POPE OPENS CONFERENCE ON CHRISTIANITY IN HOLY LAND

VATICAN, Dec 13, 01 (CWNews.com) - Pope John Paul II opened
a special day of consultations on the future of Christianity
in the Holy Land by saying that the situation there is
"tragic," and that "extremists are disfiguring the face of
the Holy Land."

The Holy Father had asked the Christian leaders of the Holy
Land to come to Rome, to meet with Vatican officials and
with representatives of the bishops' conferences of Europe,
Latin America, the US, and Canada. The meeting took place,
coincidentally, on a day when the Israeli government had
announced its intentions to break off contact with
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, signaling a new danger of
escalating violence.

Recognizing that Christians are caught between "two
different extremes," the Pope reminded the bishops of their
"heavy duty to continue being witnesses to the presence of
God's love in that land, and carriers of his message in a
predominantly Jewish and Muslim environment." The Pope
lamented the fact that a message of peace, published by the
Christian prelates for Christmas 1999, was not heard by the
surrounding world.

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ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO VATICAN DISAPPOINTED BY CONFERENCE

VATICAN, Dec 13, 01 (CWNews.com) - In an interview with a
Roman news agency, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See has
expressed disappointment that he was not informed about
Vatican plans for a conference on the future of Christians
in the Holy Land, and insisted that the Israeli government
is doing everything possible to protect Christians there.

Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan told the news agency I
Media that Palestinian Christians have been the victims of
Muslim fundamentalists, and that only Yasser Arafat could
bring an end to the violence in the Middle East. He also
said that the Israeli government is searching for a
compromise solution to the contentious issue of the mosque
that is being built on land adjacent to the Annunciation
basilica in Nazareth.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ISRAELI ENVOY TO VATICAN

VATICAN, Dec 13, 01 (CWNews.com) -- In an interview with a Roman news
agency, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See has expressed disappointment
that he was not informed about Vatican plans for a conference on the future
of Christians in the Holy Land, and insisted that the Israeli government is
doing everything possible to protect Christians there.

Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan told the news agency I Media that
Palestinian Christians have been the victims of Muslim fundamentalists, and
that only Yasser Arafat could bring an end to the violence in the Middle East.
He also said that the Israeli government is searching for a compromise
solution to the contentious issue of the mosque that is being built on land
adjacent to the Annunciation basilica in Nazareth.

[The following is the text of the I Media interview.]

I Media: After a year of serving at the Vatican, how do you see the relations
between the Holy See and the state of Israel:

Lamdan: We are engaged in relations with the Holy See that are important
and complicated. They are, at the same time, political relations and relations
concerning the ties between the Jews and Israel and the Catholics. Those
relations reached a culminating point with the superb visit of the Pope in
Israel, a year and a half ago--a visit that was historic in every sense of the
term, particularly if one considers the long and unhappy relations of the 15
last centures, and even in comparison with the visit by Paul VI in 1964.
Since then, these relations have developed on a parallel course.

Unfortunately, political events in Israel, and the new outbreak of the intifada
waged by the Palestinians, has not helped the development of what I am
calling the political relations with the Holy See. On the other hand,
concerning the relations between Catholics and Jews in Israel, as well as
relations with the Catholic world at large, we have been able to make
consistent progress. The recent visit by Cardinal Walter Kasper to Jerusalem
is an illustration.

I Media: What was the impact of that visit?

Lamdan: The arrival of Cardinal Walter Kasper was, for us, a cause of great
satisfaction because if was a public expression of the Holy See's wish to
develop relations and to open a path of inter-religious dialogue with the
Jews of Israel, through a tie with the Grand Rabbi of Israel. We believe that
such a dialogue is very likely to increase mutual understanding and respect.

But the visit also came in the context of other actions that tend to favor
dialogue between Jews and Christians. A center of Jewish studies is going to
be opened at the pontifical Gregorian University next week, and our embassy
will be organizing academic seminars between the pontifical universities and
the universities located in Israel. A great deal can be done-- and is being
done-- in this field.

I Media: Now that there is a meeting place between the Christian leaders of
the Holy Land and the Holy See, what is your outlook on the future for
Christians in the Holy Land, and what role will the state of Israel play?

Lamdan: First of all I would like to make a clear distinction between the
situation of Christians in Israel-- where clearly they encounter no danger--
and that of Christians in the Palestinian territories-- where unfortunately
there are real problems. The greatest problems are caused by the climate of
terror imposed by the Palestinian terrorists that are attacking Israeli citizens
in the first place. Israel cannot let her children be killed. If Arafat is not
capable, or doesn't want to act, the state of Israel must defend itself, and
then the Christian population will obviously be in a better condition.

Israel certainly wants to help the Christians, and will do everything for the
welfare of Christians in Israel. Regarding the situation in the Palestinian
territories, it is Arafat who must act to stop the violence that pushes them to
emigrate.

I Media: What can Arafat do regarding the events of the last few days?

Lamdan: We are convinced that Arafat can do a great deal more; to date, he
has really done nothing. His efforts to curb terrorism are a farce. It isn't only
Israel that is calling for an end to the terror, but the United States, and now
it is a wish expressed by the Pope in his message for the next World Day of
Peace. He has clearly stated that terrorism is a sin against man and against
God. It is not a question of "good terrorism" or "bad terrorism;" terrorism is
terrorism. And no one has the right to kill in the name of God.

We feel that we are in perfect agreement with the Pope and with what he
has often said. As Shimon Peres said yesterday [Tuesday, Dec. 11] in Rome,
we attach great importance to the presence of Christians in the Holy Land,
and we see them as a sort of bridge-- between ourselves and the Muslims in
the Holy Land and between us and the Christians of the world.

I Media: What is your position regarding the mosque in Nazareth, in the face
of the Christians who do not understand that situation?

Lamdan: Right away, I would like to clarify that there is not a mosque at that
site. Secondly, there was a request made to the government by
fundamentalist Muslim groups to build a mosque near the Basilica of the
Annunciation. Now the state of Israel is very attentive to the sensibilities of
Christians. So we have to make a careful ruling on this situation, after finding
a solution that will be acceptable to all parties. We cannot ignore the fact
that the Muslims have discovered their own holy place on that site. That is
why they want to build a mosque there. And we are responsible for ensuring
the freedom of worship.

I Media: This meeting on December 13 organized by the Secretariat of State
has, according to the director of the Vatican press office, a purely pastoral
objective. Were you consulted?

Lamdan: Unfortunately-- and to our regret-- we were not consulted in
advance regarding the plans for this day of consultation. Still, we hope they
will be successful. And insofar as they concern the Christian citizens of
Israel, the Vatican will surely inform us and perhaps ask up to help out, as
we can.

I Media: Do you have anything you would like to say?

Lamdan: These are tragic and desperate days. My prayer is that we will not
close off hope, and will not lose faith in the possibility of a peace agreement
with responsible Palestinians. We all need peace, and it can be attained by
men of good will, as long as terrorism is stopped. And I pray that we can all
gather around the negotiating table and build the peace-- a peace for all
those who live in the Holy Land: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.