â€œTo be a Christian in the Holy Land … is a call to a difficult life and you have to accept your call.”
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Vatican’s top cleric in the Holy Land, leading the struggle against the building of a mosque in biblical Nazareth, says he has a deep appreciation of Islam — and once even taught it to French colonial rulers in Africa.
But Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian, is also fiercely protective of his beleaguered flock, which is dwindling rapidly because of emigration and birth rates.
Sabbah’s biography reflects the many contradictions Palestinian Christians face in the Holy Land. They share with their Muslim brothers many of the same customs, songs and rituals, and are engaged in the same struggle for independence. But they are also a vulnerable minority.
Sabbah, 66, grew up in Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ boyhood, and during Easter clashes in the city triggered by the mosque dispute, one of his sisters-in-law was struck in the head with a club by a Muslim activist.
Still, Sabbah said the campaign to stop the mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth was never personal.
He said he felt he needed to restore a sense of confidence to Christians who were shaken by Israel’s decision to allow the mosque to be built.
â€œThe feeling of the Christian population started (to be one of) being abandoned,” Sabbah told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday in the cavernous hall in the Latin Patriarchate decorated with paintings of the 12 Apostles.
Palestinian Christians, often perceived as being wealthier than their Muslim counterparts, have always kept a low profile in the Holy Land to avoid tensions, though violence sometimes flares between the two communities. Christians make up 12 percent of the Israeli Arabs and only 5 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; the rest are Muslim.
Eleven years ago, Sabbah became the first Palestinian to be named to the top Roman Catholic post in the region and was given authority over 60,000 believers in the Holy Land, Cyprus and Jordan. In the past, the patriarchs were always foreign-born, and Sabbah quickly put his special mark on the influential post.
During the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he would sometimes speak out against house demolitions, land confiscation and Jewish settlement expansion.
Sabbah was ordained as a priest in Nazareth at age 22. In 1968, he became a professor of Arabic and Islam in Djibouti, Africa.
â€œThere were many French at the time and they had to deal with Muslims. So my mission was to give them a true knowledge of what Islam is and who the Muslims are, which I tried to do as best as I could,â€ he said, adding that he still feels close to Islam because it as part of the culture of growing up as a Palestinian in Nazareth. The patriarch said those trying to build the mosque in his hometown are a minority among the Muslim residents. â€œThe aim is not to build a mosque, the aim is to (create) discord,” Sabbah said in his halting English. â€œThat is what we are against.â€
The Nazareth confrontation began two years ago when Mayor Ramez Jeraisi, a Christian, announced plans to build a tourist plaza next to the basilica. But the Islamic movement claimed the half-acre plot and demanded the entire area for a huge mosque.
The Israeli government brokered a compromise that would allow a mosque on one-third of the land, and the plaza on the remainder.
In a last-minute effort to stop the construction, top clerics led by Sabbah closed major Christian shrines on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday, the day the Muslims laid the cornerstone for the mosque, the Vatican publicly backed Sabbah for the first time, accusing Israel of stirring tensions between Christians and Muslims.
Despite such strife, Christians have an obligation to stay, he said.
â€œTo be a Christian in the Holy Land … is a call to a difficult life and you have to accept your call,” he said.