Thank God something worse did not happen at the Basilica of Nazareth


Thank God something worse did not happen at the Basilica of Nazareth: When reached by telephone on Friday March 3. Friday, at approximately 17:30 during a visit to Italy, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land was in shock when told there is a bomb at the Basilica of the Annunciation. At the time it was not known whether there had been a serious explosion, a lesser incident or just a bomb scare. What was known at the time was that on the first Friday of Lent the procession of the Way of the Cross was underway and was being celebrated by the local Christian community and some pilgrims. A bomb, in the Basilica which is one of the three most important Holy Places of Christianity under the administration of the Franciscans of the Holy Land, created overwhelming confusion at the site where, indeed, there was an a series of small explosions and from where rumors began to circulate. “There are injuries and one death,” one of these rumors reported. The heart of the Arab Israeli City was inflamed and crowds had already gathered at the site to manifest their anger. The crowds were composed of both Christians and Moslems.

Witnesses who spoke to the press, which had hastily gathered at the site, were under the spell of the shock and their accounts were contradictory. The only point on which all agreed was that the action was committed by one or more Jews. Some referred to as many as five members of an extremist Jewish religious group.

The dictates of prudence:

In Jerusalem, at the Saint Savior’s Monastery, the Vicar Custos and the Secretary of the Custody followed, as best as they could, the situation with prudence as the facts were not yet clear. The Custody did not want to inflame an already explosive situation in Nazareth where a demonstration was in the making in front of the Basilica. The theory that a religious extremist group would commit such an act at the onset of the Sabbath cast doubt over the real identity of the perpetrators of the misdeed. The Custody has been criticized for not having denounced the act as that of a Jew in a communiqué that it published at 22:30. At the time the character of the perpetrators was not clear and already the earlier rumors of the involvement of extremist Jewish groups were proving false. The identity of those involved is now known: a husband and wife, who had threatened similar deeds in the past, he Jewish and she Christian, and their adult daughter.

In the evening, the news agencies, who at 18:00 hours did not hesitate to talk about religious extremists, now seem to turn their criticism to the actions of a crowd with was given birth by what was being minimized as the setting off of some fireworks.

True, the demonstration gave way to an excess that the Custody deplores not only because it resulted in casualties from both the demonstrators and the police force, but also because it turned to violence which is quite distant from the true Christian spirit.

However, one cannot reduce the event to the mere explosion of some fireworks. The photos, taken by the Franciscans of Nazareth, confirm the existence of the detonators and of small canisters of gas. The Franciscans, not being bomb experts, cannot and will not speculate on damages or injuries further explosions might have caused. However, there was an attack on the Basilica in Nazareth. The Custody of the Holy Land vehemently condemns all acts committed against any holy place and the faithful who gather at these places for worship. It extends its thanks to all those who, in on that evening, manifested their support and solidarity, but cannot help but regret that the demonstration of Friday evening had drifted from legitimate outrage to take a political slant when the country is going through an electoral period. “Politics should not cross the threshold of shrines” contends Father Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

Who are the perpetrators? Haim Eliahou Habibi, a 43 years old Jew and his wife Violette, a 4o year old Christian, who are known to the Israel intelligence services as they had previously threatened in November of 2002 to detonate explosives in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, where they had taken refuge and after gave themselves up without resisting arrest. This man, an Israeli Jew is known to have psychological issues. Could his action be considered a deliberate action against Christian Holy Places and what they represent and against the community which gathers there for prayer? The investigation will tell.

A requirement for Justice

While it does not want to accuse anyone and in particular neither the Jews as a whole nor the State of Israel, the Custody of the Holy Land remains in solidarity with the Arab population to which it ministers in Israel as well as in the Palestinian Territories. But the vocation of the children of Saint Francis is not to foster violence but to seek to be instruments of peace.

In Israel as well as in the Palestinian Territories, the Custody calls for the respect of human rights for all individuals and for the freedom of worship. It urges the State of Israel to care for the all the Holy Places as its own laws enjoin it and to protect and insure safe access to the places holy to all the religious communities that live and visit in the Holy Land.

Present in Israel, the Custody of the Holy Land is aware and shares the feelings of the Arab Israeli population and that of the Christians in particular of being regarded as second class or even third class citizens. It understands the frustrations of those Israeli citizens who, for being Arabs, undergo all kinds of discrimination particularly in regards to employment. This is why the Custody, when it can and when it deems it necessary, does not hesitate to remind the State of Israel of its obligation to guarantee equal rights for all the citizens of the country.

In the course of these events, the Custody is thankful for the support it received from the Church of the Holy Land represented by His Beatitude Msgr. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr. Giancinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Msgr. Elias Chacour, and Msgr. Gianfranco Gallone, secretary of the Nunciature, as well as the support of the sister churches in the Galilee and also of their representatives who traveled from Jerusalem, particularly the Greek Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Greek Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Anglican, the Lutheran and the Reformed Church.

It is thankful also for the support of the Moslem population who took offense that a religious site consecrated to the Virgin Mary, venerated in Islam, has been violated. The Franciscans always hope to find the Moslem Community standing alongside us when other Holy Places for which we are responsible are threatened.

Peace has now returned to Nazareth and Saturday evening, the Franciscans conducted the usual Marian Procession, which was both calm and upbeat. The participants, more numerous than usual, have undoubtedly come to thank the Lord and the Virgin Mary that a disaster was averted. The faithful, who again assembled in larger than usual numbers for the very beautiful liturgy on Sunday in a fully packed church, were able at the end of the Mass, to rush over to greet His Beatitude Msgr. Sabbah, the Father Custos, Msgr. Marcuzzo and Msgr. Chacour.

The Friars of the Custody, in Nazareth as well as in other places in the Holy Land, will carry on with their activities in the Holy Places and their support for the populations so that peace might prevail in this country – a just and necessary peace. May the example of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth, make our hearts open and ready to hear the Word that would like to be born anew within us and in out world, and may the Lord find us willing to work for a world where His peace and love prevails.