A Campaign to Divide the Church in the Holy Land

In Rome and Jerusalem, proposals have been made to divide the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and to establish alongside it a church jurisdiction for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. This new jurisdiction would be directly dependent on Rome and independent of the local Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarch. Like most issues in the Middle East, this one is a complicated mix of ecclesiastical and secular politics, both local and international. Most remarkable is the anomaly of the Israeli government advocating a Hebrew-speaking church in the Jewish state.



The Work of Saint James

The Church of Jerusalem traces itself back to James, “the brother of the Lord.” Today the Work of Saint James is an association of Catholics, within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (patriarchates are churches founded by the Apostles), committed to strengthening ties between Christians and Jews. According to its statutes, the Work of Saint James “will combat anti-Semitism in all its forms and will work to develop mutual understanding, sympathy and friendly relations between the Catholic world and Israel.”

The members of the Work of Saint James call their community the Kehilla (Hebrew for community). It is popularly known as “the Hebrew-speaking community,” because since its founding in 1956, the community has celebrated the Eucharist in Hebrew. In fact, only a handful of its members speak fluent Hebrew, and few are Israeli citizens. The Work of Saint James has always been a small community. Today it probably consists of no more than 250 persons, both lay and religious.

Although they are part of the patriarchate (which includes Israel and Palestine as well as Jordan), members of the community, for the most part, live and work in a largely Israeli milieu. The two-year old al-Aqsa intifada has brought to a head tensions in the church between the community and the Palestinian majority in the patriarchate. This strain reached its peak over the last several months in proposals to establish a special ecclesiastical jurisdiction for Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel.


Support for the proposal came from three sources. First, some members of the Work of Saint James advanced the idea in alliance with sympathetic elements in the French church. But the community itself was not united; other members see the proposal as a painful source of division in a poor, humble church. These latter members believe that as a small minority in a Jewish and Islamic environment, the Holy Land’s Catholics badly need cohesion and charity toward one another and especially toward their Palestinian co-religionists.

Second, the proposal had support from personalities in Rome with close ties to the Jerusalem church. This second group, which claims primary authorship of the idea, is motivated by pastoral concern for the growing numbers of non-Arab Catholics among Israel’s immigrants and guest workers.

A third party backing the idea was the government of Israel. It is indeed ironic that Israeli officials support the plantatio ecclesiae (establishment of a church), as the Roman party describes it, within the Jewish state. Israeli interest, however, is overtly political. Israeli support for the proposal is one more attempt to undercut the standing of Palestinian Christians, and especially of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, as intermediaries between their fellow Palestinians and Christians in the West.

Initially the proposal to establish an apostolic administration or personal prelature made some progress. George Cottier, O.P., the papal theologian, and other French churchmen supported the idea with vigorous attacks on Patriarch Michel Sabbah in the French Catholic press. Cardinal Moussa Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, voiced openness to the idea in the interest of giving greater visibility and voice to the community’s work within the Jewish/Israeli milieu. Since then, he is reported to regret that he spoke so hastily. The nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, believes some such innovation will be pastorally necessary in the long term, but not now.

Pastoral Need?

That pastoral need does not seem to be mature. Demographics explain why. The largest single group in the St. James community consists of about 80 Polish-speaking immigrants in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The next subgroup consists of 50 to 70 members in Jerusalem, most of whom are expatriate French-speaking religious. This group has the strongest philo-Judaic commitments. The parish in Bersheeva claims 30 to 40 parishioners, including several Indian and Russian families. Ethnically and linguistically, the community is diverse. It is not, as many claim, united by the Hebrew language.

Roman champions of a distinct jurisdiction contend that the Franco-Israeli proponents have hijacked a proposal intended not for the community of Saint James, but for Israel’s immigrant Catholics. Under the Roman plan, they say, the kehilla would be supplanted by the prelature/apostolic administration. David Maria Jaeger, O.F.M., a long-time consultant to the Holy See on Holy Land issues, says, “There is an ecclesial imperative...to have a local church that would correspond to, and speak to, the civil community, from within a shared civil and cultural experience, rather than having the church perceived not only as of a different faith, but also as foreign in its nationality, culture and language.”

