JERUSALEM — Fewer than 500 Catholics celebrated Easter morning Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher next to the traditional site of the tomb of Jesus.

In other years, it would have been almost impossible to walk around the tomb because of the crowds. This year, however, people moved easily from one point of the church to the other.

The situation follows months of violence that inspired Latin patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah to exhort, “Destroy our churches, but spare the homes of our faithful.”

The bishop's plea, delivered last month to the Israelis on behalf of the Palestinian Christians of the Bethlehem area, wasn't hyperbole.

Why was Patriarch Sabbah offering churches in ransom for the homes of both Christian and Muslim Palestinians? Because both have been under attack from gunners for months now.

The patriarch's words are Church policy. The Church has not raised a hue and cry about the bombardment of church buildings and the local seminary, because, as Patriarch Sabbah explained, his greater concern is defending families against Israeli bombardment.

In the al Aqsa intifada which began in late September, the Christian triangle south of Jerusalem has received a terrible pounding from Israeli guns. The Israel Defense Force claims it has been responding to Palestinian sniper fire originating from Beit Sahour and Beit Jala (which both have large Christian populations) or, sometimes, that it is seeking to prevent it. The Israeli shelling, however, is disproportionate to the feeble threat posed by Palestinian gunmen.

Even the U.S. State Department's recent report on human rights acknowledges that Israeli fire has been “excessive.”

The patriarch, together with leaders of other Jerusalem churches, supports the goals of the intifada: the end of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet he and they have also repeatedly asked their own people to love their enemies and to protest non-violently out of reverence for the image of God in every person. “We say to every Palestinian and to every Israeli who loves peace: Try to see God in us,” he said.

After almost seven months of conflict, Christians are emigrating to the United States and Canada in droves. What had been the largest concentration of Christians in the Palestinian Territories is fast dwindling.

The patriarch pleaded with his people: “Brothers and sisters, do not leave your land. … It is here that God wants you. … Stand firm around the holy places. … [Y]ou are part of the mystery of God in this land.”

Many Catholics in the United States and elsewhere do not understand the extent to which a lack of a just peace and the renewed cycle of violence in the region threaten the future of a Christian presence in the cradle of the Christian faith.

The Christians of the Holy Land are “the living stones” who together make up the “Mother Church” of Jerusalem. Their disappearance from the Holy Land would turn the holy places, as Pope John Paul II has repeatedly warned, into empty museums devoid of living communities of faith. Already, Christians count for less than 2% of the population in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

The first step to supporting the Christians of the Holy Land is to end the violence. On the one hand, the Palestinian militia must stop using the Bethlehem area as a staging area for armed attacks and, on the other, the Israelis must cease using excessive force against civilian areas to forestall attacks or to retaliate for them. Pope John Paul II has called for such restraint and so have the U.S. bishops.

A second Catholic interest in an eventual Mideast peace is the future of the holy city of Jerusalem — and preserving the minuscule Christian community there.

For more than 30 years, the Holy See has sought a special status for Jerusalem. As a city sacred to the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Jerusalem belongs, in a profound sense, to all believers. As the city where Jesus preached, healed, suffered, died and rose from the dead, it is the most sacred city for Christians. Its sacredness to Jews dates to the time of David, and Muslims regard it as their third-holiest city (after Mecca and Medina).

In the Holy See's view, a special status would affirm the uniqueness and universal religious significance of Jerusalem.

As a holy city, Jerusalem is the destination for millions of pilgrims from around the world. During Jordanian administration of East Jerusalem, Jews were not permitted to enter their traditional holy places. Since 1967, the Israelis have severely restricted admission of Muslims and Christians from the West Bank and Gaza to Jerusalem.

A special status would provide for open access to the city's holy places for all people, and especially Palestinian pilgrims for whom the holy places are central to their devotional lives. Other possible provisions would try to preserve what is left of the city's historic, cultural, architectural and environmental heritage.

More important, however, key provisions of a special status would be linked to the preservation of the historic religious communities, including Christians, in Jerusalem.

The Christian population is the smallest of the three religious families there, down from 48,000 souls in 1948 and 10,000 in 1967 to an estimated 5,000 today. These proposed articles would assure equal rights and services to all residents of the city, something denied Arab residents, Muslim and Christian alike, under Israeli occupation. This would allow the Muslims and Christians to carry out their charitable, educational, social-service and justice ministries without interference from the government.

In the end, of course, attaining the two specifically Catholic goals — preserving the Christian communities of the Holy Land and securing a special statute for Jerusalem — depend on securing a just and durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Holy See and the U.S. bishops have encouraged the long search for peace in the region. The Holy See reserves the right to make moral comment on the justice and adequacy of any agreement.

As a practical matter, the Holy See appeals to international law, including the Geneva Conventions and U.N. Security Council resolutions, as the legal foundation for any agreement. The preamble of the Holy See's February 2000 basic agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization affirmed the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, asserted that Jerusalem is illegally occupied by military force, and backed a special status for Jerusalem.

While it was still in office, the Barak government appears to have come close to accepting the Church's idea of a special status as part of a final status agreement for Jerusalem. In the end, negotiations foundered on Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount and on Israel's rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The incoming Sharon government, at best, will agree to further “interim” agreements — a position unacceptable to the Palestinians. Any final status agreement appears many years off. As result, the future looks bleak, promising low-level, intermittent hostilities for some time to come.

Such a future does not bode well for the Holy Land's Christians caught in the crossfire of two nationalisms. It is desperately important for Catholics to raise their voices on behalf of their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

Solidarity demands a vigorous and visible defense of the remnant Christian communities there. Arab Christians are asking, “Where is the Christian West in our time of trial? Where are the protests from the Catholics of the United States?” Catholics want peace for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, but they also have a special interest in seeking peace for the sake of their sisters and brothers in the faith.

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is counselor on international affairs to the U.S. Catholic Conference with special responsibility for the Middle East.