Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego reflects on his recent visit to Gaza and the West Bank of Israel
By John Andrews
Bishop Rutilio del Riego had studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for practically his entire adult life. He had thought about it and prayed about it through the lens of his Catholic faith. He had even visited the Holy Land once before.
But it wasn’t until he recently traveled back to Israel, where he visited Gaza and the West Bank for the first time, that he says he came to understand the human reality of the conflict. Bishop del Riego, Auxiliary Emeritus of the Diocese of San Bernardino, was among 10 Hispanic bishops to make the ten-day pilgrimage, “Bridges, Not Walls,” January 18-27.
“It impacted me seriously,” says Bishop del Riego, reflecting in his office at St. Junipero Serra House of Formation a few days after his return. “I already knew the situation, more or less, but it’s different when you see.
“This was an experience of the people of the Holy Land – the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Bishop del Riego and seven other bishops on the trip walked the narrow, heavily-secured one kilometer corridor into Gaza, a strip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 1.8 million people, most of them Palestinians. The Bishops wanted to connect with tiny Catholic population there (about 125 people, one parish) but they also visited with local townsfolk, which included Christians of other denominations and Muslims.
Many sobering realities were experienced in Gaza and in the West Bank of Israel, Bishop del Riego said. The countryside in the West Bank appears barren and ill-equipped for a level of farming needed to boost the local economy. The placement of security checkpoints and Israeli settlements – which must be segregated completely from Palestinian areas – make work, transportation and many other aspects of life difficult for the Palestinian people.
Because of security concerns, Palestinians are prohibited from importing concrete, steel or wood into the territory for building projects. Barriers have been erected in local harbors to limit fishing, once a key fixture in the economy of Gaza. The unemployment rate in Gaza stands at 47 percent; for young people there it is 78 percent. So grim are the prospects for work and basic subsistence in Gaza that many are simply abandoning the area, the Bishop learned. When they leave for any reason, they often do not return, he added.
“Some people think that this is a system to make sure the Palestinians do not grow, or that they leave Israel and Palestine,” Bishop del Riego said.
In spite of this, Bishop del Riego said the people he met in Gaza and the West Bank carried a sense of dignity and determination.
“They are industrious, they are on the move,” he said, adding that the people of Gaza have used the ruins from rocket attacks in the area to build new structures. “I was expecting to see people depressed.”
Similarly, Bishop del Riego said he did not witness hostilities between the different faith groups in Israel. Despite a limited number of worshipping Catholics in Gaza, the Church has a ministry presence there in the form of four Catholic schools and a home for disabled children, all of whom are Muslim.
“The Catholics have no problem in relationship with the Muslims there,” he said. “We did not see anger and violence in any way.”
The fear and threat of violence was present when the group of bishops visited the Israeli city of Sderot, just east of Gaza, the site of the most rocket attacks from Hamas. Jewish children in Sderot are required to regularly practice air raid drills, in anticipation that the Palestinian attacks will continue.
The Catholic Church has joined others in expressing public concern about the disappearance of Christians from the Holy Land, highlighted in last November’s “Solidarity in Suffering” campaign. Based on his recent visit, Bishop del Riego suggested that the diminishing number of Christians has as much to do with the economic and political conditions that prevent sustainable living as it does religious persecution.
Bishop del Riego said some Palestinians that he spoke with expressed a hope that more Christians will visit the Holy Land because it gives them opportunities to work in hotels, stores, and factories that make mementoes. “It helps them to see that they are not alone,” he said.
Upon their return, the ten Hispanic bishops that made the pilgrimage issued a statement reflecting on the visit. They stressed the importance on the trip of not being “pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian but pro peace and pro justice.”
The Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with recognition and security for Israel and a viable and independent state for Palestinians. Bishop del Riego said his visit showed him the difficulty of achieving a two-state solution at present.
But he says he brought back with him the hope of the people he encountered in Israel, and especially among the Palestinians of Gaza, many of whom take a long view of the occupation of the land they believe is their home.
Reflecting on what the future may hold in Gaza, one man told Bishop del Riego simply, “we have survived all the empires.”