ROME – As Christians throughout the Holy Land prepare for Easter against the backdrop of war, Pope Francis has sent a letter to the region’s Catholics assuring them of his closeness and urging them not to lose hope.

He also met with two fathers, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, who have each lost children as a result of the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land and who are now friends.

Prior to his March 27 general audience, Pope Francis met briefly with Bassam Aramin, who is Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, before entering the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall for his weekly public address.

Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier as she left school in 2007. Likewise, Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter Smadar died in a Palestinian suicide attack in Jerusalem in 1997.

According to the Vatican press office, the friendship between Aramin and Elhanan was recounted in the novel Apeirogon by Colum McCann, a winner of the Terziani Prize who met Pope Francis during a June 23, 2023, audience with artists.

Both men work together to promote peace and justice in the region through an association called “The Parents Circle,” composed of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost family members due to the conflict.

The organization states that one of its core principles is the belief that a process of reconciliation is a prerequisite for achieving a sustained peace in the region.

Pope Francis gave a special shout-out to Aramin and Elhanan, saying, “They do not look at the enmity of war, they look to the friendship of two men who care about each other and have experienced the same crucifixion.”

“Let us think of the beautiful witness of these two people who have suffered the war in the Holy Land in the loss of their daughters,” he said, and thanked them for their witness.

Francis, who unexpectedly skipped his Palm Sunday homily and who is often confined to a wheelchair due to his ongoing knee troubles and problems with sciatica, entered the Paul VI Hall for Wednesday’s audience on foot and delivered his remarks himself.

In a letter addressed to Catholics in the Holy Land published Wednesday, the pope noted that for those enduring the ongoing war in Gaza, the feast of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, “is so overshadowed by the Passion and, as yet, so little by the Resurrection.”

Expressing his personal closeness, he offered a special word of affection for “those most affected by the senseless tragedy of war: the children robbed of their future, those who grieve and are in pain, and all who find themselves prey to anguish and dismay.”

Easter, he said, holds added significance for Christians in the Holy Land, who celebrate in the places where Jesus himself lived, died, and rose from the dead.

“The history of salvation, and indeed its geography, would not exist apart from the land in which you have dwelt for centuries. There you want to remain, and there it is good that you should remain,” he said, and thanked them for their witness of faith and their ability “to hope against all hope.”

Pope Francis assured of his personal closeness and affection in the midst of the current war, praying that Catholics in the region would feel the love and solidarity of Catholics throughout the world.

“May the Lord Jesus, our Life, like the Good Samaritan, pour over your wounds in body and soul the balm of his consolation and the wine of hope,” he said.

Christians in the Holy Land throughout history have not only acted as guardians of the sacred places of salvation, but they have also “borne enduring witness” to Jesus’s Passion through their own suffering, he said.

“By your ability to rise anew and press forward, you have proclaimed, and continue to proclaim, that the crucified Lord rose from the dead” and ascended into heaven “to bring before the Father our tormented yet now redeemed humanity,” the pope said.

Francis said that in the current geopolitical context, “when it seems that the dark clouds of Good Friday hover over your land, and all too many parts of our world are scarred by the pointless folly of war – which is always and for everyone a bitter defeat – you are lamps shining in the night, seeds of goodness in a land rent asunder by conflict.”

He offered prayers for the Holy Land, that God would free humanity from hatred, violence, and the thirst for revenge, lauding the merciful, meek and humble attitude of Catholics in the Holy Land.

“May no one rob our hearts of the hope of rising anew with you. May we never tire of defending the dignity of every man, woman and child, without distinction of religion, ethnicity or nationality, beginning with the most vulnerable among us: women, the elderly, children and the poor,” he said.

Pope Francis assured Catholics in the region that they are not alone, insisting that fellow Catholics abroad will continue to support them with prayer and charity, voicing hope that it will soon be possible to resume pilgrimages to the area.

He thanked the bishops, priests and religious serving in the Holy Land and made an appeal for unity among Christians in the region, saying, “In the crucible of suffering, may the precious gold of unity be purified and shine forth, among yourselves and with our brothers and sisters of other Christian confessions.”

“Once more, I ask Christians throughout the world to manifest their concrete support for you and to pray tirelessly that all the people of your beloved land may dwell at last in peace,” he said.

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