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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Peace in the Middle East: The U.S. Bishops’ Statement

Archbishop Mahoney discusses the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement, “Toward Peace in the Middle East: Perspectives, Principles and Hopes.”

On November 9, 1989, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the statement Toward Peace in the Middle East: Perspectives, Principles and Hopes. This was the third time that we bishops of the United States made a formal statement addressing the challenge of peace in the Middle East.

In our document, we concentrated on two specific issues: Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian question. While other important issues exist in the Middle East, we focused on these because of their intrinsic urgency, their importance to Christians in the region and the challenge they pose for United States policy.

Regarding Lebanon, our statement seeks to identify the major causes of the present crisis there and to support a process of diplomatic initiatives and political negotiation which has two objectives. The first is to free Lebanon of all foreign forces; the second is to initiate the rebuilding of Lebanese political and economic institutions.

The goal is to preserve the unique heritage of democracy and religious pluralism which Lebanon has long represented in the Middle East, but to do so in the context that takes into account the tragic conflicts, outside interference and internal changes that have shaped the current crisis in Lebanon. We sought in the statement to express solidarity with all Lebanese and to share our specific support for the Church in Lebanon at this time of trial.

Regarding the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict, we analyzed the conflict in terms of territory, sovereignty and security. These are political concepts, but we believe each idea has moral content. In the statement we identify a series of principles which can he used to define how the conflicting claims to territory, sovereignty and security can be adjudicated.

The statement’s basic method is to affirm certain objectives of each party – the Israelis and the Palestinians – as legitimate and necessary for their existence and well-being. Then we advocate a process of negotiation designed to relate and adjust these claims.

As we see it, each party to the conflict – Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians – has a just claim on the goals of security, territory and sovereignty. But each must recognize certain limits on its claim.

Israel’s need for security must be met, but the implementation of that security must allow for Palestinian self-determination. Palestinians’ expressed need for sovereignty should be addressed, but the exercise of that sovereignty must be limited to address Israeli security concerns.

The statement endorses a process of serious negotiations among the parties in the region with the help of key outside parties – like the United States – to adjudicate and reconcile the valid but at times conflicting needs, interests and rights of the Israelis, Arab States and Palestinians.

This document is the result of a rather unusual process. Previous statements of the Bishops’ Conference on the Middle East and Lebanon did not involve extensive consultation. In this case, the committee of bishops charged with the drafting of this document felt that so much was at stake in the Middle East and in our relationships with the church in the region and other deeply concerned communities that they needed to consult widely and visit the region personally.

Last February, Cardinal John O’Connor, the President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association and member of the committee, hosted for the committee a meeting of about thirty representatives of Arab and Jewish organizations, along with selected United Nations representatives, for a day-long dialogue.

Also in February, the committee met with leaders of a number of Jewish-American and Arab-American groups and several Middle East experts to get their perspectives and advice as we began our task.

In May, Cardinal O’Connor, accompanied by Msgr. Robert Stern, the Secretary General of Catholic Near East and consultant to the committee, went to Lebanon for his extraordinary meetings with key church and government leaders.

In July, Archbishop William Keeler, the Vice President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association and member of the committee, and I, the committee’s chairman, went to the Middle East. We were accompanied by Msgr. Stern and Mr. Joseph Donnelly of Catholic Near East and by Fr. Bryan Hehir of the United States Catholic Conference and assisted by the staff of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

We visited Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Occupied Territories and Egypt. In each place, we met both with major figures in government and with religious leaders – particularly, of course, with Catholic bishops.

We had extensive conversations with President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of State Boutros Ghali of Egypt, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, Palestinian representatives in the West Bank and Gaza, Prime Minister Sharif Zaid bin Shaker and Foreign Minister Marwan al-Qasem in Jordan and Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam in Syria.

On the way to and from the Middle East, our committee met with Archbishop Angelo Sodano, Secretary for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.

After the draft of the statement had been sent to the bishops of the United States for their study and review, our committee held two days of meetings in New York with representatives of several Arab-American and Jewish-American groups and representatives of other Christian churches and organizations.

The tone and substance of these sessions was very good. The diverse groups expressed their appreciation for the serious effort the bishops had undertaken, the unusual process of consultation and the significant effort to recognize the needs of the different parties in the Middle East.

All those who met with us responded positively to the draft as a whole and expressed the view that, for the most part, it would be helpful to the cause of peace. Not unexpectedly, several groups also outlined concerns, problems and difficulties with the text and suggested improvements.

In the preparation of the final text, we gave amendments submitted by the bishops primary consideration. We also carefully considered the recommendations of Arab, Jewish and other groups. In all cases we sought to improve the text, but not lose its basic balance or alter its substance.

No document can please everyone, but we are convinced this one was enriched and strengthened by the contributions of the diverse parties that were a part of our consultation process.

As a final word, allow me to stress why it was particularly important for the bishops to issue this statement now.

It is to state the obvious to say that the Middle East stands at a particularly critical moment. The future of Lebanon as a nation hangs in the balance; the intifada has highlighted the urgent and difficult situation for Palestinians; the Israeli Government faces major choices domestically and diplomatically.

In brief, the Middle East – in the two areas we have considered – exhibits much movement, but little progress toward peace.

A major reason for this statement is the possibility that it could help to catalyze greater public debate about United States policy in the Middle East and a more effective role for the United States in the peace process there. While we are convinced that the ultimate resolution for questions of the Middle East lies with the people of the region, we are no less convinced that the help of the United States is necessary to any successful peace process.

Our statement is a call to greater United States diplomatic engagement in the Middle East and to a more activist, visible diplomacy which assists the key parties to pursue the path of dialogue and negotiations.

As believers and religious leaders we are called to be peacemakers – to the active pursuit of genuine peace and true justice. As pastors we want to offer support and solidarity to our sisters and brothers in the Middle East.

We seek to do all we can to help our own nation and the peoples of the region find the will and the ways to make true peace in the land that believers call holy. We hope and pray that this statement can make a constructive contribution to the search for a lasting and just Middle East peace.

The Most Reverend Roger M. Mahony is the Archbishop of Los Angeles. He serves as chairman of the Committee on International Policy of the United States Catholic Conference and also headed the Ad Hoc Committee on the Middle East of the National Conference

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