The Catholic Church argues that Jerusalem should be given special status for the international community because of its unique religious significance. (photo: Michael Healy)
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced by the 1967 war and remain in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. (photo: UNRWA)
On Good Friday, 1987, young Palestinian Christians followed Christ’s walk to Calvary. This year’s Holy Week observances were restricted because of current tensions and violence which had taken more than 120 Palestinian lives. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Christian Palestinian boys await the “holy fire” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at Easter, 1987. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Since 1947 the unresolved future of Palestine has hung over Middle Easterners like the sword of Damocles. The current uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza is only the latest expression of the continuous conflict which has afflicted the Holy Land since the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. As the conflict flares up, takes lives, and grabs world attention, a new opportunity exists to work toward a just solution.
Is there a Catholic perspective on Palestine? The Vaticans policy has been expressed by successive popes since the partition.
The inalienable rights of Palestinians are of major concern to the Holy See. Pope John Paul II addressed this at the United Nations on October 2, 1979. In seeking a solution to crises in the Middle East, he said any attempt would only have value if it were the first stone of a general overall peace in that area. The basis of that peace, he argued, is equitable recognition of the rights of all. The Holy Father emphasized that such peace cannot fail to include the consideration and just settlement of the Palestinian question.
Pope John Paul also spoke of other related concerns in the resolution of Middle East conflicts. One is the tranquility, independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon which allows the peaceful and mutually fruitful coexistence between distinct communities there.
Another concern is the status of Jerusalem. He called for international guarantees which would respect the particular nature of Jerusalem, a heritage sacred to the veneration of millions of believers of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
These concerns are not new. Indeed, the Holy See began to express its position 40 years ago, when the Holy Land was racked by the violence surrounding its partition. Pope Pius XII, who founded the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in 1949, issued three encyclical letters calling for the re-establishment of peace in Palestine. Each calls for an end to conflict, with a just settlement that recognizes the rights of all the people involved.
Since those earliest days of suffering and exile for Palestinians, Church leaders have consistently and publicly called for justice. At the same time, the Church has actively responded to the acute material needs of these millions of people suffering from displacement and violence, especially through the work of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
The establishment of the State of Israel and the subsequent armed conflicts leave basic concerns of the Catholic Church unresolved. They involve justice for all Palestinians, especially for the Arab Christian communities of the Holy Land. The Church is keenly sensitive to the importance of the State of Israel for all Jews. Nonetheless, the fidelity of Arab Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land is an equally important factor in the Palestine question.
On April 20, 1954, Pius XII issued the statement Redemptionis Anno, in which he spoke of the need for peace and security for the Israelis. He said, For the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel and who preserve in that land such precious testimonies to their history and their faith, we must ask for the desired security and the due tranquility that is the prerogative of every nation and condition of life and of progress for every society.
More than 33 years later Pope John Paul II quoted his statement to U.S. Jewish leaders assembled in Miami. The Holy Father continued from that statement as follows: What has been said about the right to homeland also applies to the Palestinian people, so many of whom remain homeless and refugees. He went on to tell the Jewish leaders that it is time to forge those solutions which will lead to a just, complete, and lasting peace in that area.
The Catholic Church in the United States has supported the policies and statements of the Holy See. Since 1973, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) has issued at least six statements and documents concerning the Middle East. They can be summarized as follows:
- Palestinians have the right to participate in negotiations affecting their destiny and to a homeland of their own.
- Just compensation should be provided for all parties concerned, of whatever national origin, deprived of home and property through conflict, occupation, and annexation.
- Jerusalem should be given special status because of its unique religious significance, and access to the Holy Places should be guaranteed internationally.
- United Nations resolutions 242 and 338 are a basis for a just settlement in the region.
In 1984 and again in 1986, the USCC on behalf of the Catholic bishops in the United States addressed a central concern of the dispute. It opposed the movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem because we believed such a unilateral move would fail to address the special significance Jerusalem holds for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and it would present yet another obstacle to progress toward a Middle East peace.
Key to understanding the policies enunciated by the Holy See and the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States is the statement of Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation Nobis in Animo (1974). He spoke of the warmth of this living witness of the native Christians, which is to say the life of the Christian community there.
The survival of Christs followers is now being severely tested by the tremendous political and social dislocation experienced by the people of the region, who, in large part, are Palestinians. Statistics reveal a continued decline in the number of followers of Christ in the very birthplace of Christianity. The living Church is dying. Shrines are becoming museums.
In his Christmas message of 1975, Pope Paul VI made it clear that this, then current state of affairs was not acceptable:
Even if we are well aware of the tragedies not so long ago which have compelled the Jewish people to seek a secure and protected garrison in a sovereign and independent state of their own, and because we are aware of this, we would like to invite the children of this people to recognize the rights and legitimate aspirations of another people which have also suffered for a long time, the people of Palestine.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II echoed his predecessor while discussing the potentially explosive nature of the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East. He spoke of the core problem in the Middle East conflict when he stated:
The Jewish people, after tragic experience linked to the extermination of so many sons and daughters, gave life to the State of Israel. At the same time a sad condition was created for the Palestinian people who were in large part excluded from their homeland.
The current uprising of Palestinians in the face of their long oppression calls for urgent efforts to break the long impasse which has seen the birth of another new generation of Israelis and Palestinians. The Church, through the expressions of both the Holy See and the bishops of the United States, has articulated long-standing concerns which must be addressed as the basis for a just solution.
It is indeed a sobering reality that the voice of leadership of 53 million Catholics in the United States has gone unheeded not only by the public at large, but even by the faithful, who by and large are unaware of what is happening in the birthplace of Christianity. American Catholics would do well to understand these positions during todays efforts to find justice for the people of the Holy Land so that peace may thrive there, as it once did.
Brother Austin David is Assistant to the Secretary General of CNEWA in New York.