FROM The Tablet
BY Michael Hirst
Israel's "security fence", and the plight of Palestinians living in its shadow have been sharply condemned by bishops from Europe and the Americas meeting in the Holy Land last week. They also called for urgent help for the dwindling number of Christians in the area.
The meeting, entitled "the Universal Church in Solidarity with the Church of the Holy Land", was held in Jerusalem and Bethlehem with the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and presided over by the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah. The third and largest of its kind, and arranged by the English and Welsh bishops, the conference brought together bishops from 10 conferences: the United States, Canada, El Salvador, England and Wales, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The delegates included two conference presidents - Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville (US) and Archbishop Brendan O'Brien of St John's, Newfoundland (Canada) - as well as the president of Caritas Latin America and a delegate of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (Comece). In a series of meetings from 12-15 January, the bishops were briefed on the plight of local Christians by university lecturers, charity workers, clergy, students and diplomats. They also had meetings with both the Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, and the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, and took part in an interfaith discussion with local Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars.
"We have seen the devastating effect of the wall currently being built through Palestinian land," the 11 bishops said in their concluding statement. "We have had an experience of the frustration and humiliation undergone every day by Palestinians at checkpoints, which impede them from providing for their families, reaching hospital, getting to work, attending their studies and visiting their relatives."
On the outskirts of Bethlehem the bishops watched as Israel's security barrier went up outside the convent of the Sisters of Emmanuel, which the wall will soon cut off from Jerusalem. "I don't know how anybody could support this," commented Bishop William Kenney, auxiliary of Stockholm, who represented Comece at the conference. Archbishop O'Brien said the wall would turn the Palestinian areas into even more of a ghetto, and Bishop Gregory said it would increase the isolation of the Palestinian people and lead to more frustration and violence.
Israel insists the $1 billion barrier is a temporary security measure, but its trenches, walls and fences look to many like a border in the making (see below). The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has warned that if peace talks remain frozen in the coming months, he will impose such a border on the Palestinians. There are strong indications that the route of the planned wall, which cuts sharply into Palestinian territory and puts many settlements on the Israeli side, would be the basis of any new boundary.
Quoting the Pope's call last November for bridges, rather than walls, in the Holy Land, the bishops agreed at their meeting that the Catholic Church could act as such a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. Patriarch Sabbah told the bishops that Churches had the responsibility "to affirm the Christian character of this land by making themselves present through many ways of presence, pilgrimages, reconciliation, and respect for the human person".
During a sharp exchange with the Latin Patriarch on 14 January at the Israeli President's quarters in Jerusalem, Katzav said that Israel would not go ahead with the peace process unless Palestinian terrorism stopped. When Patriarch Sabbah responded that the Israeli occupation was what was causing terrorist attacks, the Israeli President accused him of legitimising terror. "As a spiritual leader you must condemn terror of any kind," he said, adding: "God does not forgive terrorism." Patriarch Sabbah replied that he objects to "bloodshed of any kind". At a press conference the following day, Patriarch Sabbah said the peace process was making progress, but required patience. "It's like a flower bed in a garden," he said, "it may not look as if much is happening, but under the surface, the shoots are strengthening and growing. Things are improving, if slowly." Pilgrimages had picked up during the past year, he said, and more were expected during 2004.
Br Vincent Malham, president of Bethlehem University, said he hoped more Christians would come on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He urged the bishops to share the information gained from their time in the Holy Land and mobilise efforts to support the Christians there. "Israel wants to break the will of the Palestinian people," he said, adding: "There is a deliberate policy of suffocation, which makes Palestinians want to leave, as they do not want to bring up their children here."
The Israeli wall will cut through land owned by the Church, contravening the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel signed on 30 December 1993, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the Holy Land, told the bishops. That agreement establishes "the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions, and to have its own institutions, and to train, appoint and deploy its own personnel in said institutions for the said functions to these ends". An ad hoc committee formed by the Latin Patriarchate last year to assess the difficulties now faced by the Church in carrying out its normal activities found that 86 applications by religious workers for entry visas and residence permits had been refused. New regulations demand that foreign visitors to the Holy Land must receive permission from Israel's Ministry of Interior before traveling into the occupied territories, or face deportation.
