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from issue no. 05 - 2006

Concentration camps for Palestinians

More than a million Palestinians live in conditions of absolute misery in refugee camps.It is one of the principal destabilizing elements in the Middle East.We talked about it with Robert L. Stern, who presides over the Pontifical Mission for Palestine

Interview with Robert L. Stern by Giovanni Cubeddu

«The entreaties of many many refugees still reach us, of every age and condition, forced by the recent war to live in exile, scattered through concentration camps, exposed to hunger, epidemics and dangers of all kinds». In his encyclical letter Redemptoris nostri of Good Friday of 1949 Pope Pius XII thus described the situation of the Palestinians after the first Arab-Israeli conflict following on the birth of the State of Israel, on 14 May 1948. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine was thus instituted on the 18 June 1949, in the aim of directing and coordinating all the Catholic associations and organizations involved in aid to the Holy Land. In 1974, to mark the twenty five years of activity of the Pontifical Mission, Pope Paul VI spoke of it as «one of the clearest signs of the concern of the Holy See for the fate of the Palestinians, particularly dear to us because they are a people of the Holy Land, they number faithful followers of Christ and they have been and are even now so tragically tried».
Appointed by the Pope, Monsignor Robert L. Stern, archimandrite of the Greek-Catholic Patriarchy of Jerusalem, has presided since 1987 over this special agency of the Holy See which has its headquarters in New York, and offices in the Vatican, Jerusalem, Beirut, Amman, and currently performs charitable and pastoral activity in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. He tells us about his work, and about the Pope’s charity for the Palestinians.
Which Palestine does the Pontifical Mission help?
ROBERT L. STERN: Since 1967, when Israel took over political control of Palestine, there has been an entire population living under military occupation by another country. And the Palestine National Authority is not a real government. The Pontifical Mission is offering help in a situation where the governing institutions to which people usually turn are inadequate. And where public institutions, even if they exist, don’t function as they normally should. So, necessarily, other than the support of the Churches and the Christian Communities present in the Holy Land, we try to do something good for the people.
Can you give us recent examples of your help?
STERN: Our Mission has operated in the areas of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and also north of Jerusalem, in Ramallah, where there was a Christian presence. But our service is not only for the Christians. For example, whereas the local church encourages the construction of new housing the Pontifical Mission has for years been repairing ruined houses, especially in the area of the old city of Jerusalem where a section of indigenous Palestinian population survives. The tension between Israelis and Palestinians has brought about much poverty and so today we back initiatives apt to create jobs, especially funding works that require many workers and therefore feed more families…
Doesn’t repairing houses go beyond the original activity of your Mission in a certain sense?
STERN: But it’s absolutely necessary to help these poor people. When our Mission was founded, the primary purpose was the mobilization of aid in the international Catholic world for the Holy Land, and the coordination in the Holy Land of all the sectors of the Church – the patriarchs, the bishops, the male and female religious, the lay associations… In 1949, nobody took care of this coordination, today we are many more.
Who are the principal beneficiaries of your activity?
STERN: All those who find themselves in need. Statistically they are not Jews, for whom a very numerous series of aid bodies exist. Whereas the overwhelming majority of Muslims – given that the Christians are few in number – are hit by poverty, even if a great many Muslim charitable institutions do exist. So… the criterion adopted by our Mission is to bring help to the areas where there are still Christians, but without ever excluding others, such as the Muslims, from aid. The pertinent example is the University of Bethlehem – founded by an agreement between the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the Brothers of the Christian Schools – known here as the Vatican University. About 35% of the students are Christian, the others are all Muslim. We say that “not belief but need guides the charity we exercise in the name of the Pope in the Holy Land”.
Three generations in the Gaza Camp in Jordan, waiting for something to change

