A two-day conference organized by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster ended yesterday with the two leaders pledging to step up support for the beleagured Christians of the Holy Land through pilgrimages and lobbying to lift draconian Israeli restrictions.
As one who has long yearned for the Churches to take a more robust role in defence of the vanishing Palestinian Christian population -- now less than two per cent of Israel and the occupied territories -- I was delighted to find that, despite expectations, it appeared to mark a new, joint, concerted strategy on the part of the two Churches.
The International Conference on Christians in the Holy Land, held at the Archbishop of Canterbury's gorgeous London seat in Lambeth Palace, was a long time in the preparation. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Willliams, told journalists after the conference that trips he and Archbishop Nichols had made to the Holy Land over the years had convinced them of the need for Anglican and Catholic parishes, schools and networks in the UK to come to the aid of the region's Christians, descendants of the first witnesses of Jesus Christ.
The idea for the conference, which Archbishop Nichols described as "an important step forward in collaboration between the Catholic and Anglican Churches", was discussed between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI on his UK visit last September. It was attended by close to 100 people, among them significant leaders in the Holy Land Churches as well as representatives of the Vatican, the British Foreign Office, and the European Parliament. Its aim was to promote means of increasing what Dr Williams called "an increased literate compassionate awareness of what is happening in Holy Land" as well as "specific actions to encourage our brothers and sisters" there.
But despite the huge variety of participants -- cardinals, archbishops and bishops from both Churches, as well as rabbis, politicians, and Palestinian students from Bethlehem University -- many of the best-known Christian voices on the Holy Land were conspicuously absent. Dr Williams said he wanted the group to "set its own agenda", identifying ways of engaging with and advocating for Palestinian Christians with "concrete projects to engage the attention and energy of parishes".
Both leaders used the conference to stress the urgency of concrete initiatives and focussed advocacy, saying time was running out on the so-called two-state solution. People of faith, they said, cannot wait for politicians to resolve the pressing problems facing Palestinian Christians.
But they were careful to invite Jewish leaders -- including the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and an Orthodox Rabbi from the Old City in Jerusalem -- to give speeches, so the gathering could not be dismissed as "anti-Israel".
The two archbishops used the conference to promote a recently-launched ecumenical initiative, Friends of the Holy Land, which aims to foster links between British Christians and the 200,000 Christians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The charity, chaired by the head of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in the UK with Catholic and Anglican bishops as its patrons, aims to build links, raise awareness, channel money and facilitate pilgrimages.
Both archbishops expressed fears during the conference that the exodus of Christians from the region could mean that the holy sites are reduced to a kind of "Christian Disneyland", detached from the "living stones" of the descendants of the first witnesses to Jesus Christ. Dr Williams said they were hoping to produce a "template for pilgrimages" that would promote engagement with the local Church. Christianity, said Dr Willliams, was an historic religion, whose connection with events and places 2,000 years ago "is a vital part of Christian faith". To say that fate of Christians in the Holy Land doesn't matter was gnosticism.
Asked if the archbishops will be speaking about the separation wall and checkpoints which prevent Christians travelling within the Holy Land, Dr Williams answered: "emphatically yes", adding that access to the holy sites was key to the survival of the Christians in the region. He said they would also be raising the problem of divisions between families living in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Lord Howell of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) told the conference how Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem had little freedom to move between the towns. At least 200 families were divided because they could not obtain permits to travel. In East Jerusalem, he said, Christians who marry West Bank Christians (on the Palestinian side of the separation wall) end up living in the West Bank because Israel refuses to recognise them as Jerusalem residents. He said the British government had "lobbied hard the Israeli government" on the question of freedom of movement, and continued to advocate a "sovereign, viable, contiguous" Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Lord Howell said that the decrease in the Christian population sent the wrong message about pluralism in the region, as well as making it harder to maintain the holy sites.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said it was vital the holy places did not end up as archaeological sites to be visited, "like the Coliseum in Rome". "The Holy Places are living testimonies which have around them a population, families with their schools, their cultural patrimony, their languages, their folklore, their artisans, handicrafts as well as hospitals," he said, adding that the Holy Land Christians were a "minority that matters", one that played a key role in the region's civil society.
