Irish pilgrims recall ‘incredibly special’ experience in the Holy Land during war

Irish pilgrims pose outside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation at Mary’s Well in Nazareth, Israel, Oct. 11. (OSV Mews photo/Patrick Grant, courtesy The Irish Catholic)

by Michael Kelly

DUBLIN (OSV News) — A group of Irish pilgrims who were in the Holy Land as Hamas attacked southern Israel Oct. 7 said the experience of being there in turbulent times or war helped them identify with the suffering of the local people.

The group of 52 pilgrims also emphasized that it helped intensify their prayers for peace while in the Holy Land.

The group, with spiritual director Father Conor McDonough, were part of a “Christian Solidarity Pilgrimage” organized by The Irish Catholic newspaper, based in Dublin.

The Irish pilgrims were visiting Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, on the outskirts of Jerusalem when news broke of the Hamas attack on the Gaza-Israel border 50 miles south.

Organizers quickly made the decision for the group to return to Bethlehem in the West Bank, since missiles were already being directed toward Jerusalem as part of the combined rocket and incursion attack on southern Israel.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, with its fighters entering communities near the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,400 residents and taking dozens of hostages. More than 2,800 Palestinians in Gaza have died since as a result of Israeli bombings.

The following day — as planned — the Irish pilgrims moved about 124 miles north (200 kilometers) north to the childhood home of Jesus, Nazareth.

Galway pilgrim Maria Ó hAodha said the entire group was focusing on praying for peace while continuing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

“It’s very special to be here in the Holy Land, and to visit all the sites where Christ lived and preached and I think we’re privileged to be here to be unified with the local people and be so aware of their historical problems, but obviously now that things are currently so unstable,” she told OSV News.

Monaghan-based pilgrim Patrick Grant, originally from Canada, described the pilgrimage as “incredibly special” despite the tension caused by the situation in the south.

“While the conflict is causing uncertainty, I think that it is helping us to enter into it (the pilgrimage) on a different level, and helping to remind us to put our trust in the Lord — that he is good and he is going to take care of us and the land that he comes from,” Grant said.

The group continued touring pilgrimage sites in the north of Israel around the Sea of Galilee while praying for an end to the conflict, and were even able to mark the 89th birthday of one of the pilgrims in Nazareth before arriving home in Ireland Oct. 12.

Father McDonough said the group was “relieved” to be home and praised the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv, which helped get the group safely out of the country.

“We were all a little scared on our last night in our hotel in Nazareth. Drones came over Israel from Lebanon and the air-raid sirens went off. We were all sent to the safe room in the hotel,” he said.

“We thought it was a second front. But as it turned out, it was done in error. It left us all on edge, we were certainly ready to go home at that stage,” Father McDonough told OSV News.

He described the escalating situation as Israel declared war in response to the attacks. “There were roadblocks and reservists on the streets with guns. That is not something we as Irish people are used to seeing. Everywhere we went, there was just a sense of despair from people, both Palestinians and Israelis,” he recalled.

“People were describing it as their 9/11. There was a sense of disorientation. People were giving us the sense that everything has now changed, and no one knows what will happen next,” Father McDonough said.

Because of the violent backdrop, the pilgrimage took on a different dimension, said the priest. “We were trying to get out early, but we could not. But the pilgrimage did not end, in fact it intensified,” he said.

“We tried not to be looking on our phones for constant updates of what was happening. We weren’t just praying for our loved ones in Ireland but for all of the people around us,” which made the Irish pilgrims “very aware of the fragility of life — and it became an immensely spiritual experience, for us all,” the priest said.

The group of pilgrims, ranging in age from 18 to 89, tried to keep a “sense of normality” after the Oct. 7 Hamas strike, even watching the Ireland-Scotland rugby match from their hotel in Bethlehem.

The priest said the political situation in Israel and Palestine was complicated and he was praying for peace, but was worried by the situation, condemning the violence on all sides.

“People were just traumatized. It is not as simple as one versus the other, Israel versus Palestine. There is a huge spectrum on both sides. It’s wrong to reduce it to simple narratives,” he told OSV News.

“The Hamas attack was just horrific. Actions like that push a lasting peace so much further away. The Hamas attack was spectacularly violent — and so was the retaliation,” the priest said.

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