Jerusalem (Agenzia Fides) - "We feel completely helpless. All we have left is prayer". This is how Father Frans Bouwen, a Belgian missionary of the White Fathers who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 50 years, describes to Fides the spirit with which many Christians in the Holy City are also experiencing the day of prayer and fasting today, October 17th. "The appeal of the Patriarch, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in the name of all the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land, to make today, Tuesday, October 17, a day of fasting and prayer for peace, has a very special impact in parishes and religious houses. There has been a broad response", he emphasizes. "Prayers are even being made from other churches", adds the missionary, who ran the renowned magazine "Proche Orient Chretien" for 46 years, from 1969 to 2015. "It is difficult for us to know how this appeal is being received in the Palestinian territories. In many places, the freedom of movement of Palestinian believers is very restricted due to the blockades imposed by the Israeli army, and it is difficult for them to gather in large numbers in the current situation. "We are encouraged to see that this appeal has been taken up by Pope Francis and many churches around the world".
Father Bouwen, who has been committed to ecumenical dialogue to promote Christian unity for decades, has always followed the needs of the people of the Middle East with passion. "Now," he reports to Fides, "we live in heavy and anxious anticipation of everything that could happen in the coming days, especially in view of the Israeli army's ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. The streets of the Old City of Jerusalem are practically empty, people only go out when necessary. The last pilgrims have disappeared from Jerusalem for two or three days." Regarding the initiatives of the churches and ecclesial communities, Father Bouwen emphasizes that the patriarchs and church leaders in Jerusalem "have published numerous appeals to stop the violence and respect the civilian population. Pope Francis has also done this in very clear words. All the criticism against the policy of the Holy See seems unfair to us." Reflecting on the massacres carried out by Hamas supporters and other groups present in the Gaza Strip, and what followed and is to come, Father Bouwen is shocked by the cruel way in which the violence has taken place in the holy city: "It is clear," he says, "that the brutal violence of Hamas's attack on the Israeli civilian population must be deplored and condemned. But Israel's legitimate self-defense response must in return respect the lives of innocent people, especially those of the 2.2 million civilians in the Gaza Strip, half of whom are children. Most of them do not identify with Hamas. The small and the poor always pay the highest price." Father Bouwen looks at today's events in the light of past and recent history. "We are witnessing a cycle of violence that has been repeating itself regularly for almost fifty years and that, in my experience of more than 50 years in Jerusalem, is becoming increasingly bloody. As Pope Francis repeatedly emphasizes, neither war nor violence can provide a solution, they cannot lead to true peace. Only a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem could put an end to this spiral of violence. But we still seem to be a long way from that." "It seems that there is a lack of courage and political will,". In this regard, he emphasizes, "there seems to be a lack of leaders who are able to speak on behalf of their peoples, to tell the truth to their peoples and to make the concessions necessary for an agreement." "Israelis and Palestinians," he adds, "do not seem to be able to find a solution on their own. There is too big a difference between the power of one and the weakness of the other. The international community bears a heavy burden of responsibility. On the one hand, it allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point it is today. On the other hand, it has the responsibility to support and help both sides in finding a solution. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 17/10/2023)