Immigrants and guest workers, Father Jaeger explains, “have made Israel their home for many years, set up families, have children whose first language is, in effect, Hebrew.” He continues, “Their experience is totally different from that of the Arabic-speaking Catholics in Israel.” There is a need to defend “the oft disregarded rights of the many ‘migrant workers’ who are victimized by employers and demonized by certain xenophobic circles, but who are members of the household of faith.”

Critics point out, however, that most Filipino guest workers participate in English-language, not Hebrew, liturgies, and English-speaking chaplains serve their needs. It is unclear how they would be better served by a Hebrew-language jurisdiction. Many guest workers, moreover, do not plan to make Israel their permanent home.

What about those who do plan to stay? Proponents of a Hebrew-speaking church build their appeal by relying on a vague category in the Israeli census, “non-Jews.” The largest immigrant group is Russian, of which an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 are listed as “non-Jewish.” Of these, only 27,000 to 30,000 acknowledge being Christian, and for the most part these are Orthodox. The Orthodox hierarchy would surely regard any overt steps to open the Catholic Church to Russian immigrants as hostile proselytism. Moreover, as one correspondent in Jerusalem reports, the State of Israel, for demographic as well as religious reasons, “considers the large non-Jewish population as a vast, fertile mission field for converting non-Jews to Judaism.” The government, he reports, “has already founded an official institute to promote this goal.” Thus any move to establish a Hebrew-speaking church for immigrants has problematic interreligious as well as ecumenical implications.

Father Jaeger also argues that existing church structures prevent the church from articulating “adequately in the most influential forums the concerns and needs of its older Arab-speaking faithful.” Critics respond that it is counterintuitive to think that Arab Catholics in Israel would feel that their interests would be better represented by someone other than the patriarch, who is, after all, a native of Nazareth. Nor, as Arabic speakers, would they readily welcome a Hebrew-language ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

For all of these reasons, a Hebrew-speaking jurisdiction serving guest workers, immigrants and “older Arab-speaking faithful” seems pastorally unnecessary, if not counterproductive. Certainly it is no improvement on the status quo. Establishing an apostolic administration or personal prelature to serve guest workers and immigrants in an area where a local church already exists would be unusual. Currently there is only one personal prelature in the world—Opus Dei. Would such an entity become a model for serving guest workers and immigrants in other countries?

The Israeli Role

For the Israeli government, the effort to set up a special ecclesiastical status for “the Hebrew-speaking community,” however it is defined, was not intended to assist in meeting a pastoral need. Rather, it was aimed at de-legitimating Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1988, as part of a broader effort to discredit the Palestinian cause. Sabbah is the first Palestinian to be named patriarch, and he has spoken out for Palestinian rights and national aspirations and against the Israeli occupation and human rights violations. As the leading Catholic churchman in Israel, his views are taken seriously throughout the Catholic world. So the Israeli government has regarded him as a public relations problem.

Nor is Sabbah the only Catholic prelate to come under fire. In the mid-90’s, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried to intervene directly in the appointment of the Melkite archbishop of Akko. When the Holy See appointed Boutros Mouallem, who had been working in Brazil, the prime minister’s office found him too pro-Palestinian, threatened to deny him a visa and put forward its own candidate. After weeks of public dispute, the episode ended when the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that Father Jaeger had observed that if the Israelis persisted, the church would have no choice but to identify Israel as a country where bishops could not freely exercise their ministry.

In the case of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, the political intent of the Israeli government appears to be once again to undermine the standing of the Latin patriarch by using the proposed Hebrew-speaking jurisdiction to divide the church in the Holy Land. The motives of the Israeli government became clear during a meeting in January with a delegation from the U.S.C.C.B. headed by the conference’s vice president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane. Ambassador Gadi Golan, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, declared that the establishment of “a Catholic church in Israel” would make it clear that Michel Sabbah is “the Islamic patriarch.” From the perspective of the Government of Israel, therefore, promotion of a special status for Hebrew-speaking Catholics appears to be an effort to assert that the Hebrew- speaking community would be the church in Israel, so that the patriarch could be dismissed as head solely of a Palestinian church.

