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Drew ChristiansenDecember 23, 2002

Beatitude, the al-Aqsa intifada has gone on now for more than two years. In September you declared it has been “a catastrophe” for the Palestinian people. What did you mean? 

The conditions of life imposed by the Israeli military are simply inhuman. The whole population, more than three million people, is under siege. There is no movement between cities or from village to village. Normal routine is impossible. Ordinary economic activity has come to a stop. Unemployment is rampant. Worse still, curfews keep people in their homes for days on end. It is forbidden to go to work, to school, even to the hospital. How can you describe the suppression of an entire people except as inhuman?

The confrontation has pushed the Palestinian people to despair. The Israelis take any expression of resistance, violent or not, as a pretext to kill and destroy as much as they can. Neither side deals with the other as if they were human beings. Each side kills and humiliates the other.

The 40-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last April seems to have been a great blow to Palestinian Christians and particularly to Christian-Muslim relations. How did it affect the morale of Christians in Palestine? 

In one word, we felt abandoned. Though various people interceded, no one was able to intercede effectively for us. Today there are no Christian powers to protect us as in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are Christian people in the West, of course, but no Christian nations. People waited for an effective intervention. When it did not come, they felt abandoned.

The siege actually strengthened Christian-Muslim relations, because Muslims found refuge in a Christian shrine. We share everything, as we share the sufferings of daily life. Life is terrible for everyone. Until last month, there was a complete curfew. [Ed. A siege remains in place around the whole West Bank. A curfew was re-imposed on Bethlehem on Nov. 21.] Some people have found the situation too much to bear and have emigrated. Most remain, living in harsh conditions and feeling abandoned by the world.

Does the experience of abandonment extend to the churches as well?

No. There is strong solidarity between the churches of Jerusalem and those abroad, especially in the United States. They give great attention to what is happening in the Holy Land. Their statements and actions regarding U.S. and Israeli policy are most welcome. There is much solidarity and friendship with the church in the United States, especially the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops. This type of advocacy is not often repeated elsewhere, though the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has become very active in the last few years too. Some parishes and dioceses have even begun to twin with ours. There are even efforts at direct action to conciliate the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. This is a special contribution to peace of the American church.

This support has been ecumenical with help from the Holy See, the World Council of Churches and direct contacts on the part of the world church with the churches in the Holy Land. U.S. Protestant groups, especially World Vision and the Presbyterian Church, have been notable in their support of the Latin Patriarchate along with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a group founded to assist the churches in the Holy Land.

How do you assess the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

It is not pessimistic to say the prospects for peace are poor. The situation is very difficult. The fundamental facts are demographic. Those resisting occupation are young, unmarried, without fear and with conviction in their souls. They are committed to struggle for the freedom of their people and their land. Half the population is young. They are ready to go on resisting for years and years. The resistance of the young is the basic dynamic Israel must understand.

Israel’s survival depends on being surrounded by friends, not enemies. Israeli repression of the Palestinian people creates hostility in the whole neighborhood of the Middle East. All Muslims and Arabs are hostile to Israel because of its occupation. One day all Israel’s strength will not be enough to resist their anger. It will crumble from fatigue. Making peace with the Palestinians is Israel’s only hope of lasting security. When relations with Palestine become normal, then the hostility of other Arab neighbors will vanish. When there is friendship with the Palestinians, there will be friendship in the region.

As you visit the United States, there is a great deal of talk about impending war with Iraq. What effect would war with Iraq have on the situation in Palestine and Israel?

We fear an eventual war with Iraq. It will inevitably have a direct, negative influence on the situation on the West Bank and in Gaza. Israel’s security measures will doubtless be increased with the result that repression of the Palestinian people will worsen. There is real risk of “transfer,” that is, the mass deportation of Palestinians and Arab Israelis into exile. The fear is palpable.

So far, the talk of war has deepened Palestinians’ sense of abandonment. Europeans offer economic help, when the Israelis permit them to, but they cannot offer political support. Without strong U.S. involvement, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a free hand.

More and more, events move toward an East-West clash. Opposition to the West will grow in the streets, if not with the regimes. The regimes are committed to the West. The people are not. They also think of things Western as “Christian,” and for that reason local Christians in Arab countries are less accepted. In the Middle East, feelings of resentment are beginning to affect daily relations between Christians and Muslims.

People on the Arab street do not understand that there are no longer any Christian states in the West. Christians as such no longer control the levers of power. There are secular states with Christian populations. It is for those Christian populations to dissuade their governments from taking the path to war. It is for them to curb the extremists who favor war.

The Holy Land is a place of pilgrimage. How have these last two years of conflict affected the visits of pilgrims there?

There are a few hardy pilgrims who continue to come, especially from Europe, and we are pleased to receive them. They are people of conviction. People think of the situation as dangerous, but there is little actual danger for pilgrims if they restrict themselves to Galilee, Jerusalem and, when it is possible, Bethlehem. With a little advance planning, they can avoid hot spots.

Pilgrims are an essential feature of the Holy Land. Before the 20th century, pilgrims endured a great deal of hardship on the road and in crossing the sea. They frequently had to pass through hostile territory and to move through armies at war. Today’s pilgrims, who come in this time of trouble, are more like their predecessors in times past. We need a new type of pilgrim, less like a tourist, one who comes out of conviction, who is fearless, who supports the churches in the land, whose presence is a sign of hope for the three religions.

We urge your readers to join the ranks of these new pilgrims and live out their solidarity with us, the living stones of the Holy Land. It would be wonderful for them to join us in Bethlehem this Christmas to experience our commemoration of the Nativity under occupation. It would add to our hope for peace and freedom.

Editor’s note: Born in 1933 near Nazareth, in Galilee, Michel Sabbah is the first Palestinian to serve as Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarch of Jerusalem. (Patriarchates are churches founded by Apostles. James, the brother of the Lord, is reckoned the founder of the Church of Jerusalem.) Patriarch Sabbah is president of Pax Christi International.

In October, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus, conferring on Patriarch Sabbah the Gaudium et Spes award, pointed out that Sabbah “lives in the very epicenter of today’s storm of violence.... To serve others in joy and hope, in conditions of affliction and adversity, no greater anywhere than in the Middle East, this is a true Christian martyrdom—literally, ‘witness,’ which is what the word ‘martyr’ means.”

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