By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
A recent meeting in Vatican of some 200 Catholic bishops, mainly from the Arab world, will very likely go down in history for adopting the strongest condemnation by Christian church leaders of present-day Israeli policies and actions.
At the same time, it will be remembered for their call on all Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, where Muslims are the majority, to work together to end the heart-wrenching bloody turmoil as a result of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has plagued the region for more than six decades and led to the emigration of tens of thousands, especially Christians.
The bishops “concluding statement” issued a couple of days after their two-week meeting which ended on October 24 stressed that “recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable,” a blunt reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
A key participant from Newton, Mass., Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros, who was in charge of the committee that drafted the communique, went a step further. “The concept of the promised land cannot be used as a base for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians,” he said at news conference. “Sacred scripture should not be used to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestine.”
In their most direct condemnation of Israel which is bound to echo throughout the region, the Synod of Bishops of the Middle East, had this emphasis in their significant over 5,000-word statement:
“We have taken account of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole region, especially on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees.
“We have reflected on the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live. We have meditated on the situation of the Holy City of Jerusalem. We are anxious about the unilateral initiatives that threaten its composition and risk to change its demographic balance. With all this in mind, we see that a just and lasting peace is the only salvation for everyone and for the good of the region and its peoples.”
They also issued an appeal to the international community, particularly the United Nations, to “conscientiously work to find a peaceful, just and definitive solution” for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “through the application of the Security Council’s resolutions and take the necessary legal steps to put an end to the (Israeli) occupation of the different Arab territories,” belonging to Syria and Lebanon.
The bishops’ statement, which was hardly reported here in the U.S., also dealt with relations with both Muslims and Jews, telling “our Muslim fellow-citizens (that) we are brothers and sisters and God wishes us to be together;” and expressing hope to the Jews that “this dialogue can bring us to work together to press those in authority (in Israel) to put and an end to the political conflict which results in separating us and disrupting everyday life in our countries.” The statement concluded: “It is time for us to commit ourselves together to a sincere, just and permanent peace.”
They also voiced concern over the fate of Christians in Iraq, the scene of a deplorable massacre this week in which more than 50 persons were killed during a church service, and similarly in Lebanon, where sectarianism still reigns supreme casting a long shadow on the country whose capital has always been known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”
Arab Christians, especially Palestinians who have emigrated in the huge numbers, were urged to “look at your goods and your properties in your home country (and) not abandon and sell them too quickly.” The bishops stressed, “the land is part of a person’s identity and his mission (and) a vital aspect of the lives of those who remain there and for those who one day will return there.”
As can be expected the Israeli leaders were enraged by the bishops’ statement and its list of 44 propositions and all subject to a review by Pope Benedict XVI before it is issued in its final form. However, the pontiff’s emphatic comment last Sunday marking the end of the conference was: “Peace is possible. Peace is urgent.” Whether he will adopt the communiqué in total remains to be seen but all indications are that other church groups are on line with the bishops’ views.
Already, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), led by Sir Rateb Y. Rabie, a Palestinian-American, will be held this week a conference in Washington where the keynote speaker will be Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, who was named last month a cardinal by the Pope. The conference, titled “Living the Faith: Promoting Peace and Human Security in the Holy Land,” will feature many clergymen from Jerusalem and other Palestinian business leaders whose aim is to highlight business opportunities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.