Pope Urges Catholics not to Ignore Plight of Refugees

Jerusalem Pope Francis refugees Christmas
Pope Francis holds his homily during the Christmas night Mass at the St. Petris Basilica on December 24, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photo: AFP

Pope Francis in his Christmas eve mass Sunday urged the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics not to ignore the plight of refugees who are “driven from their land” because of leaders willing to shed “innocent blood.”

“So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary,” the Argentine pontiff, himself the grandson of Italian migrants, told worshippers in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

“We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones.”

Many engulfed in the ongoing migration crisis were forced to flee from leaders “who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood”, said the 81-year-old, who will give his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” Christmas address on Monday.

The pontiff’s plea for “hope” came as fresh tensions simmered in the West Bank following Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The announcement by President Donald J. Trump on December 6 unleashed demonstrators and clashes, including in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Christians marked the birth of Jesus at a midnight mass.

Celebrating mass in the ancient town, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, used his homily to lambast the wars that “the Herods of today fight every day to become greater, to occupy more space”.

He urged “Christians of the Holy Land, who are worried, and perhaps afraid by the reduction of our numbers, the inadequacy of our means, the insecurity that characterizes our daily life,” to have courage in the troubled region.

Criticizing Mr. Trump’s announcement, Pizzaballa insisted “Jerusalem is a city of peace, there is no peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude,” stressing the principle that Jerusalem is a city for both peoples and the three Abrahamic faiths.

“Jerusalem is our mother,” he said, and if one of her children “is missing the mother cannot be at peace, so we have to pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” the archbishop said in his homily in the presence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sparked almost daily protests in the Palestinian territories and put a damper on Christmas festivities.

Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes at celebrations in Bethlehem, but many tourists stayed away this year.

Hundreds of people gathered in the cold on Bethlehem’s Manger square to watch the annual scout parade towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

But the square was noticeably quieter following the violence between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks. Twelve Palestinians have been killed since Mr. Trump’s declaration, including a 19-year-old who died of his wounds on Sunday, nine days after he was shot during a Gaza protest.

In the square, Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem, said Mr. Trump’s decision had made the run-up to Christmas “miserable”.

“People are only going out to vent,” she said.

The Israeli army officer in charge of the Bethlehem area said that while tensions had been high in the area following the Jerusalem announcement, he did not expect trouble at Christmas. “We’ve reinforced our troops, and are ready for any scenario,” Lieutenant Colonel Benny Meir told AFP.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Mr. Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this.

In a statement earlier, Mr. Abbas called on “world Christians to listen to the true voices of the indigenous Christians from the Holy Land… that strongly rejected the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital”.

Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, told AFP that Christmas this year is a “mix of sadness and joy” because of the U.S. decision on Jerusalem, which he called “the beating heart of Palestine”.

Christmas decorations have meanwhile become more visible in Christian areas of Syria’s capital Damascus this year.

In the central Syrian city of Homs, Christians will celebrate Christmas with great fanfare for the first time in years after the end of battles between regime and rebel forces, with processions, shows for children and even decorations among the ruins.

In Iraq too, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul. Hymns filled a Mosul church on Sunday as worshippers celebrated Christmas for the first time in four years after the city’s recapture from the Islamic State in July.

Muslims stood alongside Christian worshippers amid the candles and Christmas trees at St Paul’s Church in Mosul.