It was clear from the talks on the first day by Palestinians studying at Bethlehem University that the rapid emigration of Christians from the West Bank is an issue inseparable from Israeli occupation. Israel's security policies, above all the separation wall hemming in the residents of Bethlehem and depriving them of more than 90 per cent of their land, were causing the exodus of Christians.
The students -- two Christians and a Muslim - told graphic and often hearbreaking stories of the effects of Israeli-imposed restrictions. The elaborate network of settler-only roads and checkpoints which make travel all but impossible for Palestinians, the redirection of 80 per cent of the water in the West Bank to illegal Israeli settlements, and the difficulty in obtaining permits for Jerusalem cause misery and suffering on an epic scale. One student said that "three out of four" of the reasons Palestinian Christians emigrated abroad were to do with the occupation. But hostility from some hardline Muslim groups was also a factor, he said.
Yet in spite of their almost impossible situation, the Palestinian students said they were determined to remain. "To emigrate is a bad idea, a castration," said one. "We have to be actors in our own history." The same student said that while Christians took the path of emigration abroad -- benefitting from educational qualifications and contacts abroad -- many Palestinian Muslims took the route of "psychological emigration", turning to Islamic radicalism.
But the Palestinians who spoke at the conference rejected the notion of victimhood, saying they were determined to remain and fight for the possibility of a democratic, pluralistic future. The question for the conference was how they could best be supported in that aim -- which was also the key to peace.
The link between a future for Palestinian Christians in the area and peace was emphasised many times. Solidarity with Christians means solidarity with Palestinians; and what is good for Palestinian Christians is what is good for Palestinians generally. Equally, what is good for Palestinians generally is good for Israel; Jews, Christians and Muslims have a shared future and therefore, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "we are not involved in a zero sum game." Or, as he said later to journalists, "We are pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace".
This frame allows the Churches to raise their voice robustly without falling into the deadening, stifling polarisation I experienced at first hand some years ago, when working for the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Following a visit from the mayor of Bethlehem, and a request that he raise an SOS for the plight of the little town of Christ's birth, the Cardinal gave his Christmas 2005 homily on the subject, describing how Christians were "corralled" behind the wall. Although he did no more than describe what was happening there -- and called for Christians to go there on pilgrimage -- the homily provoked a furious response from Israeli networks, and I spent three weeks ploughing through letters and emails excoriating him for his naivety, ignorance, and bias. While Bethlehem's Christians were given hope, it was not clear otherwise what it achieved.
The strategy being developed by the two archbishops, on the other hand, starts from the assumption that Palestinian Christians play a special role in the region as peacemakers, peace builders and bridges, whose continued presence is critical to a plural and peaceful future in the region. Lose the moderate, imaginative religious voices, and the possibility of a secular, democratic and pluralist future of coexistence will be lost.
To question the policies of the state of Israel, therefore, is an act not of hostility but love. The idea or ideology of security -- the justification for the separation wall -- has to be challenged with the question: what is security for? Long-term security is always mutual; currently, short-term security trumps other considerations. As Dr Williams said at the conference, we need to move to a discussion of how security for all in the area can be achieved. A key means of securing that is to shore up the Christian presence; and that can only be achieved by Israel changing its policies.
But that doesn't make it easy. Security is the one area in which Israel steadfastly refuses to be accountable to others. Yet the freedom of religion -- and access to holy sites -- cannot be tackled without tackling the other restrictions which Israel imposes on Palestinians.
The willingness of the Catholic Church to speak robustly on the issue has been weakened in recent years by Israel's refusal to sign the Fundamental Agreement, agreed between the Holy See and Israel 18 years ago. The issue was raised at the conference, but never directly tackled. One participant pointed out that the holy sites of Tabor and Capernaum have been nationalised by Israel -- turned into national parks - with the threat of more to follow.
A number of people at the conference close to the Vatican negotiations spoke of their fears of Rome capitulating to Israel on the issue. Invited to comment, Cardinal Tauran said he preferred not to publicly. The issue was "embarrassing", he said.