The firm and steady voice of fr. Luis Enrique Segovia, guardian of the Franciscan Convent of St Catherine in Bethlehem, reaches us by telephone from the Basilica of the Nativity.
Once again war and violence are cutting through the Land of Jesus and Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” is today even further away. This is because in the past few days, the checkpoints that control the accesses to the Palestinian territories have been closed, and as a consequence, all the workers and those who every day need to cross the barrier, have been blocked and cannot move.
We ask fr. Enrique how they lived through the first moments of the conflict in the Franciscan community of St Catherine.
“We heard, as everybody did, the sirens last Saturday morning (7 October) and very soon afterwards we realized that the situation would become very serious. This is why on Sunday, fr. Rami Asakrieh, the parish priest of Bethlehem, invited the whole parish community to gather together at the holy hour on Monday: this was the first step for the collective participation in a prayer for peace. Following the indications of the Father Custos, our fraternity is praying every day for all the victims, especially the civilians and the hostages, and for their families.”
Are there still pilgrims in Bethlehem?
“This is a truly sore point: I saw great concern and uncertainty in the eyes of these pilgrims who were here at the start of the conflict, because they were suddenly caught up, exactly at a time of peace, serenity and meditation on the Holy Places, in this situation which completely overwhelmed them. Many of them were stuck here and they had some very frightening moments.
The checkpoints are closed, and for the time being only the checkpoint at Beit Sahour is functioning with great difficulty. Two large groups of Poles and Italians were not able to leave for Tel Aviv until yesterday morning.”
An atmosphere in limbo
“The atmosphere here in Bethlehem is unreal: it is almost like the situation as during Covid, but unfortunately we are aware that what the country is going through this time is much worse... Most of the souvenir shops and restaurants are closed and we know very well that in Bethlehem pilgrims are the main source of the economy. The travel agencies have obviously cancelled their pilgrimages. The difficulties are enormous: for example, the director of our Casanova house for pilgrims had already restocked the restaurant for the whole of next month. All this food has now been distributed to people in need. The situation creates fear. Despite everything, the sanctuaries remain open, precisely to give the few pilgrims who are still here the chance to pray in the Basilica, in the Milk Grotto and in the Shepherds’ Field.
The prayers of the community
“In St Catherine’s church and in the Basilica of the Nativity, the daily procession and the liturgies are continuing regularly, because we always have to follow the rules of the Status Quo: each appointment and moment of prayer has to be respected, on pain of losing the right to celebrate it. Of course, usually we are used to leading many pilgrims in procession, but in the past few days it is only us, the friars. There are thirteen of us in the community here: we not only look after the Basilica but also Casanova, the school, the Children’s Home and the Shepherds’ Field. We are all united in this “reduced” liturgical life, continuing to pray for peace and support the pilgrims and everyone who is still in Bethlehem.