JERUSALEM — In his first speech since retiring from his post as Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land, Archbishop Michel Sabbah hinted at the delicate balancing act he worked so hard to maintain during his long tenure as the head of the local Catholic Church.
Archbishop Fouad Twal became the new patriarch of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem June 22 (see story on page 4). On the same day, during an address to Christians, Muslims and Jews at the opening session of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Archbishop Sabbah said that “here in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the word of religious leaders has a strong influence, whether for peace or war.”
Patriarch Sabbah is known for his outspoken opposition to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, but also for his willingness to reach out to Jewish and Muslim leaders.
“We read and we hear from religious leaders, and they sometimes speak words of reconciliation and sometimes words of incitement,” he said.
The first Palestinian ever appointed patriarch of the Holy Land, Archbishop Sabbah was instrumental in creating the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which regularly brings together the 13 heads of the Churches of Jerusalem as well as the chief rabbis of Israel and the supreme judge of the Muslim High Court.
The patriarch acknowledged that Christian clergy in the region have not always championed peace with Israel out of the belief that doing so would betray the Palestinian cause.
“A Christian leader has the duty and the right to talk about non-violence,” Archbishop Sabbah asserted. “It was not always the case. A theory of war has developed in history within the Christian theology, allowing for cases in which the use of violence is a last resort and a ‘lesser evil’ in the face of a great evil, for example: the destruction of a people or the imposition of serious injustices upon it.”
Archbishop Sabbah said balancing the needs of the various people in the Arab-Israeli conflict is a daunting responsibility.
“The role of the religious leader is important because he is the educator of the conscience of the people, and he is listened to. However, the words of religious leaders calling for peace can hardly be listened to when oppression goes on. A religious leader calls for peace but also for justice and wants people to have the right for self-defense.”
For a religious leader “to go against accepted public opinion implies losing his impact on his believers,” Archbishop Sabbah said. “He loses his role of teaching and educating for peace. But if [he] stays within public opinion, he ceases to play a prophetic and formative role. Surely we must also go against the commonly accepted ideas in order to play the counter-cultural role the Gospel expects of us.”
The danger, the archbishop said, is that a religious figure “can easily become a demagogue, telling the people what pleases them, what they want to hear.”
The patriarch called the Arab-Israeli conflict “more than a struggle for land. It is the fight for mutual recognition and mutual trust. In the heart of God there is enough place, in the land also there is enough place.” It is mutual trust that makes the land “available to all,” he said. “In the present situation of conflict, this trust does not exist.”
Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.