"If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither" (Ps 137:5)

HL1.jpgFranciscan Friar Joseph Nasanathan is Commissary of the Holy Land representing the Dioceses of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. He shares his thoughts on the effects of the Mideast conflict. 

Left, Friar Joseph Nasanathan with the Palestinian Arab Catholic children who are taken care of by the religious congregations in the old historic city of Jerusalem

I HAD THE privilege of visiting the Holy Land together with a group of pilgrims from Singapore just after Easter this year. The trip was my first and what an experience it was for me! It was as if every valley and every stone was sharing with me that the Lord walked there 2,000 years ago.

As the guide explained the significance of the places, every little town and city in our Bible history came alive.

I must express gratitude to the Christians who have preserved these places of Christian shrines right from the early period of Christianity. If it isn't for this existing Christian population, we would have no trace of these significant pilgrimage sites whatsoever.

Indeed, the Land of the Lord continues to be the scene of a conflict that has lasted decades and deprives Catholic communities and institutions of the adequate means to maintain and promote religious, humanitarian and cultural activities. This distressing situation leads to poverty and unemployment, with serious consequences for families and for the entire population. It also increases the disturbing phenomenon of the constant exodus of Christians, especially young couples for whom there is no prospect of a safe and dignified future.

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During my visit to the little town of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, I was taken aback that the town is surrounded by high walls not unlike a prison.

Imagine having to go through a military check point just to enter this Holy City to say "Hi" to baby Jesus! What a contradiction to the incarnation (God becoming man) that took place in Bethlehem that is to bridge mankind to God. As the late pope John Paul II said, "What they need are bridges of reconciliation, not walls of division."

During the pilgrimage, I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; it was done close to the rock (Golgotha) where Christians believe was where the cross of Jesus stood. During the Eucharistic prayer, I felt the Lord ever so present in our celebration and that he is still praying for the entire world to overcome the sin of selfishness and division.

That Mass was also a healing experience for me, filling me with an awareness of how much I need the Lord's peace to bring healing and reconciliation in my ministry.

It is ironic that the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is also the burial place of Jesus (the tomb of the resurrection), has been divided and is controlled by various Christian Churches. This church is so sacred to Christians because of the significance of the paschal events that brings about unity and peace. So why does it now stand divided? How true the words of Scripture, "They divided my garment among them (Mk 15:24)."

The only thing that comes to my mind is the message of Pope Benedict XVI which he gave on Jun 23, 2005 at the meeting of the Assembly of the Eastern Churches.

"The hope that the day of reconciliation between the various communities working in the Holy Land will not be long in coming; for this, let us unceasingly pray with trust. This is the responsibility incumbent upon the universal church with regard to the Mother Church of Jerusalem, to which all Christians have an unforgettable obligation."

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Role of Singapore church

The churches in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei have been very generous in their support of the call of the Supreme Pontiffs and they have always shown the greatest concern for the Christian communities in the Holy Land.

Every year during Lent/Holy Week, the entire church is called to make special prayers and to give financial assistance to the needs of the church in the Holy Land.

This year the collection from the Diocese of Singapore amounted to S$126,658 which will certainly be of great help for the upkeep of the Holy places and above all, the pastoral, charitable and social works which the Mother Church supports in the Holy Land for the welfare both of their Christian brethren and of  local communities.

With the present crisis they are facing, the war in the Middle East, their need will be even greater than before. What else can we do? Let us come together and offer prayers for peace in the region, for the welfare of the innocent who are caught in the conflict, for the safety and strength of the Christian community, the priests, religious, especially the Franciscan friars (OFM) in whose custody the Mother Church (the Pope) has entrusted the pastoral and spiritual care of the local Christian community and the holy sites.

The pilgrims I travelled with have suggested that we come together for a prayer vigil for these needs. I thought it was a brilliant idea! Our awareness of the needs of the suffering church should stir us to be in solidarity with them. Prayers offered either as prayer vigil, family prayer or personal prayer are great ways to share the spirit of faith and charity.

This brings to mind my journey in the Sea of Galilee, of the story of Peter and the early followers who once faced a violent storm. Their prayerful requests awakened the Lord to command, "Peace! (Mk 4:39)". If the Lord could calm the mighty power of nature and instill peace by the prayer of the church, surely he would do great things for this blessed land.

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