Photo by Renée Schafer Horton
THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, from the pages of this magazine, Latin
Patriarch Michel Sabbah issued a plea to U.S. Catholics concerning
the plight of Holy Land Christians: "Please hurry. Our fate
is here and the solution to our problem is in the United States.
If the United States decides to solve the problem, it will
be solved. If it does not decide, it will not be solved."
Precious little has changed in the ensuing years, although
there have been intermittent peace negotiations between Israel
and the Palestinians. The Holy Land remains, for many, a place
of nightmares, a world of two peoples drowning in an undertow
created by the circular nature of their accusations against
Patriarch Sabbah stands in the middle of the melee calling
for justice. A man of very small staturehe is barely
five feet tallthe patriarch possesses a great moral
strength that he uses in his mission to free the people held
hostage by this national conflict. His title bespeaks the
honor accorded to the See of Jerusalem, one of only five patriarchates
or principal historical sees in the Latin-rite Catholic Church,
the others being Rome (Italy), Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey),
Alexandria (Egypt) and Antioch (Syria).
Patriarch Sabbah is tired, he says, of death. But he insists
that Israel is the one who must now compromise because the
Palestinians have already given up so much.
"The State of Israel encompasses 78 percent of historical
Palestine," the patriarch said during an interview with St.
Anthony Messenger last August, at the time of his meetings
with the Arab-American Catholic community in San Francisco.
"The remaining 22 percent was occupied by Israel in 1967 and
this is all Palestinians wanta small part of what they
had before 1947. This is not too much to ask. They want that
22 percent to be free of occupation, all of it. Israel cannot
have both thingssecurity and occupation. They must give
up occupation for security."
The years of tension have taken their toll on the 68-year-old
leader of the Holy Land's Roman Catholics. Patriarch Sabbah
looked war-weary last summer when he visited the 800 Palestinian
families who have relocated from his patriarchate to the Archdiocese
of San Francisco. He spoke softly but with great intent, delivering
the message he's been carrying with increasing vigor to various
religious and political leaders over the past year: To end
the violence in the Middle East, we must end the Israeli occupation
of Palestinian lands.
This message mirrors that of Pope John Paul II since the
Holy See established diplomatic relations with the State of
Israel in 1994. "The Holy Father has been clear that the situation
needs to be resolved in terms of international law," explained
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, counselor on international
affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was
in San Francisco for the patriarch's visit. "By the Lateran
treaty, the Holy See cannot take a position on borders, but
it reserves its right to make comment as to the moral adequacy
of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And it holds that East
Jerusalem is illegally occupied by military force."
Patriarch Sabbah's stand against occupation and in favor
of nonviolent resistance has not won him many friends on either
side of the issue. The Israeli government is angry that the
patriarch insists Israel's occupation of the West Bank and
Gaza Strip violates international law. Fundamentalist Muslims
are upset because the patriarch condemns the violent resistance
and because he began meeting in July with leading Israeli
rabbis to dialogue for peace. There are even a few in his
own flock of approximately 100,000 in Israel, Jordan and Cyprus
who feel he does not pressure Rome hard enough to issue more
forceful condemnations of the Israeli occupation.
But anyone spending time with the patriarch soon learns he
is not concerned with being popular. He is concerned with
only one thing: bringing peace to the land of Jesus Christ
by prayerfully, yet powerfully, speaking the truth.
"Between the bombardments, the throwing of stones, demolished
homes and hatred, the Church speaks of pardon and reconciliation,
a language that is difficult for everyone," he said softly.
First Palestinian Patriarch
The Holy Land is historical Palestine, situated between the
Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in the east and west,
and bordered by Syria and Lebanon in the north and by Egypt
in the south. The political-geographical terms for this area
currently are Israel (78 percent of the land) and the Occupied
Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), also called Palestine
(22 percent of the land). It is on this land the Palestinians
want to create their state.
Patriarch Sabbah hails from Nazareth, an Arab city within
the State of Israel. He attended seminary in Bethlehem and
was ordained in 1955 for the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem.
He was a parish priest for a few years before being sent to
the University of St. Joseph in Beirut to study Arab language
and literature. Shortly thereafter, he became director of
schools for the Latin patriarchate. He held that position
until the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 in which Israel militarily
occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which had previously
been under the administration of Jordan.
Sabbah then moved to the East African nation of Djibouti
to teach Arabic and Islamic studies until 1973 when he began
doctoral studies at the Sorbonne in France. In 1980, he was
named president of the University of Bethlehem, finding himself
back where he started his journey toward priesthood.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II picked Sabbah as the Latin patriarch
of Jerusalem, making him the first native Palestinian in that
position and the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in
the Holy Land. Sabbah replaced Archbishop Giacomo Beltritti,
one of a long line of Italian clerics to oversee the Latin-rite
Church in Jerusalem.