When I questioned a well-informed Israeli official about the ambassador’s denigration of Sabbah, he told me, “This [policy] does not come from Gadi Golan. It comes from much higher up.” It is a shame that Israel believes it must defame those who do not swallow the official Israeli line. It is more troubling that for this purpose the government has attempted to set the church against itself.

Sabbah, Judaism and Israel

Patriarch Sabbah is not an anti-Semitic rabble-rouser. He has taken seriously the church’s engagement with Judaism since the Second Vatican Council and has paid a price for it. On an extended visit to Jerusalem two years ago, I met moderate, basically secular Palestinian academics with Muslim backgrounds who avoided the patriarch because he had met with Israel’s chief rabbis. The patriarch participates in regular Scripture study with rabbis and priests of the patriarchate. Sabbah also led the diocesan synod that in 2000 produced a General Pastoral Plan that included a six-page reflection on “Our Relationship With Jews.” Among the decisions taken on relations with Jews and Muslims were: making schools and institutions places of encounter and mutual understanding, promoting dialogue “as a fundamental Christian priority” and encouraging personal relations “constructed upon respect for the other and acceptance of them as they are.” Sabbah’s Israeli critics fail to acknowledge these positive contributions.

What troubles some in the Work of Saint James, the Israeli government and philo-Judaic Christians abroad, it seems, is the patriarch’s defense of Palestinian rights. Many appear to have difficulty distinguishing between criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism. Most Christians make the distinction and feel justified in doing so; but viscerally, and sometimes vocally, many Israelis do not. Sabbah has condemned terrorism and even visited Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas, to plead, unsuccessfully, for an end to suicide bombings. But that is not good enough.

Because he finds fault with Israeli occupation, Sabbah’s critique of Palestinian violence counts for nothing. Father Cottier, for example, complained in Proche-Orient Info(12/10/02) that Sabbah presents the Israeli occupation, but “never Palestinian terrorism” as a cause of violence. The accusation distorts Sabbah’s position. Sabbah has often condemned terrorism, but allows that one must also condemn the violence of the occupation. He insists, as a condition for resolving the problem, that it must be understood that the occupation is an underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, it seems, to assuage Israeli feelings, one must condemn Palestinian violence—period, full stop. Truth-telling to both peoples is unacceptable. Last Christmas, Sabbah declared that if the current leaders could not make peace, they ought to step down. He took a lot of heat from the Palestinian side, who perceived him as abandoning Yasir Arafat at a time of weakness, but no one on the Israeli side credited the remarks to his impartiality.

A quiet, thoughtful man, Sabbah has taken the lead in addressing the hard questions about Catholic-Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli relations. He has insisted that just as anti-Semitism and the Holocaust set the context for Jewish-Catholic relations in the West, in the Holy Land the dialogue’s agenda ought to be set by a century of Zionist nationalism, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at the time of the creation of the State of Israel and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Sabbah recognizes the deep suffering of the Jewish people and the depth of their collective anxiety, but contends that it should not obscure the suffering of the Palestinian people. Sabbah’s stand is regarded as a threat, it appears, because it reminds people too keenly of Palestinian suffering.

Sabbah may also be perceived as a threat because he has helped unite the historically divided churches of the Holy Land, giving them a common voice on public issues. For the time being, that common front is in abeyance, because Israel has refused, for political and economic reasons, to recognize the election of Patriarch Ireneios as Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, thus hampering Orthodox participation in common undertakings. For the interim, Sabbah has joined the Anglican bishop, Riah Abu Assal, and the Lutheran bishop, Munib Younan, both Palestinians, in common initiatives like the visit to Sheikh Yassin. He persists in being a source of Christian unity.


