In Holy Land visit, Catholic Relief Services head sees ‘hope and resiliency’ amid chaos
(CNA) — The head of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) said a recent visit to the Holy Land showed him a region wrought by violent chaos yet filled with people with hope and resilience.
Sean Callahan, the president and CEO of the Catholic aid group, told CNA this week that in a recent trip to the Middle East, he met with numerous partners in CRS’ global relief missions, including multiple Middle Eastern chapters of Caritas, the international confederation of Catholic aid groups.
Callahan said bluntly that the situation in the region is “catastrophic.” Yet he said the team witnessed considerable “resiliency” and “hope” from the local population.
Recalling an incident in which his team stayed with a family that included five small children, he said that at one point one of the children “came up and asked his dad: ‘We’re only children, why are they trying to kill us?’”
“Just seeing that everybody there is a victim of the violence that has gone on, almost everyone is displaced — but at the same time we see hope in the future, hope for the children, resiliency,” Callahan said.
His mission, he said, was to connect with CRS’ partners and assess where help is needed.
“We were discussing how the [Israel-Hamas] conflict was affecting everyone in the region and what we could do to support everyone, and what was necessary for the Church to respond,” he said.
Callahan said he also met with the Hashemite court, the royal family of Jordan. “We looked to set up supply chains from Jordan to Gaza,” he said. “We’re working with the charity groups there.”
On its website CRS says its work in the Holy Land includes “accompanying local partners to strengthen the economic, civic, and environmental foundations” including agriculture, food security, and emergency response. The group says it has served more than 1.3 million people in the region working with “an extensive network of local civil society organizations.”
Callahan said workers in Gaza are providing “food commodities” and “hygiene kits,” among other services, to those who live there. At the outset of the conflict CRS said it was mobilizing “emergency food, water, and living supplies” and “safe and dignified shelter” for those caught in the conflict.
“I was actually very impressed, given the situation on the ground,” Callahan said of his recent visit. “You heard explosions relatively frequently, and jets overhead, and drones. But our teams were still able to register people to get supplies out to them.”
Gaza has been wracked by violence for more than 100 days amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which began in October of last year after Hamas launched a deadly invasion into Israel and Israel responded with a full military invasion of the Gaza Strip. Nearly 30,000 people — the vast majority of them in Gaza — have died in the conflict so far.
Callahan said that while in Egypt, “we made the determination that it would be good to go into Gaza.” The two territories share a short border in Egypt’s northeastern corner. “So I went in overnight and spent part of two different days there,” he said.
Callahan said he met with CRS workers while visiting Gaza. “I got to see the reality of what the situation is, and what type of distributions we do,” he said. “Our team was doing a phenomenal job of registering people for supplies, really a tremendous job.”
Callahan said he was able to witness the countless displaced individuals and families that have struggled in Gaza since the conflict began. “In Gaza City, there are no sidewalks, because they’re now filled with shelters and tents,” he said.
The CRS team also visited the West Bank and met with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa.
“We got a full picture of the Church in the region,” he said, “including their main concerns and how CRS’ help has been so far.”
Though thousands have died in a conflict that has no end in sight, Callahan said people in the region are driven simply by a desire for the war to be over.
“People were calling for peace so they could go home and rebuild their lives,” he said. “I didn’t see any violence or animosity. People were trying to protect their families.”
“I think it’s imperative to us to provide assistance so they can do just that, and get out of the cycle of violence,” he said.
By Daniel Payne is a senior editor at Catholic News Agency.