National Catholic Register


Politics and Pastoring in the Holy Land

A patriarch discusses the struggle for rights and keeping the peace among Christians, Muslims, and Jews

BY Michele Chabin

May 10, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/10/98 at 1:00 PM


Ordained a priest in 1955, Michel Sabbah began his career as a vicar in Jordan. Throughout his years as a clergyman, he has combined his religious training with a passion for education. After holding numerous clerical teaching posts, and earning a doctorate in Arabic philosophy, he was named president of Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution, in 1980.

Since becoming the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and head of the local Church in 1987, Sabbah, a Palestinian, has been an outspoken advocate for Palestinian national rights and continues to be a vocal critic of the Israeli government and its policies toward Palestinians.

Recently, the patriarch spoke with Register correspondent Michele Chabin.

Chabin: How do you relate to the other Catholic institutions in the Holy Land, specifically the Franciscan Custos, the apostolic delegate, and the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center with its apostolic administrator?

Patriarch Sabbah: The Catholic Church, as in every country, is a local Church led by the bishop or archbishop. Here it is headed by the patriarch.

The Custody of the Holy Land is a Franciscan religious community that has been in the country since the 14th century, a few years after the Crusades. The Franciscans were given and still retain a special mandate directly from the Holy See to administer the holy places.

The apostolic delegate is like the nuncio in every Catholic country. He is the representative of the Holy See to the local Church, like any ambassador. He is the nuncio to Israel, he is the apostolic delegate to Palestine, he is nuncio also to Cyprus.

The nuncio is sent to the local Church as a sign or instrument of communion between the local Church and the Church of Rome. His existence in olden times, because of the difficulties in communications, was necessary. Today it is no longer necessary because we have direct relations with the Holy See. We have faxes, letters, and so on, but the nuncio remains. He has a specific function to the government. He is nuncio to the government—the civil authorities of Israel and Palestine.

Finally, the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center was constituted as a prelatore nullius. Prelatore means a kind of bishopry. Nullius means for no one. Under no one's jurisdiction. This means that it is a part taken from a diocese and has become independent. In this way it's like the Palestinian Authority within Israel.

How are Catholic relations with the Orthodox Churches, especially since the Vatican and Israel signed their agreement of mutual recognition?

Our relations here in Jerusalem are very good. We are three patriarchs: the Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and myself. Then we have three other Orthodox Churches: Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians. We have five Catholic vicar patriarchs: Melkites, Maronites (the Lebanese) Syrians, Armenians, and Chaldeans (the Church of Iraq); and two Protestant Churches: Anglicans and Lutherans. That totals 13. We have good relations among us.

We meet once every two months to discuss all our problems, whether religious, civil, or those regarding the social situation of the people. We issue common messages for Christmas, Easter, or other special occasions. Now we have created a special Church committee to prepare for the Jubilee Year 2000. That is to say that relations are good.

Relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel have been misunderstood and criticized by some of the other Churches from a political standpoint, not as a Church move but as a Palestinian policy. But this did not disturb our good relations.

Is Islamic fundamentalism a factor in the ongoing exodus from the Holy Land?

No. Yes, and no. The main factor leading to emigration for Christians is the political situation. It is the general instability—political, economic, and otherwise. All Palestinian towns and villages are besieged [by Israel]. Therefore their freedom is very limited. The people have no space to breathe in. That's the main factor in emigration or the desire to emigrate.

Relations between Muslim and Christian political and religious leaders are good. Even among the people, there is good cooperation in politics, in economics, in business. Of course, on the level of daily life there are incidents between individuals. These incidents can sometimes be a cause of instability as well.

Can you give me an example of such tensions between Christians and Muslims?

Sometimes there are disputes between young people, one Muslim, one Christian, which extend to all the community. When we are in a tense situation we call in mediators from both sides, Muslims and Christians, to restore tranquillity and quiet, and to take measures to bring reconciliation. Once we have an incident, immediately there is a kind of body of mediation, an unofficial body, composed of Muslims and Christians. There are some individuals known within our societies who will step in.

Do the different religious denominations deal solely with tensions involving their own people? In other words, if an Armenian Orthodox youth and a Muslim youth were fighting, might a Catholic mediator offer assistance?

It could be Armenian or Latin or Orthodox … no problem. If a dispute involves any type of Christian, all Christians are involved. This is how it is in the Muslim community as well. All Muslims are involved.

What is the role of the Church in influencing Israeli policy, particularly its political development as part of the region?

The role of religion towards the civil authority in general is of teaching, of saying ‘What are the values?’ We insist on human dignity and equality for all people. All individuals are human beings. Religion requires us to say that this incident or that is an injustice. That is the role of religion.

