UNREST IN HOLY LAND THREATENS JUBILEE

September 3, 1997

VATICAN (CWN) -- The Latin-rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, has expressed grave concerns about the growing tensions in the Holy Land, their effect on tourists, and the possibility that the unrest might be a serious obstacle to plans for the celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000 in Jerusalem.

"If the holy places are isolated from the rest of Israel after each act of violence, then it will be difficult to celebrate the Holy Year," the patriarch said. "Pilgrims could be stopped at the roadblocks between Jerusalem and Bethlehem."

As the Church celebrates the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the greatest number of pilgrims in history are expected to travel to pray at the grotto of the Nativity in the basilica in Bethlehem, which is located in Palestinian territory. Israel only recently lifted a month-long blockade on that city.

Patriarch Sabbah had condemned that blockade as "unacceptable," not only because it was a clear breach of Vatican-Israeli agreements ensuring access to the holy sites, but also because of the severe hardships the blockade caused for the innocent people of Bethlehem.

Yesterday, the Israeli government eased travel restrictions slightly, allowing 250 Palestinian children to travel from outside Jerusalem to attend Catholic schools there; 2,000 Palestinian merchants obtained permission to travel into Israeli-controlled areas to their places of employment. But thousands of Palestinian Christians remain isolated in the territories around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and a renewed blockade is always possible.

The situation is different in Nazareth, another site which expects an influx of pilgrims during the Jubilee year. Nazareth is situated on Israeli territory, and most of the Arab residents there carry Israeli passports. There have not been similar blockades there.

Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank have deteriorated since the bombing of a Jerusalem marketplace on July 30. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that the Palestinians have not honored their obligation to combat terrorism; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has responded by canceling a bilateral accord for the extradition of Palestinian suspects to Israel. Patriarch Sabbah called upon the two sides to "quickly find the way to peace."

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