Pope’s visit brings hope to Holy Land refugees

During his time as a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and into the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis has demonstrated his deep concern for society’s most vulnerable and downtrodden. He has called for prayers for the people of Syria deeply embroiled in a bloody civil war, and he has emphasized the need for a universal change in attitude of “defensiveness and fear, indifference” toward migrants and refugees.

Indeed, the needs of refugees has remained one of his priorities since the beginning of his papacy, and his first official trip outside of Rome as pontiff was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. There, he commemorated the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have died crossing the sea from northern Africa in their attempt to flee wars and authoritarian regimes in their native countries. And he lamented the rampant apathy toward other people’s suffering.

“We have become used to other people’s suffering; it doesn’t concern us, it doesn’t interest us, it’s none of our business,” he said then. “Their condition cannot leave us indifferent.”

At the beginning of the year, for the Church’s 100th annual World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis spent hours visiting Rome’s Sacro Cuore Basilica, which, in addition to reaching out to the poor and homeless of the city, also has a welcome center for young refugees and asylum seekers.

During his planned brief May pilgrimage to the Holy Land, however, Pope Francis will have little time to meet with local people. The visit has the explicit intention of commemorating the 1964 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, which served as a sign of the desire of greater reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Excited for visit

But as Palestinians and Israelis — both nations of refugees — gear up for the pope’s visit, the refuge- and asylum-seeking community living among them in Israel looks toward the pope’s visit as a sign of hope. Today in Israel there are some 54,000 African asylum-seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who have crossed over the border via Egypt. Only the first names of those interviewed were used to protect their anonymity.

“It is really good, this is a spiritual thing,” said 26-year-old Teklezghi of the pope’s visit. A Catholic asylum-seeker from Eritrea who has been in Israel for a little more than three years, Teklezghi, like that of other asylum-seekers here, faces an uncertain future. While waiting for his case for refugee status to be reviewed by Israeli authorities, he works with a temporary permit — but he is concerned about what will happen when it expires.

“I think (Pope Francis) will pray for us. I hope if I have the chance I can see him,” said Teklezghi, who said his faith strengthened him during several failed attempts to flee Eritrea for Italy via Libya — and finally during a successful flight to Israel through Egypt. “If he sees that it is bad, he will tell the world, and some change will come.”

Not too long ago, Ethiopian Father Medhin Tesu was assigned to minister to this community of migrants and refugees. On a recent Saturday afternoon, some 20 young Eritreans sat in the chapel of the Pontifical Ratisbonne Institute in Jerusalem, filling the space with prayer sung in the traditional Ge’ez rite, which uses the classic Ethiopian language. For a few hours a week, the asylum-seekers find strength in their faith.

The thought of having the pope in the Holy Land uplifts them spiritually, said Berhane, 28, who fled from Eritrea to escape the authoritarian regime that forced him to serve in the military. He has been in Israel for four-and-a-half years.

“If he can talk with authority, maybe (people) will listen and give us a solution,” Berhane said.

The pope, of all people, will understand their problem, added Wedaje, 25, who also escaped enforced conscription and has been in Israel for several years.

Noting that the issue of migrants and asylum-seekers is an international problem, Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking communities for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Our Sunday Visitor that in Israel, most of the asylum-seekers are either Sudanese Muslim or Eritrean Orthodox — though 10 percent of the Eritrean asylum- seekers are Catholic. The local Catholic Church has taken on the pastoral needs of the asylum-seekers, working together with Israeli non-governmental organizations to support them, he said.

In an interview on the Latin Patriarchate website, Father Neuhaus said they are fortunate to be working in collaboration with Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane, who he called a “true leader on world migration.” They also have been preparing the asylum-seekers for the pope’s visit, he told OSV.

“The asylum-seekers and migrants are very aware (Pope Francis) is coming and have already expressed their great desire to see him and be present,” Father Neuhaus said.“The pope is very aware ... and we are told that the pope follows the situation of the migrants ... and takes a deep personal interest in this issue. Reports are sent to the pope, and he is very serious.”

Ready to listen

The pope’s visit will be in the spirit of a Jesuit who has come to listen, Father Neuhaus said.

“He is very conscious of the power of words, and his words will be chosen well and will be few. He will listen. And he will use the words and signs to remind that the real vocation is to live in hope,” he said, adding that the pope will undoubtedly in some way advocate for justice and peace in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Also noting the pope’s special attention to the plight of refugees, Yohannes Bayu, a Catholic, founder of the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Center and himself a longtime Eritrean refugee who has been given permanent resident status in Israel, said the asylum-seekers in Israel specifically are neglected. He hopes that a solution for them can be found “in a dignified human way,” without denying the problems that Israel faces as a result of the influx of asylumseekers.

“It would be a great chance to be able to sit down and speak with the pope (about this),” he said.

Sister Azezet, better known as Sister Aziza, has been working with women in the asylum-seeking community, many of whom have been raped and tortured and held for ransom by Sinai Bedouin during the dangerous trek to Israel. Eritrean men also have suffered from torture and kidnappings at the hands of some Bedouin tribesmen. Sister Aziza has written to the pope about the problems facing the asylum-seekers here, she said, but she understands that though the spiritual significance of the pope’s visit to the Holy Land will be meaningful for the community, there will be little time for him to concentrate on any specific issues.

“The refugees have no voice, no rights and no one listens to them; even when they shout, no one answers,” she said.

“This is an issue the pope cares about,” Sister Aziza added. “He needs to pray for them and to touch the hearts of the leaders to give them their rights. It is a desperate, horrible situation right now.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.