Another role is to call for all religious leaders of all three of the main religions here — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — to come together in dialogue. This is to develop one common vision of the situation. If we reach this common vision, every religious leader will have his own influence upon his own people. That means in the arena of public opinion and on the voters. And hence, in the political field, at least indirectly, because in this country the word of religious leaders is listened to. It is considered very important. It can be decisive even.

Do you mean that the Israeli government is listening?

It should be listening. If the religious leaders move together, they will listen.

You are very outspoken about what you perceive to be the injustices inflicted by the Israeli government against the Christian people here.

Against Christians as Palestinians. The Israelis have nothing against Christians. They are not committing injustices against Christians as Christians. If there are injustices, it is because they are Palestinians, not Christians. This is very important.

Still, do you see it as your personal role to speak out about political matters? Some religious leaders do not believe it is their place to do so.

The problem is to decide what is politics, what is political. To approach political parties in order to help someone become a member of parliament, or to say this one should be a minister, is not our role. But to say that the policy of a government is oppressing people, this is our role. When politics means depriving people of their freedom, this isn't politics, it's human rights. When government policy prevents people from reaching Jerusalem or holy places, that is our role. Where there is violence, we must stand up against it. Violence is useless. To achieve peace, you must find peaceful ways and means to achieve goals.

How does the Church interact with YasserArafat's Palestinian Authority?

We have good relations with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. On their part, they have direct and frequent relations with us. They consult us on matters that concern the Churches, though not on political matters, and they have been very attentive.

Has the Palestinian Authority established any official or semi-official body to deal with Christian issues?

Not as of now. If there is a problem, say in the area of education, we go to the minister of education. If there are social problems, we go directly to the minister of social affairs.

Is this something you would like to encourage?

No, because we are an integral part of the population. We are not foreigners who need some sort of representation.

But we are calling for dialogue.

How does the Church communicate its vision of a united but shared Jerusalem, a city of three monotheistic faiths?

We say any solution for Jerusalem should aim to produce definitive stability for this holy city. If it does not, then it means that it is not the right solution. Two peoples are living in Jerusalem — Israelis and Palestinians — and three religions: Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Therefore any solution should take into consideration these five elements. It must make all of them equal in duties and rights, with no one inferior to the other.

Since Jerusalem is composed of five elements, it should be shared by all five. It cannot be exclusively for one. It cannot be exclusively Israeli, it cannot be exclusively Palestinian. It must be shared. Therefore it needs a special status.

What status is that, and how can it be achieved?

First of all we'd like to see Israeli and Palestinian political leaders come together and agree on a special status. If they come to an agreement, we will talk with them and tell them our requirements as religious leaders.

Do you envision Jerusalem as one day becoming an international city?

No. We envision a special status created by the locals, Israelis and Palestinians, and [that the city be] governed by the locals. But this status should be supported by international guarantees. This is not something exceptional because when any state is created it asks to be recognized by the United Nations. Jerusalem's special status should be guaranteed by the United Nations.

A few years ago the Vatican established diplomatic ties with Israel. In addition to having a desire to reconcile with the Jewish people, was the Vatican motivated by a desire to have an official say in the matter?

I do not know how the Vatican or the Holy See is dealing with this issue. But I do know that the position of the Holy See for Jerusalem distinguishes between two things: first, sovereignty; and second, freedom of access.

On the issue of sovereignty, the Holy See says, ‘I am not a part [of this equation] and therefore I am not competent to say who should be sovereign. ‘But on the issue of access, the Holy See asks for guarantees of free access and freedom to worship within Jerusalem.

Our position as the local Church is the same, with a small addition that concerns sovereignty. Because our faithful are Palestinians and concerned with sovereignty, we say that just as the Israelis have the right of sovereignty, so they have the right to sovereignty. This sovereignty should be shared.

Does this put you in conflict with the Vatican?

Not at all. The Vatican says ‘I am not competent [to decide].’ Locally we say we are competent. The local Church represents the local people and the local people have rights.

Since the Vatican-Israel agreement, has the patriarchate established warmer relations with the Israeli government?

There are warmer relations when it comes to practical daily problems or questions like permits and visas and so on. There has been an improvement in these areas. These improved relations are due to the peace process as well, a process that got underway even before this fundamental Vatican-Israeli agreement. The peace process enabled people from different sides to come together and talk.

Our position toward the state is to respect the civil authority, whoever is in office. Still, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis remains. This is a conflict that puts the Palestinians in a position of oppression and injustice, of limited freedom. We do not agree with the Israelis on this, but in spite of it we have good relations. Not warm, but good.

—Michele Chabin