LEICESTER, United Kingdom – As Christians turn the focus on the town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas, an Irish nun who has worked in the region for more than 20 years says to remember the local Christians are Palestinians suffering the same as their Muslim brothers and sisters.
“This may seem a very simplistic thing for me to say, but there are some elements of Christian churches, in the United States especially, who do not know or do not want to know that the local Christians are local Arabic-speaking Arab Christians: Local to the Palestinian territory and to Jerusalem and to the Church,” said Sister Bridget Tighe, the general director of Caritas Jerusalem, which serves as the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
She told Crux that Christians suffer from the same problems as Palestinian Muslims stemming from the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, including checkpoints, lack of freedom of movement, violence, and restrictions on the ability to travel abroad.
Tighe said Gaza is even worse: “It is not like a prison; it is a prison.”
The nun, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Divine Motherhood, served in Gaza for three years.
Worsening situation for Christians in Gaza
She said Christians in Gaza, who only number about 1,200 opposed to the nearly 50,000 in the West Bank, “suffer disproportionately” in the territory, but that relations between Christians and Muslims are generally good.
“One of the main problems is unemployment, extremely high unemployment. In many ways it is more difficult for Christians to find employment than Muslims, because they are such a minority and there are some areas of work that the Christians would not go into, like the police and army,” she said.
This has drastically affected the Christian population, which has dropped by two-thirds in the past 6 years.
Caritas has not left the territory and offers primary health care for the population, of all faiths.
Special teams consisting of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists visit areas affected by the conflict with Israel.
“We go to different areas near the border to treat less seriously wounded people from the recent violence. The seriously wounded will go to hospital, and some of them then will come to us after discharge from hospital for medical dressings,” Tighe said.
Caritas also provides psycho-social intervention for children traumatized by war.
“If you are a 12-year-old in Gaza, you will have lived through three or four major wars, so there’s a lot of need for psycho-social support,” the nun explained.
Another area that Caritas is just starting is specialized care for the elderly, called by Tighe “the most neglected of all the neglected people in Gaza.”
She said this is because many NGOs – “including ourselves” – focus on children and pregnant mothers.
“No other organization to my knowledge was focusing specifically on the primary health care, human rights, and getting the elderly into the mainstream of whatever is available in Gaza,” Tighe said.
Caritas Jerusalem works in other areas, too. In the West Bank, they help with food security.
“This means regenerating land that has been neglected, helping farmers to keep their land in areas that are vulnerable, and helping farmers make their land more productive, so they stay on the land,” Tighe explained.
Caritas also has a social department to offer help to the poor, offering aid for school fees, hospital bills, food, and other help.
On receiving the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad
Recently, President Michael Higgins of Ireland awarded Tighe the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.
The Irish president called Tighe “part of the great Irish missionary tradition.”
“She has served the Palestinian people – one of the most oppressed people on our planet – for many years and has stood with them through some of their hardest hours, and she now stands with the poorest people in Jerusalem,” he said at the Nov. 29 award ceremony.
Tighe told Crux it was “a shock” when she found out she was going to be given the award.
“I have worked in the Middle East for more than 25 years now … so it was a real surprise and honor tremendous honor to be recognized by that because I wasn’t conscious of promoting Irish culture, I was conscious of doing what I was doing as an Irish missionary,” she said.
The nun also agreed it was good to have a positive story about the good the Church of Ireland performs at home and abroad, which she said has been “overshadowed” by the ongoing abuse scandal.
“In the dark days of Ireland following years of occupation and civil war, it was the Irish Church – mostly in the persons of priests, sisters and brothers – that developed the education system, the health system, the social care,” she said.
She said abuses did happen – “no one should try to deny that, or condone it, or cover it up” – but the good should not be forgotten.
“I think it will come back into prominence in history in the future, but that is certainly the case at the moment, sadly,” she said.