The Holy Land Coordination, a group of representatives of European and North American bishops’ conferences, began its annual visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories on Jan. 10 against a backdrop of increasing pressure on Palestinians from the Israeli right. In recent days East Jerusalem’s historic Shepherd Hotel was razed to make room for new homes for Israeli settlers; and a controversial measure, aimed at the country’s Arab minority, that called for stripping the citizenship of any Israeli convicted of espionage passed in the Israeli Knesset’s Internal Security Committee. Notable was the clear reluctance of the nation’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency to endorse the proposal.
The move follows other initiatives that mark a hardening on the right within Israel: a loyalty oath that could become a condition for acquiring citizenship; calls for banning Jews from renting property to Arabs; and street demonstrations demanding prohibitions on dating between Arab boys and Jewish girls.
The razing of the hotel was condemned by the British Foreign Office, and Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, said: “The State of Israel is demolishing one Palestinian property after another in an effort to cleanse Jerusalem of its Palestinian inhabitants, heritage and history…. Such actions are unlawful and undermine the two-state solution and the negotiations process.”
The Holy Land Coordination is a Vatican-mandated effort to keep bishops worldwide apprised of conditions in the Holy Land and is meant as an expression of solidarity with the Holy Land’s Christians. Opening the annual meeting, Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said Christians in the Holy Land “are still anxious from the two extremisms: The Muslim one, with its attacks against our churches and our faithful, and the Israeli right wing, invading more and more of Jerusalem, trying to transform it to an only Hebrew-Jewish city, excluding the other faiths.”
Quoting the final documents of the recent Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in Rome, Archbishop Twal said: “Persecution must raise the awareness of Christians worldwide of the need for greater solidarity. It must also arouse in us the commitment to support and insist on international law and respect for all people. The attention of the whole world should be focused on the tragic situation of certain Christian communities of the Middle East, which suffer all manner of trials sometimes even to the point of martyrdom. Painful experience caused us to write these words. They turned out to be a prophecy as well, when we think about the situation in Baghdad and Egypt.”
Commenting on the hardening of opinion within Israel, Archbishop Twal called for greater coordina tion with Israeli human rights groups: “Unfortunately for long we ignored communicating with the Israeli civil society institutions, and now more than ever they are reduced and lost their power. The Israeli public opinion is important to us, for they may say what we can’t say, and they may do what we can’t do.”