His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Speech At HCEF banquet in his honor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church Atlanta Georgia June 15, 2001

His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Speech
At HCEF banquet in his honor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church
Atlanta Georgia
June 15, 2001

Brothers and Sisters:

1. Peace be with you all. Coming from Jerusalem, which is still in painful quest for peace, I greet you with the peace of the Risen Lord.
I am glad to be with you this evening. I am grateful to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and to Most Rev. Bishop Fiorenza, the president, for his fraternal invitation to the Bishops’ June meeting, making it possible for me to share with them and to be with you this evening.  I am grateful to H.E. Archbishop Donoghue, Archbishop of Atlanta, and to Pastor Vic Pentz, Pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Congregation, who welcome us this evening in their diocese and in their hearts.  My gratitude goes as well to the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, the organizer of this event, to Sir Rateb Rabie the president and to all the working Board members.

2. Coming from Jerusalem, I have to speak about Jerusalem, about what is going on in Jerusalem, about believers in God, Moslems, Jews and Christians, belonging to the two nationalities, Palestinians and Israelis, who are still struggling in order to find their peace, in order to find the face of God in their souls and hence in their land. Jerusalem is the city of God, and all who deal with Jerusalem deal with God and not merely with men. The presence of God in Jerusalem is not there in order to transform a mere political conflict into religious fanaticism and extremism, but to transform all those who are sincerely concerned with the building of peace into bearers of God’s love and justice. With this presence of God in the conflict, all parts will see, as God gives them to see, what is justice for the other, and how the other can be loved just as God can be loved, amidst death and cruel events. It is only with the acceptance of God’s love, that the path towards justice and peace for all will be open.

3. The Current Situation
3.1. A few days ago a cease-fire was reached between Israelis and Palestinians. We hope it will lead to normal and definitive peace. Because until now we have lived our most difficult days, full of violence, mutual hatred and hence abandonment of God. From the Palestinian side, violence was manifested by stone throwing, gun shooting, and ‘mystical’ suicide bombings. From the Israeli side, this violence included: the sealing of Palestinian towns and villages, the demolition of agricultural fields, the destruction of olive groves, bulldozing houses, indiscriminate shelling and bombing of Palestinian towns and villages, and military protection of settlers who take their own retaliation.

3.2 All violence which destroys the heart as well as the land of any human being, Israeli or Palestinian, is a violence against God. But also every cry of the poor and the oppressed is heard by God, the Creator and re-shaper of human societies, who opposes the strong and heals the oppression. Violence must stop. But violence has a cause: if the cause is not taken away, the effect will remain. The cause is the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land, and the Palestinians being kept during 34 years under a regime of military occupation with all its hardships and humiliations. To make the picture clearer, the state of Israel includes today 78% of historic Palestine.  In 1967 Israel occupied the rest of Palestine, i.e. the remaining 22%. For a long time, the Arab world and the Palestinians refused to recognize the existence of Israel. Since the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo agreements, the Palestinians and much of the Arab world recognized the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel. With that the Palestinians conceded 78% of the land to Israel, they now claim the remaining 22% of the land, as their rightful homeland.  They are supported in their claim by United Nations resolutions calling for the exchange of land for peace..

3.3 Patriarchs and heads of Churches of Jerusalem we have said in one of our common statements: “it is the right and the duty of an occupied people to struggle against injustice in order to gain their freedom.” At the same time, we also asserted that “non-violent means remain stronger and more efficient.” and morally more powerful  (Patriarchs, Nov. 2000). During an ecumenical prayer for peace and justice, held in Jerusalem the first month of the Intifada, I have told our faithful: “If we are true believers in God, we must ponder how our freedom, our political freedom, relates to the word of God, who says that love must be the guide of man in the worst and darkest of circumstances, such as we are living today.”  (Homily, St. Etienne, Oct. 12, 2000)

4. How shall we escape from this situation?
In these days a cease-fire was agreed upon by both parties. I hope it will lead to sincere talks and to a definitive end of the conflict. Israel’s priority is security, and that security remains threatened by Palestinian resistance as well as by the refusal of Arab countries to enter on a course of normal relations with Israel until justice is done to the Palestinians. The cease-fire tells both parties that peace, justice, security will not be achieved through retaliation and force. Accordingly, time has come to deal seriously with the Palestinian claims for freedom, independence and end of the occupation. The best protection for the present and the future of Israel, the only way to have peace and security is the conversion of the Palestinian enemies of today into the friends of today and tomorrow. And this can be reached if justice is done, which means if land and freedom is given back to the Palestinians.