Roman Catholics are approximately one third of the Christian
population in the Holy Land (300,000 people out of a total
population in Israel, Palestine and Jordan of 14 million people),
with the remaining being primarily Greek Orthodox or Eastern-rite
Catholics. There also are about 10 small Protestant denominations
in the area.
"We must thank God we have very good relations among the
Churches in the Holy Land," Patriarch Sabbah said. "There
are 13 Churches altogether and three patriarchates whose religious
life focuses around the holy places and who understand that
through all the changes here in 2,000 years, there's been
a continuity of Christianity in the Holy Land. We are as integral
to this place as are Jews and Muslims."
All Christians in the Holy Land revere Patriarch Sabbah,
not just Roman Catholics, according to Marianist priest Charles
Miller, president of Ratisbonne Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem.
Father Miller has served in the Holy Land for 30 years and
spoke with the Arab-American community in San Francisco.
"They see Patriarch Sabbah as the person who can speak the
truth. Christians, with Sabbah as their leader, have tried
very hard to hold to an extremely difficult position here,"
Father Miller said. "They identify with the frustrations and
justified aspirations of the Palestinians, which they themselves
are, of course. But they call for a nonviolent approach to
the problem, which is certainly not accepted by the vast majority
of Muslims. I have been much impressed by the depth of his
letters and sermons since the intifada began [in October
2000]. I think he is as good a leader as the Palestinian Christians
have in any of the Churches."
Problem Not Muslims, But Fanatics
Patriarch Sabbah told St. Anthony Messenger that the
biggest misconceptions U.S. Catholics have about the Holy
Land are that all people of Arab origin are Muslim and that
all Palestinians are terrorists. This makes it difficult for
Catholics in the United States to remember that there are
Christians in the Holy Land, indeed, that Christians have
been there since the time of Christ. Father Labib Kobti, pastor
of San Francisco's Arab-American Catholic community, agreed,
noting that nearly 10 percent of the Arabic-speaking population
"There are 150 million people in the world who are Arab Muslims
and about 800 million people are Muslim, but not Arabicthese
are in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, India and the
old Soviet Union," Father Kobti said. "Then there are Arabs
who are Christian. The Catholic priests serving the patriarchate
in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth are all Palestiniansthey
are Catholics who are Arab."
Muslims in the Holy Land trace their beginnings to the seventh
century when Muslim invaders ransacked the Holy Land and forced
people to convert to Islam. Five centuries later, the Crusaders
came through and did much the same thing in reverse: Muslims
were forced to convert to Christianity. Various religious
wars ensued, but for the better part of the past few hundred
years, Christian Arabs have existed peacefully with Muslims
as neighbors in the Holy Land and a number of surrounding
countries. There is a mutual understanding that neither Muslims
nor Christians can evangelize each other's flock.
"We must try to live in equal respect," Patriarch Sabbah
said, "and this we work at daily."
"The problem has never been Muslims," Father Kobti added.
"The problem is fanaticism. Palestinians are Christian and
Muslim. Together in the Middle East they have created national
states: Egypt, Syria, Iraq are all Christian and Muslim, so
there is no problem with Islam, per se, for Christians. The
problem is fanaticism, which can be a Christian phenomenon
as well as a Muslim one. There are Christian Zionists, for
instance, who are very supportive of Israel and do not even
recognize that Christians in the Holy Land are persecuted
and have their human rights violated."
Jews in the Holy Land consist of two sets of people, the
first being a very small group present before 1947 when what
is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was a British colony
called Palestine. The second group of Jewsby far the
largerare those who came from all parts of the world
after the creation of Israel in 1948 following a vicious war
involving local residents, the British government and those
Arab nations directly surrounding Palestine.
"In terms of our relationship with Jews and Palestinians,
I think it is important to recognize that in World War II,
two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered," said
Dr. Len Trubmann, cofounder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living
Room Dialogue Group in San Francisco. "After the war, no country
would take the remainder, including the United States, so
there was a great need for them to have a safe place to be.
This is why a Jewish state was needed. But unfortunately,
it was a very imperfect beginning for the State of Israel,
and the Palestinians were not invited to the table when all
these agreements concerning land were made. And we are now
trying to recover all those traumas to both the Jews and Palestinians
at that one moment in time."
Some Palestinians stayed in their homes during the 1947 invasion
and refused to leave. They became Israeli citizens, although
they do not have the same legal rights as the Jewish citizens
of Israel. But most Palestinians fled and set up refugee camps
across what was called the Green Linethe land on the
west bank of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem, and
in what is now Jordan.
