His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem Weighs in with the White House on International Religious Freedom
In a historic meeting arranged by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem met yesterday in Washington with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to discuss the grave challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land. The Delegation to the Commission included His Beatitude and Rateb Y. Rabie, KCHS, HCEF President/CEO, as well as Father Michael McDonagh, International Advisor to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Father Drew Christiansen, member of the Board of Directors of the HCEF and Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Global Human Development at Georgetown University.
This lively and open discussion focused on the situation of religious freedom in the Holy Land, where His Beatitude shepherds a flock of over 160 000 Roman Catholics living in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. However, when His Beatitude meets with officials he represents the Holy Land Christians of all denominations. At the forefront of the discussion was the dire situation in Gaza: “Both Christian and Muslim alike, are being traumatized by the excessive use of force. The result is that many civilians, including women and children, are suffering.” Patriarch Twal addressed the commission on other important topics such as Israel's confiscation of Catholic Church lands, specifically the Salesian Monastery of Cremisan, the building of the Separation Wall, and the question of freedom of movement for priests traveling between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. His Beatitude also shed light on Israel's effort to divide the Palestinian community by introducing a separate Christian ID and opening the Israeli draft to include Christians. Advocating for a peaceful coexistence, His Beatitude addressed the commission "It is our fate and our destiny to live together, so let us be friends." He declared that "Uniquely, of all the people in the Holy Land, the Christians proclaim a truth which is non-partisan, which is based on the achievement of justice–our fundamental human right."
As Sir Rateb said following the meeting, "This occasion was a very important step in educating U.S. policy makers about the situation in which Holy Land Christians find themselves today." He went on to explain that "the Christians of the Holy Land could help the Commission, being a bridge of peace in a troubled land. They can do this because they share the Old Testament in common with the Jewish people, and yet they are one people–culturally–with the people of Palestine. We should count on the moderates of all sides for their constructive input in a just resolution to this conflict."
Father Drew Christiansen touched on the fundamental basis of the agreement between the Vatican and Israel regarding the Christians and the Holy Places. "Unfortunately," he said 'this agreement has been forestalled, and has not yet been implemented, so the church in the Holy Land feels continuously insecure about its status." Father McDonagh insisted "There is a need for two things if we are to move forward: a balanced respect for individual human lives on all sides, and an understanding that peace is the fruit of justice, and cannot be achieved without justice. Therefore any discussion of peace will be fruitless if it does not first seek to establish justice.”
The Patriarch's Delegation met with USCIRF Executive Director Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, Director of Government and Media Relations Judith E. Golub, Deputy Director for Policy Dwight Bashir, and USCIRF Commissioners Dr. James Zogby and Daniel Mark. Additionally, the Commission Chair Katrina Lantos Swett and Commissioner Mohamed Zuhdi Jasser joined by conference call.
His Beatitude concluded the meeting by inviting all present to visit the Holy Land as his special guests. "It is crucial," he explained, "to come and see the Holy Land, to understand the circumstances, in order to formulate more effective and relevant policies." HCEF looks forward to a continued conversation with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and to meaningful collaboration for the benefit of the Holy Land Christians and the pursuit of a just, lasting peace for all.