What is happening today is so inhuman’
WASHINGTON: There are more than an estimated 400,000 Christian Palestinians in the United States, more than double the Christians remaining in Israel and the Palestinian territories and this issue irks the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, who has come here again this month, as he has done for the last three years, to advocate that they maintain their ties to the motherland and their co-religionists.
“What is happening today,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah said of the grim realities of life in the Occupied Territories, “is so inhuman, it cannot be coming from (the Jewish) people, who believe in God.”
Addressing the fourth annual conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) in Washington last weekend, he said: “We look to the land, to the occupation, to the resistance to the occupation, and to the internal cycle of violence, which encircles the daily life of so many human beings, and among (all this) we find the small Palestinian Christian community.”
The patriarch, a native of Nazareth and the first Palestinian to be named to this high church position by the pontiff, spent three days in Washington talking, in part, at Georgetown University’s Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, which was established by a major donation from a Palestinian philanthropist, American church officials and with the media, locally and internationally. But he did not meet any US officials.
He told The Daily Star that HCEF run by a Palestinian-American, Rateb Rabie has the all-important objective of bringing the Christian Palestinians in the diaspora “together to coordinate their capacities and to keep their link alive with the Holy Land … to help those who remain there.”
There are about 50,000 Palestinians living in the Palestinian areas, in the West Bank and Gaza City. There are an additional 150,000 Christians in Israel, primarily in the Galilee area. Jerusalem has a Christian Palestinian population of 10,000.
Sabbah admitted that his “big worry” nowadays is primarily “to have justice in the Holy Land.” He emphasized that “once we have justice we will have bread. We have no justice; we have neither bread nor justice that’s our problem.”
He went on to paint a grim picture of life under Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories.
“This difficult situation of war, peace and curfews is tiring, (prompting) many to leave the country. Muslims, Christians and even Jews are leaving; some 50,000 Jews, I was told, have left Israel in the last two years. However, only 1,000 or 2,000 Christians have left yet this is a high figure when you compare their total population (of 50,000). “If instability persists, more and more will leave,” he added. “And if this situation military actions, house demolitions, killings and assassinations continues, we will have four or five years more (here).”
Patriarch Sabbah predicted that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be re-elected in next year’s national elections because, so far, he has no serious rivals: “If Sharon remains in office, he will do what he is doing now just making war and making life as difficult as possible for the Palestinians.”
According to Sabbah, Sharon shares the same dreams of the early Zionist founders of Israel, “to have all (historic) Palestine empty of Palestinians.” He nevertheless doubted that there would be another Palestinian exodus on the scale of 1948 or 1967.
“No Palestinian moved out of the refugee camp,” he said, as a consequence of the Israeli occupation this year of the major Palestinian cities.
“The Palestinians are not ready to escape, make an exodus, except if the Israelis use some new weapons, new ways, new massacres, of inspiring fear and pushing the people to go away. I do not see how this could be realized. Physically, this is an impossibility,” he said. “If Sharon remains (in office) five more years, more thousands will be killed but all that will be useless. He will always have 3 million or 4 million Palestinians with whom he will have to deal, and who will always organize their resistance, silently or violently.
“Sharon will always have the Palestinian problem to deal with,” he said. According to Sabbah, the Israelis’ greatest fear is demography: “Inside Israel, 20 percent of Israelis are Palestinians. In the next 10-20 years, half the population will be non-Jewish, besides the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories” who number over 2 million at present. “This is what is terrifying the leaders of Israel, who face the possibility that their state will have a non-Jewish majority,” Sabbah said. “This is a problem they don’t know how to solve except with military action, killing and inspiring fear. But I don’t think Israel will succeed. The Palestinian presence in Palestine is a permanent presence. The Israelis, perhaps, will go (but) the Palestinians will remain. Or the Israelis will accept the fact of coexistence with the Palestinians.”
Sabbah took a swipe at the Bush administration and its favoritism toward Israel, arguing that US actions are having the opposite result: “If you want to support someone, you will not surround him with enemies. You will surround him with friends. “The Bush administration, through all its measures, wrong political positions, is surrounding Israel with more and more enemies,” he said. “I told the Americans, if you want to protect the Jewish people, it’s okay, no problem. But, first of all, you have to surround the Jewish people with friends and before you can do that, be just to those who live with them, their first neighbors, the Palestinians. And through the Palestinians you will have all the Arabs as friends as well. When the Palestinians say ‘we are friendly with the Israelis,’ then all the Arabs will say ‘we are friends’ as well.”
Asked to explain the tie between the Christian evangelist community and Israel, he said the two sides benefit politically from each other. Otherwise he said, if the Evangelicals “are truly Christian, they have to apply the commandment of love, for the Jews and Palestinians alike.”
Sabbah said he was willing to speak to the Evangelical Christians about the issues dividing Arabs and Israelis. He said he was not surprised by the failure of the US to come to the aid of the Christians in Palestine.
“The United States has a majority of Christians, but the functioning of the government is not Christian. President George W. Bush is not functioning as a Christian, despite the fact that he goes to church and reads the Bible. He is functioning in accordance with the interests of the United States,” he said.