The proposal to create a special jurisdiction, whether for the community of the Work of Saint James or for the broader non-Arab Catholic population of Israel, is said to be stalled, prudently frozen until a more opportune time. But with the new Israeli government being led once again by the Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, one should not expect pressure on Sabbah to relent for long. Two other major church-state crises in recent years, the Mouallem appointment and the Nazareth mosque (see “Nazareth Journal,” Am., 2/12/00), arose during Likud-led governments.

Sharon’s first government, it must be acknowledged, brought the mosque controversy to an apparent halt, and the new government has worked quickly to resolve another problem, the nonrenewal of visas and residency permits to Catholic clergy, religious and seminarians. But hostility to the patriarch in government circles runs deep, so renewed efforts to discredit him may be expected.

Whatever develops, the Work of Saint James “[to] combat anti-Semitism [and to] develop mutual understanding, sympathy and friendly relations between the Catholic world and Israel” must be sustained. It must be sustained, however, in conjunction with the whole church in the Holy Land, united with the patriarch, and in a dialogue that comprehends the depth of Palestinian as well as Jewish suffering.

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11 years 11 months ago
The article by Drew Christiansen, S.J., (5/19) was admirable for its content and a wonderful example of truth, balance and wisdom. The active intervention of the government of Israel in the process of the appointment of bishops and in promoting a new church jurisdiction to oppose the Latin patriarch is certainly alarming. Astonishing as well is that the papal theologian should become embroiled in such a matter and take sides. Father Christiansen’s ability to deal in such a lucid and evenhanded way with such a very complex problem is a great service to America readers.

The writer is the archbishop emeritus of San Francisco.

11 years 11 months ago
The article by Drew Christiansen, S.J., (5/19) drew my immediate attention, because I had spent October 2001 to June 2002 in Jerusalem and on more than one occasion had met and listened to Patriarch Michel Sabbah speak or preach. I first met him in December 1987 in Rome, when he spent his days of preparation for his episcopal ordination in the house where I then lived, and I have followed his work, at a distance, since then. I have always found him to be very balanced in his approach and in his words.

I do agree with the general thrust of the article.

I was taken aback by the statement that “George Cottier, O.P., the papal theologian, and other French churchmen supported the idea with vigorous attacks on Patriarch Michel Sabbah in the French Catholic press.” Other than an article by Father Cottier in the periodical Nova et Vetera, I have found nothing and am unaware of anything “in the French Catholic press.” Thus my questions: who else? and where?

Considering where it originates, Switzerland, Proche-Orient Info—at least to me as a Canadian—can hardly be included in “the French Catholic press.” Further, was what was printed in Proche-Orient Info on Dec. 10, 2002, signed by Father Cottier, or was it a reprint from elsewhere? (I’m sorry, I don’t have access to back issues of Proche-Orient Info.)

Father Cottier—and others—may have done a grave injustice to Patriarch Sabbah, but there may also be a perceived injustice to “the French Catholic press”.

The writer is auxiliary bishop of Toronto.

11 years 11 months ago
“A Campaign to Divide the Church in the Holy Land” by Drew Christiansen, S.J., (5/19) raised one more facet of Israel’s overarching plan to totally subjugate the Palestinian culture and its people. The idea of making Patriarch Sabbah irrelevant by creating a separate Hebrew-speaking jurisdiction is consistent with Israel’s many strategies, over 55 years, to control the entirety of the Holy Land. This has been the aspiration of Zionism since Theodore Herzl’s first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1885. It is unpopular and, as former Congressman Paul Findley points out in his book They Dare to Speak Out, even dangerous for Jews and Gentiles to challenge the conventional wisdom that accepts Israel as beyond reproach in its state policies and behavior.

Patriarch Sabbah has found that his efforts to balance criticism of Israel with criticism of Palestinians are not good enough. Findley’s research reveals that backers of Israel do not brook any opposition. The trump card that is always thrown in their faces is the anti-Semitism card, which either ruins people’s careers or paralyzes them. Patriarch Sabbah’s positive contributions will never be acknowledged, because he has not given complete obeisance to Israel.

