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The Middle East Peace Process: Patriarch Michel Sabbah's View

By Renée Schafer Horton

Not all Arabs are Muslims. Very few Palestinians are terrorists. Some are Catholic ambassadors for peace in the land of Jesus' birth.


War-weary Churchman
First Palestinian Patriarch
Problem Not Muslims, But Fanatics
Peace Process Far From Peaceful
U.S. Catholics Can Help
Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
Patriarch Sabbah Deplores Terrorist Acts of September 11
A Palestinian Primer on Middle East Terminology

Patriarch Michel Sabbah

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 each other.

Patriarch Sabbah stands in the middle of the melee calling for justice. A man of very small stature—he is barely five feet tall—the 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).

War-weary Churchman

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 want—a 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 things—security 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 is Christian.

"There are 150 million people in the world who are Arab Muslims and about 800 million people are Muslim, but not Arabic—these 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 Palestinians—they 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 Jews—by far the larger—are 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 Line—the 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 Bethlehem—both West Bank cities—have 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, Inshallah—which 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 Arafat—who is married to a Christian Arab—harbors 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 continues.

"The Israelis don't call what they do violence—the 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 love—those with whom we suffer and those who cause the sufferings—because, 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


Patriarch Sabbah Deplores Terrorist Acts of September 11

"I would like to the Church of America and the entire American people our solidarity and condolences for the terrible events which took place today in the U.S.A....We condemn these horrifying crimes and we are shocked and deeply saddened when we watched the extent of the catastrophe inflicted upon innocent people, which was caused by horrible acts of terrorism."

—Michel Sabbah, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem
September 11, 2001


A Palestinian Primer on Middle East Terminology

The Holy Land: Historical Palestine, situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in the east and west, bordered in the north by Syria and Lebanon and in the south by Egypt. The political-geographical terms for this area are Israel (78 percent of the land) and Palestine or the Occupied Territories (22 percent of the land).

Israelis: A small number of Jews who lived in Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948 and the immigrants from Europe and the United States who moved there between 1948 and the present.

Palestinians: Arabs who lived in Palestine before the creation of Israel and their descendants who now live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They may be either Christian or Muslim.

Arab-Israelis: Palestinians who refused to give up land and homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1947 which resulted in the creation of Israel. They live inside the State of Israel, but are not allowed the same voting or human rights given to Jewish Israelis.

Zionists (sometimes referred to as settlers): Jews who believe it is God's will that all of historic Palestine—including the current Palestinian-controlled West Bank and Gaza—be settled by Jews. This is the minority of all Jews, but a larger group than fundamentalist Islamics, and they have gained more political control in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) recently since the election last year of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Fundamentalist Islamics: A small but growing faction of Muslims who believe Jews must be driven out of Israel. Their "military branch," Hamas, is often cited as responsible for suicide bombings.


Renée Schafer Horton has been published in The Texas Catholic, the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the North Texas Catholic, Catholic San Francisco, the Intermountain Catholic and San Francisco Faith. She is a staff writer for Catholic Vision in Tucson, Arizona. She spent five days in Israel last February interviewing and four days in August with the Arab-American Catholic community in San Francisco during the visit of Patriarch Michel Sabbah.

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