WASHINGTON (CNS) — The preservation of the Christian presence in the Holy Land is an essential component of peace in the Middle East, a Jesuit social ethicist told a Washington briefing.

Christian community important to Middle East peace, says scholar

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The preservation of the Christian presence in the Holy Land is an essential component of peace in the Middle East, a Jesuit social ethicist told a Washington briefing.

“The press, even many experts, tend to think the only stake of the church is protection of the holy places and freedom of access to them. But for many years we have put an even higher priority on seeing that the Christian communities of the Holy Land can flourish,” said Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center.

He spoke May 25 at a briefing, “Jerusalem: the Intifada and Beyond,” at Washington’s National Press Club. The briefing was sponsored by the American Committee on Jerusalem.

“Without living Christian communities, the Holy Land will decay into a religious Disneyland. Without communities of Jews, Christians and Muslims living in harmony, Jerusalem will fail in its vocation to be a city of peace for the three Abrahamic religions,” he said.

Father Christiansen, who also serves as adviser on Middle Eastern affairs for the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, has put at risk the future of the Christian community there.

The Christian residents of Bethlehem are squeezed by Palestinian militants, who use their neighborhood to attack Israeli troops and settlers, on one side, and by the Israeli military, which uses “indiscriminate and excessive fire in response,” on the other side, he said.

Father Christiansen said that the Israeli military policy of “preventative deterrence,” which he defined as unprovoked attacks on civilian neighborhoods and farmland with the alleged goal of discouraging attack and denying cover to guerrilla fighters, has only added to the region’s instability.

“For the Christians of the West Bank, the current cycle of violence presents not just vague fears about their future life prospects, but a very real threat to whether they will make it through the day, and if they do, whether they will find their homes standing at day’s end,” he said.

“It is no wonder the Latin Patriarch, in a fit of Semitic hyperbole, has exclaimed, `Destroy our churches, but spare the homes of the faithful,”‘ he added.

Father Christiansen said Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories must end, but he also called for the end of violence initiated by both sides.

“The Palestinian decision to engage in an armed uprising has had calamitous results for all the people of Palestine,” he said.

The Jesuit said churches worldwide can contribute to the peace process in Israel by promoting nonviolence and by speaking out against hatred.

“It is as necessary to denounce hatred as it is to decry injustice, because hatred … dehumanizes the adversary and makes it impossible to achieve peace. Peace demands that we speak out against hatred,” he said.

Also speaking at the briefing was the Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest and director of the Sabeel Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, who said Israel must change its policy of domination over the Palestinians to a policy of partnership.

“Peace will never be permanent until Jerusalem is open to sharing,” Rev. Ateek said.

He said that in dominating the region politically and religiously, Israel makes prospects for a lasting peace impossible.

“Jerusalem is equally holy to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Anytime we favor one religion over the other, we participate in prolonging the conflict,” he said.

Copyright (c) 2001 Catholic News Service/U.S. Catholic Conference