The real coup of Israel’s supporters since the Holocaust has been their ability to transform criticism of Israel into being anti-Semitic. Because of this, few people dare challenge Israel’s daily destruction of Palestinian lives, land, orchards, homes and culture while continuing their unjust occupation. Findley details how the heat from the Israeli lobby is too great for many to bear.

Father Christiansen is correct in saying that Israel is not as concerned about the church as it is about control and setting the church against itself. I am grateful for this fine piece by Father Christiansen, and I hope other Catholic and non-Christian writers will continue to uncover the Machiavellian politics behind much of what Israel does in its efforts to perpetuate its illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Anti-Semitism is an irrational hatred of Jews. To strongly condemn and criticize Zionist policies is a rational rejection of the blatant injustice of a nation state established for Jews. Injustice, for Jew and Gentile, is always to be condemned. Thanks, America, for taking on this area and topic.

11 years 11 months ago
I only just learned of an article by Drew Christiansen, S.J., that appeared in America on May 19, “A Campaign to Divide the Church in the Holy Land,” where I am personally cited in a manner that does not conform to the truth. We read: “Georges Cottier, O.P., the papal theologian, and other French churchmen supported the idea with vigorous attacks on Patriarch Michel Sabbah in the French Catholic press.”

This phrase contains several inaccuracies. I am not a French churchman; I did not write in the French press; to criticize a position in an argumentative manner is not to attack the person who defends that position.

Father Christiansen bases his remarks on an article published in Proche Orient Info. This publication reprised, without asking our permission, large extracts of an editorial, “Resistance et Moralité des Moyens” (“Résistance and the Morality of Means”), published in the review Nova et Vetera, 2002/4 p. 5-14 (see also Terre Sainte, 2003, 1-2, p. 159-161), which is a Catholic review of French Switzerland, founded by Cardinal Charles Journet. Moreover, the reproduction is preceded by several lines of introduction that mislead the reader.

These are the facts:

1. The editorial of Nova et Vetera is signed by the editorial staff and not by me, though insofar as I am director of the review, I assume full responsibility for it.

2. Proche Orient Info, which attributes the editorial to me personally, prefaces it by several lines of commentary which suggest that it concerns an indirect intervention, via my person, of the Holy See toward Patriarch Sabbah. This interpretation is gratuitous; it is false.

I continued my directorship of the review upon coming to Rome. What I write and publish is not connected to my position as Theologian of the Pontifical Household. Our readers are under no illusion about this.

3. The editorial, which Father Christiansen should have read with greater attention, does not treat, either directly or indirectly, the question of ecclesiastical jurisdiction for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. It treats, by way of a critique of the positions taken by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a question of the ethics of war.

4. The editorial recognizes the justice of the cause that Patriarch Sabbah defends. Based on a declaration made May 8, 2002, and on a book of interviews (Michel Sabbah, Paix sur Jerusalem, Propos d’un évêque Palestinien [Paris, 2002]), it criticizes his position on terrorism. The editorial is not a support for terrorism, but an excessive “comprehension” with regard to the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers. An interview in Newsweek of Dec. 23, 2002, summarizes well this position: Q: “Do you see suicide bombers as true martyrs?” Patriarch Sabbah: “According to Islam, they are. It’s necessary to treat each one according to his own principles. As Muslims see it, suicide bombers are giving their lives for their country, to gain their liberty. As a Christian, suicide is not permissible in any case, even for your country. You may not kill yourself.”

Nothing in these lines is said about terrorism as an action that deliberately brings about the death of innocents in order to destabilize the adversary. The response relativizes the condemnation of suicide, making it a cultural problem, when it is in fact an act contrary to the universal moral law.

5. It is this precise point that the editorial critiques. It does so through a carefully argued analysis of the notions in play: right to resistance, legitimate defense, reprisals, terrorism. It questions the morality of means: a just cause cannot justify recourse to intrinsically immoral means.

If it is true that the distressing situation into which the Palestinian people have been thrown creates fertile terrain for the phenomenon of suicide bombers, it cannot be considered as its necessary cause and its justification.

I ask you to publish this rectification, because the affirmations of Father C


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