Holy Land church
leader says he's not worried about Hamas
By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service (this is unedited version)
JERUSALEM (CNS) 6 November 2006 - As violence once again tears at the
Holy Land, the top Catholic official in Jerusalem says the survival of
Israel could be guaranteed if the U.S. government were to change its policy
toward the region.
"The main question for the U.S. administration and for Israel is survival.
They want Israel to survive. And why not? But if the U.S. wants Israel
to survive, to be recognized, then it should take measures to surround
Israel with friends. But current U.S. policy is surrounding Israel with
enemies. That's not the way to protect your friend," said Latin Patriarch
Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem during a November 2 interview with Catholic
journalists from the United States.
The West Bank and Gaza, both occupied by Israel since 1967, have seen
several bloody attacks by Israeli soldiers in recent days. Israel claims
the raids are necessary to respond to the threat posed by Palestinian
terrorists. Yet Sabbah claimed the U.S. and Israel were provoking conflict.
"They are not terrorists, they are people who are living under oppression
and who are reacting. And not all of them are reacting. There are Palestinians
who don't react at all, who go on living their lives in despair and humiliation
and poverty. They go on living under occupation without any reaction.
But you have some groups, some militias, who react with violence, including
terrorist actions, killing innocents here and there. Now the Israelis
and the Americans say these Palestinians are terrorists because from their
own soul they want the destruction of Israel. But that's wrong. These
people do not want to destroy Israel without any reason. They are reacting
to Israel because they are oppressed by Israel. Put an end to this oppression
and you'll put an end to this idea of destruction," he said.
In the controversy that followed remarks about Islam by Pope Benedict
XVI, several churches were attacked during September in the West Bank
and Gaza, supposedly by angry Muslims. Church leaders here, while acknowledging
occasional tensions, have claimed the attacks were an anomaly and that
Palestinian officials responded quickly to stop further violence. Sabbah
said the incidents point to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority,
which is crippled by internecine political tensions and nearly penniless
after months of a boycott by the U.S. and European Union.
"Those who make policy in Israel and America . . . try to insist that
it is the Moslems who are persecuting Christians here. But there is no
persecution by Moslems against Christians," said Sabbah. "Our problems
don't come from Moslems, they come from a society in which there is no
The financial boycott of the Palestinian government was initiated following
a victory by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in January elections.
Analysts and western diplomats here say the Hamas victory came in large
part because Palestinians were fed up with corruption and division in
the ruling Fatah movement, as well as the lack of progress in the peace
process. Yet the Bush administration lists Hamas as a terrorist organization
and so it cut off direct financial assistance to the Palestinian authority.
U.S. diplomats and officials of U.S.-based aid agencies are forbidden
to have any contact with Hamas.
In addition, Israel has refused to pass along tax revenue and customs
duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. As a result,
most government workers have not been paid in months, many are striking,
and already widespread discontent has only increased.
Sabbah says the response of western governments to Hamas is short-sighted.
"I am not worried about Hamas. Like any of us, Hamas is human beings.
As Christians, we deal with every human being as such. They have their
own dignity given by God. Their political ideas, well, those are another
problem. Regarding their behavior, I can tell you what you do is not ok,
but I can still talk with you. If you want to boycott every sinner in
humanity, you will talk with nobody," Sabbah said.
"You wanted democracy and now when you see the fruit of our democracy
you say, ‘No, we will boycott you.' This is wrong, unfair and unjust for
the Palestinian people," he said.
Sabbah said the Christian community, which emigration has reduced to about
2 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza, can play a unique
role in bringing reconciliation to the war-torn region.
"Our vocation as Christians is the vocation given to us by Jesus, the
vocation of reconciliation. Being part of our people, we are part of the
conflict. We live under the occupation, we are deprived of our freedom,
we are beyond the wall, we are beyond the checkpoints. Yet although we're
part of the conflict, our vocation is to create reconciliation between
our people the Palestinians and the Israelis," he said.