A delegation of Roman Catholic bishops from Europe and North America pledged on Thursday to press their governments to act against the “injustice” of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.
During a three-day trip ending on Thursday, the eight prelates visited Christian congregations in the Gaza Strip, Bethlehem, the West Bank town of Beit Jalla and Madaba and Zarqa, in neighbouring Jordan.
“In the Cremisan Valley we heard about legal struggles to protect local people’s lands and religious institutions from the encroachment of the security barrier (‘the wall’),” they said in a joint statement at the end of the annual Holy Land Coordination visit.
In the valley, near Bethlehem, the barrier threatens to separate Palestinian communities from one another and from the land they till.
“We promise to continue urging our respective governments to act to prevent this injustice,” they wrote.
For more than a century, the Christian community of Beit Jalla has cultivated the valley, known for vineyards run by Catholic monks from the Salesian order that provide wine to churches throughout the Holy Land.
But the route of Israel’s controversial separation barrier will soon cut them off from the valley, placing it on the Israeli side and out of their reach — a route residents say was designed to grab their land.
Locals say the barrier is part of a long-standing Israeli attempt to annex territory belonging to the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem, effectively separating it from Jerusalem, which is five kilometres (three miles) away.
Israel began work on the barrier in 2002 at the height of the second intifada, and has defended its necessity, pointing to a drop in attacks as proof of its success.
The Palestinians says the barrier is a land grab, pointing out that when complete, 85 percent of it will have been built inside the West Bank.
The International Court of Justice ruled in a non-binding 2004 decision that parts of the barrier built inside the West Bank were illegal and should be torn down, but Israel has not complied.
Mandated by the Vatican, the annual Holy Land Coordination mission is tasked with examining issues and challenges facing the Catholic Church in a region marked by political and religious tensions.