all have a common enemy to overcome we unite in some way,” and prayer is one of the means with which we can overcome, “because God is the One who guides all the threads of history,” specified the Mexican priest.
“Moral Support” to the Holy Land
In regard to the way the Christian world can help the Holy Land, Father Solana mentioned moral support, which implies to “love” this place and to foster questions such as the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Likewise, one can contribute to the promotion of the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in this area, “because we live on the border of religions and on the border of worlds and civilizations.”
Foment Tourist Activity
In fact, there are practical and material ways of supporting the community of these sacred places. The first is to go on pilgrimage, when possible, to foment religious tourist activity of which Christians live off in the area.
These trips, in addition to enabling pilgrims to renew their faith and to encounter the roots of the same, give work, means of subsistence and a certain wellbeing to “a good part of our Christian brothers.”
World Collection for the Holy Land
Father Solana also mentioned the Vatican’s World Collection for the Holy Land, which is held every year on Good Friday. It implies “an important help” to maintain the institutions (schools, hospitals, orphanages . . . ), holy places, shrines, Religious Congregations . . . and also to create “residential areas for young Christians,” who otherwise would not be able to access a house.
This year — although because of the health emergency the Collection has been postponed until September –, Father Solana invites all readers to “be generous with the Holy Land” through this Collection and those they can do when they travel to it.
Aid to Magdala
The Director of the Magdala Center explained how, in the concrete case of this pilgrimage Center, the situation is delicate, following the recent opening of the Pilgrims’ House. Debts have been incurred, which were going to be paid with the affluence of people to the area, which affluence has been reduced to zero.
Therefore, although “there are resources to cover daily needs of maintenance, insurance . . . ” any help to go forward with this project “would be very appreciated,” said the priest, reminding that as “a small part of the mosaic of the Holy Land,” anything that helps this region, “also helps Magdala.”