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(First in a series)
I’ve decided to write about a trip I took in 1982 to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. It will require a few columns. Although it happened 35 years ago, I hope it will still be of interest.
While I was president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, I led a group of 26 American Catholic journalists on a fact-finding trip to those three countries, and it turned out that we were part of the news more often than we expected. We wanted to learn about the situation of Palestinians, especially Christians, and what could be done to bring about peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately, not much has changed since our trip.
We flew into Amman, Jordan, and one of the first visits was to the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp where some 70,000 people were living in about one square mile. (Today, 100,000 Palestinians still live there.) Baqa’a was the largest of the 61 camps then operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
We visited one of the schools furnished by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine as well as a hospital and clinic serving the refugees. There were children everywhere in the camp—very friendly kids. However, at one point, a group of older boys stopped me to ask why the Americans won’t be their friends. It was a good introduction to the problems of the Middle East.
That evening, we met with then-Crown Prince Hassan, the younger brother of King Hussein, who was in England. Hassan is the uncle of the present king of Jordan, Abdullah II. Hassan gave a 10-minute talk, and then answered questions for about 45 minutes. He expressed his concern for the land in the West Bank and for the Palestinian people.
The prince stayed around after the news conference while we socialized with coffee. He told me about a recent visit he had had from Holy Cross Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, then president of the University of Notre Dame, which I already knew about. I had learned about it from Father Ted’s diary that he sent to me.
We got back to our hotel that evening in time to see ourselves on the lobby television set. Our meeting with Prince Hassan had been televised and was shown that night on Jordanian TV. Later, we learned that many people in Israel also saw us on TV that night, since Jordanian television was watched closely in Israel; I assume that it still is. The story about our interview with Prince Hassan was also on the front page of The Jordanian Times the next morning.
The next day, we were the guests of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at its headquarters in Amman. Our primary hosts were 14 Palestinians—prominent people who had been expelled or deported from Palestine—a judge and several mayors, including the former Muslim mayors of Jerusalem and Hebron. We got an eloquent briefing from the PLO viewpoint.
In the afternoon, we visited a home for the elderly and mentally disabled who were cared for by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. We toured the building, and then had Mass in the sisters’ small chapel.
Next week: Israel.
(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It Must Be More Than a Human Institution.) †