In 1967, Egypt, Jordan and other Arabic-speaking nations
attacked Israel hoping to force Jews out of the Holy Land.
Israel won the war, took control of all of Jerusalem and placed
the West Bank under military control. While the cities inside
the West Bank (except for illegal Jewish settlements) are
under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, Israel owns the
roads between the cities and Israel controls water rights.
Thus, a Palestinian orchard can be without water while an
Israeli golf course is green. Palestinians trying to get from
Beit Jala to Bethlehemboth West Bank citieshave
to go through Israeli checkpoints on the roads between the
cities and can be denied entrance at whim.
Peace Process Far From Peaceful
Since 1967, Jewish settlers have been installing villages
throughout the Occupied Territories in violation, Palestine
asserts, of UN Resolutions 224, 194 and 478. In spite of the
Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Accords in 1994, the
peace process in the Middle East has been marked more by violence
than by peace.
The latest rounds of talks ended in stalemate in January
2001. Father Christiansen said there is disagreement about
what caused the breakdown of those talks. "There is this assumption
that [then-Prime Minister Ehud] Barak offered the 1967 borders
and Arafat said it wasn't good enough," the Jesuit said. "But
he didn't offer those borders. Cartographers tell us he offered
55 to 70 percent of the West Bank, insisted upon leasing the
Jordan Valley for 100 years and was going to keep control
of the roads in the West Bank. There's no way Arafat could
agree with that.
"In Arabic we have a saying, Inshallahwhich
means 'With God's will.' So yes, God willing, there's a possibility
for peace," Father Christiansen said. "Conditions, however,
are as bleak as I've seen them in the 10 years I've been involved
in the region. People involved in second-track diplomacy are
talking three years down the line, that after the Sharon government
we will make some peace."
Patriarch Sabbah concurred. "Our hope is that this present
generation of the Israeli government will pass and we'll have
a new generation of Israeli leaders who will understand the
situation and the rights of the Palestinians and have enough
courage to give back to the Palestinians their land and their
rights," he said.
U.S. Catholics Can Help
The patriarch still holds that the U.S. government is key
to bringing peace to the Middle East because the United States
"is the main country supporting Israel."
"They bear the same responsibility as Israel in the resolution
of the conflict. Peace or war is in the hands of the Israelis
and the United States together," he asserted.
U.S. Catholics can help in this area, Patriarch Sabbah said.
"The Church is doing its best in order to help justice be
done in the Holy Land. The bishops have stated we need to
honor the 1967 borders and international law. Therefore, Catholics
in America should find out what the Church is saying and listen
to the bishops and do what they say.
"The American administration is trying to protect the Jewish
people, but instead of helping, they are exposing the Jewish
community to anger on the part of the Arab world. What can
make the Arab countries friends for Israel? Justice for the
Palestinians. U.S. Catholics must encourage their government
for justice so Israel can truly be safe and the Palestinians
can live in freedom and peace."
Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have their
figurative stones to throw. Palestinians decry Israeli President
Ariel Sharon as a war criminal, remembering his actions as
an army general with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israel says that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafatwho
is married to a Christian Arabharbors terrorists and
refuses to make peace. Neither side wants to "give" much because
Israeli leaders fear they will be perceived as rewarding violence
if they agree to what Palestine is demanding and Palestinian
leaders feel they will be seen as rewarding occupation if
they give up some of their demands. So the cycle of violence
"The Israelis don't call what they do violencethe shelling
of civilian neighborhoods, the curfews, the blanket sieges
of entire cities," Father Christiansen said. "It is presented
as retaliation against Palestinian violence and prevention
against more violence. But what [the Israeli government] does
is violence. It is state terrorism, plain and simple."
Patriarch Sabbah said he prays daily for the peace of Jerusalem.
In his letters, speeches and homilies, he never wavers from
the Christian message of loving one's enemy.
"The new education for peace and mutual acceptance must help
the Palestinian and the Israeli see that the other is not
an enemy to be hated, but a brother with whom a new Israeli
and Palestinian society must be built," said Patriarch Sabbah,
who is also president of Pax Christi International.
"All people we must lovethose with whom we suffer and
those who cause the sufferingsbecause, despite the evil
which they can do, they remain the image of God, the children
of God, loved by God their creator and their father," he continued.
"Despite any evil they can do, they remain unable to demolish
the love of God in themselves. But with this vision, we have
to say to the Israelis, 'You are causing big damage. I love
you, but you must give back what you took away.'
"Strengthened by the vision of God and his love for us all,
we pray, we act, and we wait for the day when God will respond
to the prayers of thousands and thousands who implore him
for the peace of Jerusalem."
For more information on the Catholic Church in the Holy
Land, visit www.al-bushra.org.