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* JERUSALEM PATRIARCH REBUKES ISRAELIS ON REPORT*

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Catholic World News Feature

OCT. 07, 1998

JERUSALEM (CWNews.com) -- The Latin-rite Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem has condemned an Israeli report of Palestinian pressure against Christian churches. In a statement issued October 5, Patriarch Michel Sabbah said the Israeli report "has no foundation," and characterized it as part of "an just mass-media war."

[The text of the Patriarch's statement was made available exclusively to CWN by Father Labib Kobti, the US representative of the Patriarchate. The full text of the statement-- and other material relating to the Catholic Church in Palestine-- can be found on his Al- Bushra web site: http://www.al-bushra.org.]

The Patriarch's statement was issued in response to a story, carried in the Jerusalem Post of October 4, reporting that the government of Israeli had uncovered an effort by the Palestinian Authority (PA) "to control Christian churches in Israel." The report claimed that the PA effort "began with its takeover of churches in Bethlehem, including the Church of Nativity, and has now extended to churches and Christian sites in Jerusalem."

Patriarch Michel Sabbah flatly denied that report. "No church pastor in all the Palestinian territories has reported to us of such interference or pressure on the churches by the Palestinian Authority," he said. "The Christian holy places, communities, churches, cemeteries, cultural and educational institutions, and vast land holdings are fully under Christian control and fully respected, and nobody ever tried to interfere."

"On the contrary," the Patriarch continued, "we are grateful to the Palestinian Authority" for their efforts to secure the rights of Christians. He reported that PA officials are "very sensitive to anything which concerns Christians." Patriarch Sabbah charged that the Israeli report was probably motivated by an attempt "to divert the attention of the public opinion from the real issues at stake. We mean the oppressive situation that the Palestinian people-- both Muslim and Christian-- are undergoing, as the peace process is blocked."

The net effect of the Israeli government report, the Patriarch added, would be to undermine the peace process still further. "These false accusations are endangering the welfare of the Christian community in this region, and not defending the peace cause," he said. He called upon reporters to "be more objective when writing and reporting about such a sensitive and inflammatory issue." The Israeli government report had touched on a particularly sensitive issue by claiming that the PA was trying to gain control over the Melkite Greek Catholic bishopric in Galilee. In fact, it was the Israeli government itself which recently tried to influence the appointment of a bishop in Galilee. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had appealed to the Vatican to block the appointment of Archbishop Boutros Mouallem, who had been chosen by the Melkite bishops' synod. The Vatican sharply rebuked Israel for this effort to interfere with Church decisions.

Meanwhile, a separate story in the Israeli press illustrated the tensions that linger between Christians and Jews in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. The weekly paper Ko ha'ir ("All the City") expressed fears that among the Christian pilgrims expected to come to Jerusalem for the Jubilee Year 2000, many are "fundamentalists" who might be "inclined to violence." The paper suggested that the Jubilee celebrations could therefore "be a danger for Israeli security."

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