A Paper Presented for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales Symposia on Christianity in the Holy Land January 23-24, 2001 By Drew Christiansen, S.J., Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center,Washington, D.C. Taking history's long view, the 1990s marked a significant transformation of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, as significant perhaps as the imposition by the Ottomans of the millet system of autonomous community governance more than five centuries ago. By that I mean, the manner of being church in the public square has been definitively altered. As a result of the intifada the Greek, Latin and Oriental churches set aside their traditional divisions and rivalries in a series of joint initiatives on behalf of justice, peace and human rights. These ecumenical actions represented an unprecedented movement of the churches from the margins of society into public life, a role they had been denied in the Ottoman centuries and under more than a millennium of Muslim rule. their common public witness also ended the de facto silence of the churches of the local Christian churches during the first forty years of Israel's existence.
The prolonged political crisis begun in the first intifada, starting in 1987, and continuing through the long and now failed "interim" period after the 1993 Oslo Accords, was the occasion for the churches of the Holy Land to move away from the model of minority religious existence toward a new, self-conscious form of Christianity. That transformation was captured for me in an exchange at a reception a few years ago at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center between Mme. Diana Safie and His Beatitude, the Latin
Patriarch Michel Sabbah. Mme. Safie was imploring the Patriarch to organize the Palestinian Christians around some issue. Exactly what I have now forgotten. The Patriarch dismissed her plea with a mischievous smile. "Diana," he said, "that's the old way. We are no longer ethnarchs," that is leaders of distinct ethno-religious communities. "We must speak for the Church. Lay people must organize politically."
As ethnarchs the patriarchs had dealt with political authorities on behalf of their separate communities, often making special arrangements in the interests of their own congregations. In the new situation, they speak in concert for all the Christians, pleading often for the rights of Palestinians generally, and sometimes for Palestinians and Israelis alike. But, they do so as churchmen, appealing to universal standards of human rights and justice and gospel norms like forgiveness and love of enemies, leaving explicitly political action to lay people. Of course, their statements and actions may sometimes be interpreted as political, particularly by the Israeli government officials, but the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem adhere to a tight-line defined by recognized standards of human rights and universal claims of justice, a range of concerns that impinges on politics but stands outside it as well.
What do I mean by a self-conscious Palestinian Christian identity? First, there is identification with a particular people and its history. Like Polish Catholics or Irish Catholics, Palestinian Christians identify with the Palestinian people's history of displacement and oppression and with their struggle against occupation and on behalf of independence. Unlike some religious nationalists of an earlier generations–and I use the term 'nationalist' in a broad sense–Palestinian Christians also share a broad ecumenical commitment to human rights and justice for the oppressed rooted in the gospel. The outlook that connects the gospel with the promotion is a new one for the Middle East. Ecumenical agreement and cooperation themselves are also new in a region long divided by denominational differences. Just as important, however, is a niversalistic pluralism that is concerned for justice for Israel as well as for the Palestinians and for the rights of Jews as well as those of Christians and Muslims. Palestinian Christians' passion is for justice for the Palestinians, but not to the exclusion of justice for others. The universalism inherent in the justice commitment of Christian Palestinians, therefore, has the potential to temper some of the problematic aspects of nationalist ideologies, fostering respect for the rights of all people and discouraging the use of force in resolving disputes.
For the Catholics among them, who have often played a leadership role in forging this new, social ecumenism, their witness participates in the post-Vatican