The divine light still burns: The Holy Land Christians endure
Sisters and Brothers
1. Greetings from Jerusalem, and wishes of peace and justice to
you all, as to all of the Holy Land.
This yearly conference of the Christian Ecumenical Foundation of the Holy Land brings us together, to look into the present and the future of the small but living community of the land of our Christian roots.
The title or the motto of the Conference this year is the following: “The divine light still burns. The Holy Land Christians endure”. Yes, the divine light is there, and therefore we endure. Indeed, we keep hoping because we believe firmly in God. He is the Almighty, the stronger than any power in this world. We believe, with the Psalmist, that “He will judge the world in uprightness, and He will give a true verdict on the nations” (Ps 9-10:8-9). We believe that He is “a stronghold for the oppressed, in times of trouble” (Ps 9-10:10-11). We believe in His love and justice, and therefore the divine light still burns, and the Holy Land Christians endure. They hope, and they say to God: “Rise up, O God, raise your hand; do not forget the afflicted” (Ps10: 12); in your saving justice, lead me (Ps 5:8); it is you, and none other, who make rest secure (Ps 4:8).
2. With this faith, we look to the tragedy of the people in our land, and we look at it as holy land, full of the memory of God’s history with humankind, beginning with Abraham, the father of our faith, all of us, Jews, Moslems and Christians. Our land is full of the memory of God. But, in these difficult days, we ask ourselves whether God is still present there, not in the land, but in the living hearts of the believers in Him, because what is happening today is so inhuman, it cannot be coming from people who believe in God. We look to the land, to the occupation, to the resistance to the occupation, and to the infernal cycle of violence, which encircle the daily life of so many human beings, among whom we find the small Christian Palestinian community.
3. We look to the land and to its tragedy, and we look to our Christian identity and to our role in sharing in these sufferings and in contributing to their healing. Our Christian identity is still not clearly defined to so many who suffer the tragedy of the land, who endure the curfews, the siege, the demolitions, and the humiliation which compels them to ask for their bread. At the same time, neither is it clearly defined to many directly engaged in the political and human struggle that calls for the end of the occupation and a new birth of freedom.
First feature of our identity is to be one, though and because we are many and divided. We are many Churches in Jerusalem, we have our differences and divisions, but we are called to be one, beyond differences and divisions. One heart, one vision of the human being to whom we are sent to serve him in his difficult days. When human beings are suffering, as they are today in the Holy Land, Christian Churches are not allowed to paralyze their action and their message because of their divisions. Overcoming in love our divisions to serve, to listen to the cry of the oppressed and the poor, will be remunerated by God one day with the gift of unity that is the true desire of all of us and with the gift of justice and peace.
Therefore ecumenism is also a special vocation of this Foundation. It is a foundation for all the Christians emigrated from the Church of Jerusalem. Every Christian should feel at home in this Foundation. No one of us should try to appropriate it for himself. It should remain the place where all Christians meet, reflect and act, as true witnesses to Jesus Christ in His land.
4. First and essential feature also is the belonging to one’s people. Any Christian is part of his people wherever he is. Therefore, Christian Palestinians are part of their people in all their trials, sufferings and in paying the price to re-cover their land and their freedom. At the same time, even as they belong to the land and cling to it with all their might, even as they make claims for justice and suffer for it, Christian Palestinians believe in Jesus Christ, in his love and justice. Jesus, the Lord, embodies values that can make a special contribution to the human resolution of our ongoing tragedy. He has a spirit that can enrich the Palestinians as they claim their freedom and their land. An essential element of the Christian Palestinian identity, therefore, is our faith in Jesus Christ and all his teachings, lived with authenticity.
Some people would like to treat Christian Palestinians as if they were exclusively a religious community without membership in any other human belonging to a people. They would deny our ethnicity and our nationality. Ethnic and national identity is a good in which we all share. Our Christian identity does not detract from our belonging to the Palestinian people. The universality of the Church does not dissolve our Palestinian heritage or destroy our nationality. The Church is a communion that embraces and affirms all nations, races and cultures. We Palestinians are one human community, one people, in which Christians and Moslems are united..
