JERUSALEM — Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, decided overwhelmingly Jan. 9 to elect Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian president.

Christians here say Abbas, who is Muslim, is a peace-driven man who has always enjoyed good relations with the Christian community.

“Abbas is a very moderate man who is committed to pursuing the peace process,” said Father Shawki Baterian, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Baterian was a member of the delegation of Christian leaders who paid Abbas a courtesy call on Jan. 3. The attendees included Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah and representatives of the bishops’ conferences of the United States, Canada, Spain and France.

During the meeting, the leaders urged Abbas “to do what is necessary” to stop the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Father Baterian said.

“We really have hope that Mr. Abbas will work hard to reorganize the Palestinian Authority and put an end to chaos. He is trying to unify all the political parties in Palestinian society,” Father Baterian said.

Father Raed Abusahlia, the parish priest of Taybeh, north of the West Bank town of Ramallah, said Catholic officials know Abbas “very well.”

“He is very open-minded and has respect for Palestinian Christians because they are citizens and part of this country,” he said. “He knows the importance of having Christians in the Holy Land and how they help foster relations with the Western world.”

Like other local Christians, Father Abusahlia, a former chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, expressed hope that Abbas will follow in the path of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — at least from the perspective of relations with the churches.

“This should not be out of sympathy for the Palestinian Christian minority, but something based on the Palestinian constitution. Mr. Abbas is aware of our views,” Father Abusahlia said.

Church officials said they had no reason to doubt that Abbas would honor the 2000 agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinian Authority that ensures freedom of worship to Church faithful, equality to Palestinian Catholics and protection over Church properties.

Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, expressed the belief that Abbas will do nothing to impede his order’s holy work of overseeing Church properties and institutions.

Referring both to the Israeli and Palestinian governments, Father Pizzaballa said, “Our first concern is always free access to all holy places. I see that Abbas’s attitude is positive and that he wants to have good relations with Christians. He seems to understand that Christians are an important resource for the Palestinian people.”

In a week in which Palestinian militants killed several Israeli civilians and Israeli troops retaliated, killing Palestinian militants and civilians, Father Pizzaballa acknowledged that “there are groups that want to stop the peace process through violence. We can’t let them decide policy for us. Mahmoud Abbas’s first concern must be to stop the violence.” 

Bishop Munib Younan, who heads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, insisted that Abbas will not be able to succeed unless Israel gives him the power to do so. 

“I hope Israel will allow him to meet his potential,” Younan said. “He must be given full opportunity to make a two-state solution a reality.”

Although Younan did not specify which measures Israel should take to bolster Abbas, Palestinians as a whole want the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and to stop “targeted assassinations” of Palestinian militants as a precondition for a cease-fire and negotiations.

Israel insists that it will not negotiate with Abbas until he reins in the militants targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers.  

While officials from the various Palestinian-based churches want peace above all else, they also expect Abbas to improve life for the Palestinian people — Christian and Muslim — through a serious of internal reforms that Yasser Arafat failed to implement. Under Arafat, the Palestinian Authority was rife with corruption.  

“He needs to address the inner problems,” Younan said. “We believe there must be independence for the three authorities: legislative, executive and judicial. We want a modern democratic society that respects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We Christian churches are demanding a democracy.”

Younan warned that unless Abbas succeeds on both the peace and domestic fronts, the number of Holy Land Christians will continue to wane. Holy Land Christians comprise only 2% of the local population, and the number decreases every month. 

“We have this terrible problem of emigration, which won’t stop until the conflict is solved,” Younan acknowledged. “Emigration won’t stop until there is a two-state solution in which Palestinians feel they have the same chances of happiness as anybody else in the world.”

Younan said the current situation is almost untenable for Palestinian

Christians, due to Israel’s continued refusal to allow Palestinians to travel freely, along with the poor economic situation and almost total lack of work.

“Our young people leave to study, to find better work.”

Referring to the security barrier Israel is building around Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank, separating it from Israel, the bishop said, “The wall is driving people to leave.”

Living in the Palestinian territories, Younan concluded, is “like being in a big prison.”

Michele Chabin writes

from Jerusalem.