Another Israeli Report on the conditions of Christians

By Fr. Peter Madros

October, 4, 1998

Dear friends,

"The Jerusalem Post" of this day, October 4, 1998, published an article by Mr. Steve RODAN :"PA intensifying bid to control churches". My name is Fr. Peter Hanna Madros, a Priest of Jesus Christ in the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarchate of Jerusalem , born and ordained a Priest in Jerusalem and instructor at the Patriarchal Seminary and Bethlehem University. I do NOT represent the Patriarchate but do offer my humble contribution in this matter.

Unfortunately, it was very difficult to contact any church officials this Sunday morning which, on top of that, is also the feast of St. Francis, Founder of the Franciscan Order and patron of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and Sites. One would like to ask the Press not to publish anything important or serious on a Sunday as church offices are closed and clergymen and faithful are dedicating their time to worship. I hope and like to believe that the timing of this article on a Sunday morning, feast of St. Francis, was NOT intentional and was not meant to "take us by surprise" ( I would not like to compare this tiny incident -- if any -- to the surprise of the Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement - War!!!)

As a proof of good intention and will, I personally would like to ask the Israeli press to respect our "Shabbath" and let the brave guardians of the Holy Catholic Places - the Franciscans - celebrate a quiet sanctified cheerful Day of their Patron and Founder whom we miss, with nostalgia, in this end of the 20Th. century, where so many nations and churches try to "take over" the Holy Places and Land. Francis was a wonderful meek sweet man who was not ANTI anybody! Where are men like him in our "governments"?

After this mystic introduction -- and after consoling the Poverello that much progress has been made in ecumenical attitudes among Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians (St. Francis would have loved Vatican II), let's come to some points which I think I am entitled to clarify as someone who lives IN Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as a Palestinian Roman Catholic, Latin priest.

1 - A RECTIFICATION of Mr. Rodan's article needs absolutely to be done: the title should NOT be "PA intensifying bid to control churches" but, in journalistic scientific and literary probity "an Israeli government report claims PA intensifying ..." An Arabic proverb says :"Read the letter from its title" ! (Iqra-ilmaktoob min "inwaano.") That very way of presenting things, in an affirmative positive mood, implies that the author sides with the Israeli government without any shadow of a doubt, going beyond an honest objective report which is content with actually REPORTING and quoting the source, leaving for the reader(s) margin and freedom to judge.

2 - "The Palestinian Authority has intensified its effort to control Christian churches IN ISRAEL as a part of its campaign to acquire their extensive landholdings in the country and gain influence in the West, a GOVERNMENT report says," writes Mr. S. Rodan.

Obviously, this is an ISRAELI government report. Do the Israeli officials talk about a Palestinian effort IN ISRAEL? Does this imply that, for them, there is no Palestine, no autonomous Palestinian territories in Bethlehem in and around the Nativity Church?

Anyway, even the least intellectually gifted Palestinian leader is aware that such an endeavor to campaign for acquiring more control over churches would be one of the best ways NOT TO GAIN INFLUENCE IN THE WEST but rather the contrary: to LOSE FACE AND INFLUENCE in the West.

3 - An informal communication with religious and faithful at the Holy Sepulcher, especially with some clergymen (who asked me not to publish their names) revealed that they were not aware of any such efforts from the Palestinian part! Another Priest said it was best to talk directly to his superiors.

4 - The "concern" of the Israeli Press and Administration about the well-being of Christians and Christian holy sites and churches as well as the blunt charge of "persecution of Christians by the PA" is an old story.

Many church officials denied such a "persecution." I want to quote only Greek Orthodox Palestinian Galilean Archimandrite Atallah Hanna (born in Rameh, Upper Galilee, 1948 territories called "Green Line"), back in June, in an article at "Al-Bayader Assiyasi" (issue no. 706, 18 Th. year, p.43) who saw in such a charge a deformation of the truth and an attempt to disqualify the PA and to throw darnel between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, children of one and same nation (but followers of two different creeds).

