By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor
On Saturday, December 16, 2023, over 300 people from across Canada and beyond joined A call to peace in Gaza: An Advent discussion. This special webinar organized by Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada featured His Eminence Pierbattista Cardinal Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Anton Asfar, the general secretary of Caritas Jerusalem. It was anchored by Rebecca Rathbone, the officer promoting youth leadership at Caritas Internationalis.
The Most Rev. Pierre Goudreault, vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and member of our national council, opened proceedings by reading from Scripture and inviting attendees to observe a moment of contemplative silence and collective prayer.
Ceasefire to “stop this madness”
Executive director Carl Hétu then spoke of how appalled and sad he felt about Hamas’s killing and kidnapping of Israeli civilians on October 7, which Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada quickly condemned unequivocally. Although he expected a swift retaliation from Israel, he said its extreme ongoing violence “needs to be denounced, and we have denounced it as an organization.”
He subsequently added, “This war is only serving to dehumanize people and increase hatred. Keeping 2 million Palestinians in a state of fear, starving children and killing innocents is not the way to solve any problem.”
Hétu expressed profound disappointment in “the failure of the international community and institutions to resolve the conflicts that are endemic not only in Palestine but, as Pope Francis has noted, spreading across the globe.” He spoke of the need for reforming these institutions plagued with internal contradictions and power imbalances.
Hétu explained how Cardinal Pizzaballa’s courageous October 24 letter to his flock had galvanized and guided us to call for a ceasefire. Going a step further, he declared, “Now we’re calling for a permanent ceasefire, a ceasefire that will stop this madness, this violence that is taking place.”
A Christian contribution to a universal aspiration
Cardinal Pizzaballa, who had offered himself in exchange for Israeli hostages (about 129 of whom remain in captivity), shared the grim news of the killing by Israeli snipers of a woman and her daughter in the Holy Family Latin parish in Gaza just that morning. He described the catastrophic situation of nearly two million displaced people there, who have no power, shelter, food, water, sanitation or healthcare and are cut off from aid. He reminded attendees that in the West Bank, too, Palestinians were suffering dispossession, displacement, blockades, violence and killings.
For him, the Christian thing was “to keep insisting, despite everything, that violence is not the way, it’s not the solution; wherever it’s coming from, Hamas or Israelis, we condemn it.” He added, “We want peace, but we cannot just talk peace in the abstract. Peace requires, also, a call for justice.”
Speaking of Christians, Pizzaballa said, “We are just one per cent of the population; we need to work with all… Jews, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians who want peace.” But, he said, Christians could help others “to put together three words that are here very difficult to put together: justice, truth, forgiveness. For us Christians, these three words have a common source.”
Noting that violence was permeating language well before the current flare-up, the cardinal said the Church, especially through its prominent role in the education sector, could plant the seeds of peace by countering the narratives of dehumanization, hatred and othering.
Ceasefire and beyond: the path to peace
Asfar gave an overview of Caritas Jerusalem’s mandate, which includes providing health care, educational, entrepreneurship, development, youth and women’s services in Gaza and the West Bank. He reported that most of this regular work had to be suspended after October 7, in the interest of “prioritizing the safety and security of the staff.” He explained a system whereby personnel based in the West Bank and Jerusalem checked in on and supported their Gaza counterparts. He spoke of how devasting the killing of two staffers and their families had been.
Despite these setbacks and constraints, Caritas Jerusalem is continuing to provide what relief, aid and support it can through ad hoc clinics and mobile units that are staffed by people who are themselves internally displaced and facing great hardships and deprivation.
“We are calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire,” Asfar said, adding, “We are also calling upon the Israeli side to remove all the barriers to aid entry into Gaza, to allow humanitarian agencies to operate with safety and protection from violence.” He further called for lifting economic blockades and allowing the private sector to operate freely because small businesses were needed to provide the goods and services that aid agencies simply could not be expected to.
“We are calling for the international community to increase diplomatic efforts and invest their full political leverage so that even more catastrophic humanitarian crisis can be avoided,” Asfar pled.
A catastrophe the world is waking up to
The humanitarian situation in Gaza has greatly deteriorated in the past few weeks. Human Rights Watch is concerned that “the Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.” A protracted communications blackout is hampering aid distribution.
Some 1.9 million people have been displaced across Gaza, some of them multiple times. The UN reports 18,787 fatalities, about 70 per cent of whom are women and children. Over 50,000 people have been injured. In the West Bank, over 278 Palestinians, including 70 children, have been killed.
With growing evidence of such completely unjustifiable atrocities, pressure is mounting on Israel to work with Hamas to end the war. Even Pope Francis agreed with some of the starker assessments of Israel’s actions, saying yesterday, “Yes, it is war, it is terrorism.”
While the international community deplores Hamas’s attacks and generally endorses Israel’s right to self defence, the mood is shifting. Even Canada, after long avoiding all talk of a ceasefire, joined 152 other countries at the UN in voting for one on December 12.
In a joint statement, the prime ministers of Canada, Australia and New Zealand adopted an extraordinarily forthright tone “The price of defeating Hamas cannot be the continuous suffering of all Palestinian civilians,” the statement reads. “We oppose the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, the re-occupation of Gaza, any reduction in territory, and any use of siege or blockade.”
It also denounces settler violence and commits to “working with partners toward a just and enduring peace in the form of a two-state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians can live securely within internationally recognised borders.”
Notably and disappointingly, however, the statement frames a ceasefire simply as a resumption of the recent pause in hostilities, and not as the permanent end to conflict that is needed and that Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada is calling for.
What you can do to help
“As a healing power and tool, I always use my rosary,” Asfar revealed. “I advise every one of you to use a rosary when you are feeling insecure,” he said, sharing how it had brought him strength and comfort when the suffering around him had left him overwhelmed with tears.
Prayer was also Cardinal Pizzaballa’s top recommendation for what Canadians could do for the Palestinian people. He also encouraged attendees to advocate for peace, to donate to support the relief work; and to avoid the divisiveness that, he regretted, had riven his part of the world.
Today, especially, Canadians are also asked to join the Global Day of Action called by Caritas Internationalis. The actions recommended for December 18 are:
- Signing the ceasefire petition
- If possible, projecting a ceasefire message onto a prominent building
- Demonstrating with a ceasefire banner or poster
- Posting a selfie with a printout of the ceasefire logo
- Amplifying the ceasefire message on social media using the #CeasefireNOW tag and posting directly to the ceasefire movement’s Instagram account
The people of Palestine are relying on your support at this difficult time. Your efforts and contributions are essential to the cause of peace in the Holy Land.
If you missed the webinar, you could watch the recording below:
- Click here to skip to Carl Hétu’s opening remarks.
- Click here to skip to Cardinal Pizzaballa’s presentation.
- Click here to skip to Anton Asfar’s presentation.