The Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, as well as looking after the Holy Places of Christianity, for over eight hundred years they have been taking care of the “living stones” of the Holy Land: its inhabitants. In these times of a global recession, the Latin parish of Bethlehem has increasingly become a point of reference for the most fragile. The Franciscan department of social services, in the offices of the parish of St Catherine of the Nativity, represents a source of support for all those who are in difficulty, whether they are Latin parishioners or of other religious confessions.
Unemployment, family problems and poverty are some of the issues that the inhabitants of Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born two thousand years ago, have to reckon with on a daily basis. The Palestinian city, which was already suffering from isolation imposed by the presence of checkpoints all around its area and the wall of separation from the Israeli territories, has seen its economic situation get even worse with the Covid 19 pandemic. In addition, the public health service is very inadequate, in the range of health care provided and in the limited number of health services offered.
“As the parish priest I am the director of the social services department and I try to understand the reasons why people come and ask for help, to then send them where it is best for them,” explains Fr. Rami Askarieh, parish priest of the Latin church of St Catherine in Bethlehem. “The person responsible for our parish office for social services, is a social worker, Sister Rosalia, who physically meets the people once week and twice a week over the phone”. Specialized in counselling, the parish priest knows many of the difficult situations of those who are asking for help. To answer the requests, Fr. Rami also tries to collaborate with other departments of social services in Bethlehem: that of the NGO Pro Terra Sancta, that of the office of the Latin Patriarchate, that of the orphanage Crèche", etc.
“We meet people with very difficult stories, because, especially due to Coronavirus, many have lost their jobs,” Fr. Rami explains. “For example, the people who worked in tourism or who were craftsmen who made objects in olive wood, can no longer sell anything today and have few economic resources. They need everything: medicines, food, milk for children. This way we make sure that they can go to the supermarket and to the pharmacy, and we cover the costs. We also weigh up the possibility of restoration in some homes of local Christians, as in the case of a family in difficulty, made up of seven people, who were in contact with the parish. They lived in two rooms, but there was an area they could live in on the lower floor which was not used, so we decided to restore it for them.”
The Latin Parish of Bethlehem, therefore, is very committed to supporting the restoration of the homes of local Christians, along with the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and Pro Terra Sancta, which also works on other long-term social projects.
In Bethlehem there is also the Antonian Charitable Society, a centre of help for the elderly, where the parish priest of Bethlehem celebrates Mass and periodically follows the evolution of activities. For children and young people who live in situations of family difficulty, the Custody of the Holy Land has a special place: the Casa del Fanciullo.
The parish of Bethlehem can also count on the Franciscan Commission for the family, a parish department run by a religious woman, which deals with charitable projects and pastoral activities accompanying engaged couples.
Training is a fundamental topic, on which to build the future, according to the parish priest of Bethlehem. “This is why I had the idea of creating a centre for human training,” explains Fr. Ram. “It will be in some premises near the parish of Bethlehem, which still have to be renovated. On the first floor there will be a clinic for first aid, reception offices and stores for food, clothes and medicines. On the second floor there will be a place for human and Christian training and a small studio to produce contents for our social media.” Fr. Rami is determined to continue this work on behalf of the local inhabitants, also hoping to be able to count on the support of parishioners and faithful all over the world. “I believe that my work as a parish priest includes several aspects, not only that of administering the sacraments,” he concludes. “Mine is work of welcoming and supporting the weakest.”