Each bishop pledged after the meeting to report back to his conference on his experiences, raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians, lobby governments to apply more pressure on both parties to re-engage in the stalled peace process, and encourage pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. Referring to recent meetings with the US National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, and a proposed audience with President George W. Bush, Bishop Gregory said there was a lack of energy in current peace initiatives but that bishops took a long-term view. They are "in it for the long haul", he told The Tablet, adding: "We are committed, and we hope we'll be able to provide some hope for the Christians here through our support."
At a Mass celebrated in Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity, Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool, vice-president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, summed up the bishops' message to the Palestinians. "We are determined to walk with you, whose land is this land, which is also the land of the prophets, the apostles and the saints," he said in the homily, which was televised in the Holy Land. "The Holy Spirit gathered us this evening in order to listen to him in this holy place and to listen to you, to your sufferings and to your prayers, asking for peace and justice." Michael Hirst, Jerusalem
'We feel truly alone'
As she looks up at the nine-metre high concrete barrier snaking its way up the hill towards her community's hospice, Sr Marie Dominique Croyal shakes her head sadly. Soldiers and construction workers had arrived three days before. The newest section of Israel's "security fence" would soon be complete.
In the meantime, it is chaos. Electricity in the local area has been
cut off and the road leading to the hospice of Notre Dame des Douleurs
- which cares for 50 elderly residents - has been dug up. A deluge of rain
has turned access to the hospice into an impassable quagmire.
The wall is just 12 feet from the front gate. The French nun is relieved that it has not cut through the hospice. Established in 1957 in the East Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, the home has four resident sisters (two Lebanese and two French) and 18 full-time staff caring for its residents. But Sr Marie Dominique is not sure for how long it will be able to remain open. "Each day is a battle", she says wearily, adding: "People around us live in constant fear of humiliation and violent attacks."
Every morning hundreds of Palestinian workers hide in the hospice garden. When they are sure there are no Israeli soldiers nearby, they scuttle across the road and climb over an incomplete section of the wall to their schools and places of work. If caught, the consequences are severe. "Look at these," Sr Marie Dominique says, scooping up a handful of spent bullet shells and tear-gas canisters from a bucket in the courtyard. "These come from our garden, and this is what Palestinians have in their minds when they think of the Israeli people."
It is a telling image of a conflict based on fear. The wall is only the latest in a series of attempts to separate Israelis from Palestinians, and will make it even harder for them to trust each other's good faith in any peace process. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, president of the US Bishops' Conference, sums it up when he sees the wall. "People do not really know one another," he says. "Young Palestinians have not had the opportunity to really speak with young Israelis, and vice versa. I think that if each one could experience the other's frustration, they would not accept growing up in a world in which they are strangers to their neighbours."
For many Israelis, the image of the Palestinian is a militant Muslim chanting anti-Zionist slogans at mass protests, prepared to blow him- or herself up in order to kill as many of the enemy as possible. For most Palestinians, the image of the Israeli is one of a gun-toting soldier manning a checkpoint, enforcing a curfew, riding in a tank or an Apache helicopter. Each image is becoming so etched into the national psyche that the prospects of any workable solution to the conflict grow gloomier by the day.
For those working to try to sustain the Christian presence in the Holy
Land - now just 2 per cent of the population, and falling - the pledge
of support made by last week's international bishops' conference comes
not a moment too soon. Many local Christians are wondering why the international
Church has not been more vocal in the peace process before now.
"We feel truly alone and destitute in the face of international inertia," says Sr Marie Dominique. Her community, she adds, hopes visitors and pilgrims will speak for them in the West, combining prayers and action in their efforts to destroy the "wall of shame", and bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table. "But they need to act now," she adds quietly, "before it is too late."