ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

“There Must Be Justice for Both Sides”

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a native Palestinian, reflects on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Church’s view on ending it.

On January 6th, Pope John Paul II consecrated Michel Sabbah as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was the first time that a native Palestinian has been elevated to the seat, which has authority over 65,000 Roman Catholics in Israel, the occupied territories, Jordan, and Cyprus. Born in 1933 in Nazareth, Michel Sabbah was ordained in 1955. He served for nearly 20 years as a priest in Amman. More recently he has been president of Bethlehem University.

Patriarch Sabbah sees his appointment as an important boost for the Catholic community in the Middle East, made doubly significant by the background of continuing unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The current uprising began last December and has cost Palestinians hundreds of lives, thousands of injuries and continuing imprisonments, collective punishments, untold economic hardships, and severe repression by the military occupiers. In the following interview with Hugh Schofield, the patriarch speaks about the violence of these recent months and about the Church’s role in bringing it to an end.

The appointment of a Palestinian to be Patriarch of Jerusalem was a historic milestone. How was it interpreted by Catholics here?

There were two reactions. First of all, there was of course general satisfaction that for the first time one of their own people was their pastor. This was the intention of the Vatican. It knew the diocese needed a pastor, and it believed the diocese was mature enough to produce one for itself. But on another level, the special situation at the time – the uprising in the occupied territories – has given an added significance to my nomination, though this was purely coincidental.

What then is your role, and the role of the Church, during the violent confrontations which we have seen in recent times?

It is the role of the Church to do everything it can to achieve peace. It has to present to the people the spiritual values embodied in Jesus Christ: that man must ask for justice and that man must ask for truth. On these two bases – on justice and truth – peace will be built. How in a specific context that peace can be achieved is not our realm. It is the realm of the politicians and the solutions they can offer.

But mustn’t the Church give guidance on how to react in a Christian way to a given situation – in this case the Israeli occupation?

It is not our role to judge. What we do is give these values to the people, and they apply these values to their own situation. A military occupation is an abnormal, exceptional situation, and here it’s lasted more than 20 years. The people want to get out of it. So they use the methods they judge best able to achieve it.

Is violence as a method justified?

War is violence. Everywhere in the world there are wars. Everywhere in the world, Catholics are engaged in wars. They have to be part of one side or other. How in their own consciences they come to terms with that is a difficult problem.

So what advice does the Church give?

The advice we give is that everybody must do everything he can to achieve all his rights. He must not allow his rights to be abused by anyone. As for specific acts of violence, you cannot condemn or justify individual actions. You have to take into account the whole situation.

What, in the Church’s view, is the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The principle of the resolution is clear: There must be justice for both sides. If the Israelis have the right to a state, the Palestinians have the same right. If the Israelis have representatives to speak for them, so must the Palestinians too. When both sides are treated equally, on the same basis, that’s the authentic, concrete basis for a just solution.

Are the PLO the representatives of the Palestinians?

I must say that most Palestinians say so.

Recently the main Churches in Jerusalem issued a statement indirectly condemning Israel for its policies in the territories. What was the purpose behind it?

It was a communique in which we invited people to pray, to fast for peace. That was all. But it was misinterpreted. It was turned into a political statement. We had contacts with the Israelis urging us not to release it. When we did, it was censored in the press. But it was a simple message to Christians here – to pray and ask God to give us peace.

What is the role of Christians – a very small minority of Palestinians – inside the campaign for Palestinian rights?

We all face the same situation, Christians and Muslims. We share the same suffering, the injustices. Christians are not foreigners. They are a minority, of course, but even in a minority everyone has his role to play in society. It does not mean that the problem is not their problem. It is their life just as much as anyone else’s.

What can Catholics in the western world do to help the situation here?

First, we must pray. I am a spiritual leader, and I believe in prayer. God is more powerful than men. He can give us peace. Second, everyone in his own context must do his best to find a solution to the conflict. He must look at both sides objectively, and give each party – Israelis and Palestinians alike – the same basic rights.

Hugh Schofield is a freelance writer and a BBC correspondent for the West Bank and Gaza.

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