BETHLEHEM — When President Barack Obama told a priest in Bethlehem recently that he wanted to help maintain a Christian presence in Jerusalem, Father Jamal Khader Daibes couldn’t help but be skeptical.
After living most of his life under the Israeli occupation of his homeland north of the West Bank, the 48-year-old chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Bethlehem University in the Palestinian National Authority, said he and his fellow Palestinian Christians are becoming more like St. Thomas the Apostle, in that they believe more what they see than what they hear.
Daily, they face restrictions on their movements in the form of hundreds of security checkpoints and limited access to Jerusalem, difficulties obtaining housing and threats to their own land. So when Father Jamal hears politicians pledge to help, he confesses to some impatience because he fears time is running out.
“I hope I’m wrong, but we need to see more action taken, more than just speeches saying that ‘We are worried about the Palestinians, too.’”
Father Jamal, who is in the U.S. as the John A. Mackay Visiting Professor of World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, was responding to a comment Obama made March 22 to Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, during his Middle East trip. Father Pizzaballa told Catholic News Service that the president said, while visiting the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem, “he felt the situation was very complicated, but that he [would] do his best to help the people here and also to help the Christian presence.”
A White House official who was with the president on his Middle East trip said she was not present for the comment, but that Obama did refer twice during his trip to the plight of Christians, not just in the Holy Land, but across the broader Middle East in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. “The administration places a great deal of importance on the history and ancient connections of Christians to the Holy Land,” she said.
The official said that by going to St. Catherine and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the president demonstrated his interest in supporting Christians in Israel and the broader region. “It was meant to convey recognition and acknowledgement for the ancient connection of Christians in the Holy Land as well. We didn’t want that to be lost in the narrative of the trip.”
The president also commented specifically about his experience of visiting Bethlehem in his remarks April 5 at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, although he did not address the problems of Christians living in the Holy Land.
Shared Palestinian Problem
Father Jamal said if Obama wants to aid the Christian community, he should simply help the Palestinians. “I’m not sure how he can help the Christians because we don’t have a Christian problem,” he said. “We have a Palestinian problem.” Christians in Palestine, he said, suffer from the same problems as their non-Christian counterparts, adding, “We can deal with them once we help Palestinians to have their own independence and live side-by-side with Israel.”
The day before his comments to Father Pizzaballa, Obama had expressed sympathy for the plight of all Palestinians during an address at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in which he stated his support for “an independent and viable Palestine.” The president cited some of the difficulties Palestinians experience, including living with the presence of a foreign army controlling their movements, being prevented from farming their lands and being displaced from their homes. “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,” he said.
Before talking about the Palestinians, however, Father Jamal said the president adopted the Israeli narrative for the conflict, quoting from the Bible to justify political events and options. “What he says about Palestinians is very important. He was clear about the need for them to have a normal life in their own country and that occupation is not the answer, and that is very good. What I’m worried about more is the follow-up. … If he means what he says, we need to see changes on the ground.”
Asked what can be done, given that the Palestinian leadership refuses to negotiate with the Israeli government, Father Jamal said he believes negotiations could resume if there were a defined goal and time frame. The Palestinian offer, he said, is to begin discussing security and borders. Once those are resolved, the parties can work on other issues.
“The Palestinian Authority is in favor of negotiations, but serious, meaningful negotiations, and they have the support of all Palestinians.”
Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, agreed that the plight of the Palestinian Christians is the same as that facing all Palestinians. “I hear that every time I travel there.”
For example, he said, Christians in Jerusalem suffer because, as Arabs, they are not citizens of any country, merely residents of Jerusalem. This affects family life, travel, housing and economic opportunity. If a Christian in Jerusalem marries another Christian in Bethlehem or elsewhere in the West Bank, Colecchi said, the spouse cannot come to live in Jerusalem. Should a Palestinian leave Jerusalem for an extended period of time, on the other hand, he or she risks losing residency in Jerusalem.
And Palestinian Christians have trouble getting permits to build homes in East Jerusalem, as all Palestinians do, and if they do build on their own land, they run the risk that the homes will be demolished.
“So they’re in a bit of a catch-22, and this has contributed to a dramatic decline in the Christian presence in East Jerusalem,” Colecchi said.
Christians in the West Bank also suffer because of overly restrictive and harsh security measures. For instance, he said, the route of the Israeli security barrier snakes in and out of the West Bank, capturing Palestinian lands and various settlements established by Israel in the West Bank.
A Two-State Solution
Colecchi said President Obama could push for a peace plan that would not confiscate Palestinian lands, as well as more humane residency requirements, so that people could marry and build homes in East Jerusalem. That said, he continued, “The single greatest thing Obama can do is to push for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis that guarantees Palestinians a viable and contiguous state. Israelis need a secure and recognized state for there to be genuine peace. ... That is the greatest contribution the president could make; and, in the meantime, he could urge the Israelis to reduce the number of policies that are particularly harmful to the Christians in East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank.”
Colecchi said that at the beginning of his first term, and now at the start of his second, Obama has affirmed the need for a two-state solution. The USCCB is encouraging Catholics to thank the president for that commitment and to urge him to act on it by getting the parties together and achieving a peace agreement that is good for both Israel and the Palestinians.
He said Obama’s comments on his recent Middle East trip could be encouraging because, as president, he has not specifically addressed the needs of Christians on the West Bank.
Michael La Civita, chief communications officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said he was heartened to know that Obama expressed concern about and a willingness to help the plight of Christians in Palestine.
“It’s a complicated environment, and we don’t always know who our friends and foes are. This administration’s openness to talk to a number of parties is significant. You can’t bring about change if you don’t have dialogue; and entering into dialogue with people you don’t agree with is a good place to start. I give him much credit for entering into discussions with people that heretofore we didn’t talk to. Relationships in the Middle East are very important ... so if you have a relationship, that’s the beginning of the process.”
La Civita said he would like to see some stability in the region because a stable, healthy government will help people remain in place. “None of these people want to leave their homelands. They want to stay where their forebears lived and prospered, so economic stability would help.”
However, he added, “Political and economic stability is not something the U.S. can impose. It can work with its partners in the Middle East and Europe, but, ultimately, the will for peace and justice ... is something that can only be addressed and solved by the folks who live and govern in the Middle East. External forces can’t dictate that. It has to come from within.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.