Synod: Holy Land Catholics

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Division among the different Catholic churches in Jerusalem is a serious problem that must be overcome to ensure the survival of Christianity there, three church leaders from Jerusalem said.

Two bishops and a Jesuit priest, participants in the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, said they believed that two weeks of talks at the Vatican have helped establish a better spirit of dialogue, which will continue.

The special problems facing Catholics in city that is holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims were discussed at a press briefing Oct. 22 by Latin-rite Auxiliary Bishop William H. Shomali of Jerusalem; Auxiliary Bishop Salim Sayegh of Jerusalem, patriarchal vicar for Latin-rite Catholics in Jordan; and Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, vicar for Hebrew– and Russian-speaking Catholics for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Father Neuhaus said the divisions were principally among the leaders of the different churches, including the Latin patriarchate and the smaller Eastern Catholic communities: the Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian and Coptic churches.

“When you look at the bishops, you see the divisions, but the more you get to the grass roots, the more those divisions disappear,” he said. “When you walk through the streets of Jerusalem, Bethlehem (West Bank) or Nazareth, and you ask which group they belong to, the answer from Christians is ‘I am a Christian,’ not ‘I am Roman Catholic or Greek Catholic or Maronite.’”

The Christian identity “is very strong among people who realize that the future of Christians depends on them being united,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of the heirarchs are not yet of that conviction, but if we believe in the strength of the grass roots, it will slowly filter upwards,” he said.

Bishop Shomali said, “We need to start with a sense of communion between the Catholic churches themselves…. First of all we need conversion inside before asking something more, because even the Catholic churches are not working in good communion.”

Bishop Shomali, who works with about 11,000 Latin Catholics in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, said that his church needed to build better relationships with other Catholics and reduce conflicts over the contested Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and holy sites in Bethlehem.

“If we strengthen our links together, our testimony, our witness, will be stronger toward the Orthodox, and with the Orthodox our witness will be stronger toward Muslims and Jews,” he said.

Bishop Sayegh mentioned the Status Quo, a 19th-century agreement that regulates jurisdiction of and access to key Christian sites in Jerusalem for Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian communities. Among those sites is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where tradition holds Jesus was buried.

Because of the Status Quo, “it objectively won’t be easy to move something,” he said when asked about resolving problems regarding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches share oversight of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with the Catholic Church, and competing claims to control various chapels and times for prayer have led to tensions and even fisticuffs in the past.

But he said that he believes that the dialogue that has taken place at the synod “will bring more love and understanding between them to defend Christian interests in holy places.”

All three church leaders said that there had been lively discussion and sometimes strong disagreement on a variety of subjects. “But that is good, because diversity in the Catholic Church is very healthy,” Bishop Shomali said.

Topics that stimulated the expression of different views included emigration of Christians from the Holy Land, immigration to the region and ways to improve dialogue with Muslims and Jews, Father Neuhaus said.

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