Three generations in the Gaza Camp in Jordan, waiting for something to change

How would you describe the poverty in Palestine?
STERN: In Gaza a large part of the population still lives in refugee camps, administered by the United Nations. The camps are like a completely disorganized old village. The people live in cramped houses made of blocks of cement, there are no proper streets, but pathways more or less uneven, and they all live crammed together. Up to twelve people even may live in one room, because the children are numerous. Freedom of movement is limited. They live off the contributions of the United Nations. There is no work. When one of these numerous children becomes an adult and wants to marry, he must first have a place to go, and a wage. But there is neither the one nor the other for those who live in the camps. Only one extra room, brick-built can be added on to the original house. A room that will again look out on to the usual dirty streets, and the camps that have no easy access to drinkable water and where there is never order. It is sad to live like that.
Two years ago we built a small play park for the children of Gaza. You should have seen their curiosity, their looks. It was the first time in their lives that someone had given them something to play with. They who are used to receiving the minimum for survival, used to living in the worst condititions.
Words fail me to explain the difficulty of life in Gaza. And allow me to add something else that matters to me.
STERN: There are people who ask the rhetorical question as to why young Palestinian boys and girls accept blowing themselves up as martyrs. They can’t study, they can’t travel, they can’t work, they can’t have a family, they live in the absurd, they have no other hope except to annihilate themselves in a moment of glory for their religion.
I am neither a politician nor an economist, but I can at least imagine that the day when we can offer work to these young Muslim, we will have disrupted the plans of the terrorists: with an honest weekly wage and the possibility of going out with one’s girlfriend.
I’m convinced, despite their very negative rhetoric, that the Hamas leaders understand this situation perfectly. They want a future for their people, as do all of those who run politics. And the positive aspect of their politics is the amount of social services and of well-being that they have tried to give their people. This remains true, despite the words they use and the slogans that, according to Arab rhetoric, they yell.
Do you consider it a mistake to interrupt the flow of international economic aid to Palestine as a form of pressure on the Hamas government?
STERN: I repeat that I don’t intend to formulate a political judgment. My impression is that precisely by doing this the people – and the youth – are presented with yet another form of despair that can be exploited by the terrorists. The proclaimed objective of those who want the aid embargo is, in the short term, to force the current government to a change of political direction, leaving as a long term goal that of achieving peace… it’s a total mistake. First, the blocking of funds is a punishment for the people, never for the leadership, and the people are already suffering too much. Second, for the Arab mentality, we are offending their honor, their sense of dignity, with all the consequences that derive from that. The embargo is a hundred per cent counter-productive. I am convinced, and certainly hope, that through mutual collaboration the result of gaining Hamas consent can be achieved.
Above, a shot of the Sabra and Chatila Camp in Lebanon. The water pipes and the electric cables interweave dangerously. The light filters with difficulty through the narrow  and constantly wet streets

Above, a shot of the Sabra and Chatila Camp in Lebanon. The water pipes and the electric cables interweave dangerously. The light filters with difficulty through the narrow and constantly wet streets

You have also brought help to the refugee camps in Lebanon. What is the situation?
STERN: It is different but equally painful. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon all live in camps run by the United Nations. The difficulties also come from the traditional and by now deteriorating balance of constitutional powers in Lebanon between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, based on the respective numbers of the population. Now, none of these three groups wants a numerous Palestinian component to enter the picture, and all are agreed in saying that the only prospect for these refugees is that of returning to their own countries. But this is now practically impossible. Thus the refugee camp is the only thing left for these poor people, to live in prison that is. I dream of the day when there is a universally recognized Palestinian State, and perhaps all of these poor people can have a Palestinian passport, so as to obtain a residence visa to work in Lebanon. Because, things being as they are, Lebanon will never accept these people as proper citizens. Today more than two hundred thousand Palestine Muslims are refugees in the camps, armed, in complete isolation, prevented from going to Palestine. It is an unbearable way of life, that has made them nasty, with reason.
The Palestinians are also now leaving Iraq.
STERN: The Palestinians leaving Iraq are not however as numerous as the Iraqis who currently migrate toward Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in ever increasing numbers. And, in proportion, it is constantly more Christians who flee. The director of our office in Amman, which deals with Jordan and Iraq, told me that there is the concrete possibility, even though official data are still lacking, that Iraqi refugees in Jordan will reach millions, on top of a Jordanian population of about five million. Our Pontifical Mission attempts to do everything possible to support the local church and give a hand to these refugees. Normally we help whoever wants to leave Iraq and go to Europe, North or South America, or Australia…
In the charitable work in Palestine you represent the Pope. Is there something in particular that you recall?
STERN: Pope John Paul II came to the Holy Land in 2000. And in cases such as these small privileges also are due to the President of the Pontifical Mission, such as participating from close up in what is taking place. I remember in particular the open air mass that Pope Wojtyla celebrated in Bethlehem, in front of the Basilica standing where Jesus was born. At a certain point, as happens every day, the voice of the muezzin who calls people to prayer could be heard from the nearby mosque. The voice was strong, broadcast by loudspeakers. The Pope, at that moment stopped, he didn’t raise his voice to counter the loudspeakers, but waited. Until the end of the Muslim prayer. Then he resumed the liturgy. It was as if the Pope himself had told us, in that way, that the Palestinian Christian community must understand and respect the Muslims, who are brothers, and hope and pray that understanding will also come from their side.
The respectful silence of the Pope was the image of the coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.

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