5. In our ties to the land and to the people, and in the struggle for land and freedom, Christian-Muslim relations are often put to the test by a very malicious temptation. It says: Moslems do not respect Christians; they do not allow them the necessary space for life; they are a danger and a source of fear to the Christians, and so on. Doing so is no help at all to Christian Palestinians. It is rather an invitation to them to live in fear and to abandon their land and their vocation in it. Moslem-Christian relations are very intimate bonds between two parts of the same people. Only the people themselves can handle the huge, continuous efforts needed to find the best way to coexistence and collaboration. This relationship is an essential part of the Christian life in any Arab country and Moslem society. It is a basic feature of our Arab and Palestinian Christian identity: to live in an Arab and Moslem world is our vocation.
Since the 11th of September, relations between Moslems and Christians came to the surface in a very acute way. With the eruption of irrational terrorism, a new historical moment has begun, in which humankind is invited to a true purification of historical memories and of present relations. Acknowledging one’s own sin and hence the true sources and causes of evil is difficult. In this historical moment Arab Christians are called to purify their comprehension of their intimate relations with their Moslems co-nationals in order to help Christians and Moslems in the world come together to build the new world. Our vocation to live among and with Moslems is a gift to all peoples.
6. In the building of a new world, Palestinian freedom and a Palestinian state must be a part. The present situation has been reduced to a military confrontation, a blind demolition of men and things. We are living nowadays a very cruel military stalemate that profits no one. The Israelis who continue to live in fear for their security are no safer, and Palestinians who continue to struggle for their freedom and independence are still claiming for it.
The situation in the Holy Land could be very simple, but politics blinds us to its simplicity. The essence of the conflict is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land taken in 1967. Instead of the Israeli occupation, what the world speaks about now is the fight against terrorism, the corruption of the Palestinian administration, and the needed reforms to set it right. These are real problems, but they are not the main problem. Indeed, suppose that all Palestinian violence stop and the best Palestinian administration is found, even then the conflict will not be resolved, because the basic problem will remain unaddressed: Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and Palestinian claims for independence and freedom. As long as these basic claims are not satisfied, violence and insecurity will continue to shake the land.
The military violence that is going on now – siege, curfews, home demolition, the killing of Palestinians, as well as killing of Israelis - is simply another unfortunate and useless chapter in the tragic history of our land. That chapter will be closed one day with the horrible sum of the victims, the ruins and the hatred on both sides. So much bloodshed and hatred on both sides could have been spared, if there were more courage, and more sincerity, to look into the essential question of occupation. The bloodshed and the hatred can be ended, if all sides would only take the decision to put an end to it. Then both peoples will have been saved, and will have begun the process of reconciliation. The present policy of military solution adopted by the Israeli government is a waste of time and a dreadful waste of lives. It is a cruel and useless parenthesis in the history of this long conflict.
The present route in the pursuit of peace and security is misguided. It is time to learn from the lessons of history and from the victims of these two past years. We have matched violence against violence; we have buried victim upon victim, and we have succeeded only in marching backwards. Israelis live in fear and are desperate for security. Palestinians live under occupation and long for their freedom. During these two past years, thousands of Palestinians were killed, thousands were made prisoners, besides demolitions of houses and agriculture. If the same military situation remains, more thousands will be killed or made prisoners, more demolition will take place. But the whole question will remain as it is: the Palestinian people claiming for his freedom and for the end of the Israeli occupation, and the Israeli people claiming for their security. It is time to change. It is time for the Israelis to give themselves the needed security by allowing the Palestinians enjoy their legitimate freedom.
7. The Foundation has as its basic aim to create a new living Christian community among all those who left the land, in solidarity with the churches of their new lands, especially here in the United States. In order to rekindle the light of the land in their hearts and doings, in order to help those who are there keep hoping in these difficult days, the Foundation has also to make grow the authentic Christian contribution to the healing of the land. I wish to this Foundation a real success in achieving its noble and needed goals in these days. We need unity, we need common and more coordinated action, for the good of those who are here and those who bear the weight of their vocation there. I thank you for the invitation to be with you this evening; and to all of you I wish all the blessings of the Lord, with the peace and justice that will heal all the wounds of our land.
+Michel Sabbah, Patriarch
Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation
Washington, 18 October 2002