As we saw in 1993 after Oslo, friendship is possible. Palestinians will reach out to Israelis in lasting friendship if justice is done to them. Hearts, friendly Palestinian hearts, are the best guarantee of security and peace.

5. The Situation of Christians
Christian Palestinians are Palestinians. Hence, we are a part of the conflict. We may be found among the victims as among the survivors. We share in claiming our freedom and our land. The normal way Christians conceive of their future is to see themselves a part of their people. To consider or to deal with Christians as a purely religious community, without any legitimate national allegiance or distinct culture, de-humanizes us. In the eight months of the second Intifada, Christian towns or villages (Bethlehem, Beit-Sahour, Beit-Jala, Ramalla, Zababdeh) have been bombed. In the half-Christian, half-Moslem village of Aboud, encircled by settlements, more lands have been confiscated and olive trees were cut down. Last Sunday I was called by the parish priest to that village to see more olive trees cut down by the army and the settlers. The sealing of towns and villages affected our parishes in all the Palestinian Territories depriving people of employment and essential services, and making normal life impossible. In December, our Latin Seminary and church in Beit Jala were shelled on the excuse that suspicious people were seen in the neighborhood. The siege made access quite difficult for the Patriarch, the Bishops, the parish priests and almost impossible for the parishioners. The sealing affected the running of the schools and the transportations of teachers and students. Economic instability created financial problems for the schools reducing the schools’ tuitions to the minimum, and causing a deficit in the schools budget. Lack of jobs for Christians as for all Palestinians is making daily food a hard matter. Church agencies, Catholics and Protestants (CRS, Pontifical Mission, Caritas, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, World Vision, your own Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation) and others are doing their best to help. Some emigrated or think of moving away. But emigration remains limited. 

6. Needs of Christians today
Our major need is that of all the land, the need of the Palestinians and the Israelis: peace and security for all. A need to which the international community and the Churches should keep doing more and more in order to respond to it. We need that the Israelis see that their essential need of security consists in making justice to the Palestinians. In seeing that the problem between Palestinians and Israelis is not an exchange of violence, and will never be solved by the exchange of violence, but by giving back to the Palestinians their freedom and their land. We need that all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, see the face of God in every one, and filled with this vision, we replace fear and mistrust, with love and trust, and justice and security for all. This is our main need, which gives back to every one of us our human dignity and the true respect for the image of God dwelling in us.

Second, our concrete needs are: the end of the siege imposed on our towns and villages, freedom of movement, and, given the economic instability, from your part as Foundation, more support to families in need and more support to schools unable to continue their mission.
Here, I have to express my gratitude for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation for the signs of solidarity expressed already in your first generous contributions. I want to express also, on the occasion of this gathering, my sincere gratitude to the Catholic Church in the USA, to this particular congregation, as well as to many other Presbyterian and evangelical Churches for their solidarity and support to the Churches of the Holy Land.

7. Members of the H.L. Ecumenical Foundation, your Foundation has the mission to increase the awareness and educate the American Christian public opinion about the Christian presence in the Holy Land, it’s importance for the whole Church and its challenges for a continuous witness of a living Faith in the Land of Christ.  Your second objective is to offer chances of developing partnerships, encouraging pilgrimages, and supporting the local Christian communities in the Holy Land by providing projects as signs of hope and by financially support for the working institutions in different fields such as education and relief. This foundation should deepen its vision and philosophy so to have a well-directed action, and become a solid support to the Christian presence in the Holy Land, a presence which will be at the same time Palestinian and Christian, having its role in the peace-making. I wish to the Foundation perseverance and permanent progress until you reach your full growth of witnesses to the message of your land, the land of the Lord, a message of peace and salvation to the whole world.

God bless you all.
 Michel Sabbah
 Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem
 Jerusalem – Atlanta (USA)
(Banquet speech)