I myself was "interviewed" on the telephone by Israeli radio in Hebrew, by a reporter I very much appreciate, Mr. Yoni Ben Menahem. I told him that the PA , as President /Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian high officials, are open to Christians (since the First Lady also comes from a Christian family), that tolerance towards Christians (many high officials are) was NOT ONLY a praiseworthy attitude coming from goodness and respect of human rights but also a STRATEGY and a vital INTEREST for the Palestinian Government. Yet, I pointed out that there were actually some transgressions by individuals, small groups, some minor officials (for instance in the police) - but such transgressions never went as far as burning churches (contrary to what happened to a Scottish Church in West Jerusalem) and that such issues are dealt with by the Church and PA- and that such transgressions or instances of aggressiveness towards Christians were CONTRARY to the ideology of the PA which has -- as I said -- all interest to protect its Christians, as the Israeli Government would be delighted to denounce the PA - not "necessarily" out of love and preoccupation for the Christians!

5 - I called personally the Bethlehem Governorate. The Governor, Mr. Jaabari is out of town. But Mr. Michel Shomaly, a legal adviser of the Governor, a Roman Catholic (Latin) lawyer from Beit Sahoor (Shepherds' Field) reaffirmed to me what people in the Bethlehem area know: the PA and Governorate are keen on NOT interfering in the Church's affairs. A building belonging to the Greek orthodox Patriarchate , at the entrance of Bethlehem, has not yet been completed (it's supposed to become a huge parking).The Governorate has not put any pressure on the Patriarchate to "finish" that building, although it does think that it would be better to have it completed by the arrival of the Year 2000 !

It is easy to see that some individuals, young people, around the Nativity Church and Square, do not always respect that Holy Place, including some "Christians." But this does not mean that the PA, as such, interferes and expropriates or "takes over". So far, the Status Quo is being respected especially at the Holy Sepulchre and the Nativity...

6 - Is the PA focusing on gaining control over the Greek Catholic Bishopric in Galilee ? How ? When? Does the author , Mr. Rodan, imply the reluctance of Premier Netanyahu on the appointment of Bishop Butros Mooallem (Palestinian refugee in Lebanon ,bishop of the melkite Community in Sao Paulo, Brasil) for the See of the Greek Catholic Archbishopric in Galilee? For once, Galilee has a Galilean Bishop. Is that so bad ?]

If this is what Rodan implies, then, the question is over and , as Romans say "Alea jacta est" . It's true that Mr. Netanyahu voiced to the Holy See his opposition to that nomination as well as his fears. It was claimed that Bishop Mooallem was a friend of the PLO (isn't the latter the interlocutor and negociation partner of Israel?) Apparently, the Vatican Diplomacy , especially with the new Apostolic Delegate, was upset by such an interference of the Israeli Premier who withdrew his objections against the Prelate.

Now, if the appointed Bishop Mooallem is going - as expected - to fulfil his duties and to continue to be a man of God without any involvement in politics, this will cause satisfaction and admiration.

The israeli government has nothing to worry about with Bishop Mooallem! On the other hand, this holy man (whom I know personally and visited in Brazil) will keep church properties from trade and alienation.

7 - As for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the struggle of some prominent Palestinian Gr. Orthodox Christians (in Galilee , the rest of the Holy land and Jordan) , it's an internal problem, to start with : between the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and hierarchy, on the one hand, and an elite in the Greek Orthodox Arab community which claims, rightly, the arabization of the church hierarchy in the Holy land and Jordan and its Palestinization in the Holy land.

As early as the beginning of this finishing (!) century, poet Iskandar Al- Khoory from Beit Jala (Bethlehem) travelled with a delegation to Russia for this same aim ! The Orthodox Committee (headed by Mr. Kamal Farah and supported in Jordan by other prominent Orthodox Christians among which Dr. Aboo Jaber ) believes that the coming of a Palestinian National Authority (with the hope of a free, independent and sovereign State) might help in the "dehellenization", Arabization and Palestinization of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy and Church administration. Again, the whole question is primarily intra Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Arab Palestinian and Jordanian Faithful.

Any recourse to the PA was - if any- the initative of the Committee not of the PA (to the best of my knowledge). But, realistically speaking, the PA role - if any - would rather be moral, in the sense of encouraging national elements, but , at the same time, it keeps good relations with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and Patriarchate. These were some points which do not claim to be official nor exhaustive but were written in the best of intentions, with respect for all!

Fr. Peter Hanna Madros

Correspondent of Al-Bushra website

in Jerusalem/ Palestine