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 authority."

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.