National Catholic Register


Peace Plea in a Powder-Keg

Vatican calls for restraint in the Middle East


Catholic News Service

July 23 - August 5, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/23/06 at 10:00 AM


JERUSALEM — The Vatican, a Lebanese cardinal and a theologian in Israel criticized Israel’s reaction to Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into the north of the country in mid-July.

Pope Benedict XVI is following events in the Middle East with great concern because “the latest dramatic events” risk “degenerating into a conflict with international repercussions,” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

The cardinal issued a statement July 14 after the Middle East appeared to move a step closer to all-out war as fighting spread north to Lebanon. Israel bombed targets in Lebanon after members of Lebanon-based Hezbollah crossed into Israel and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

“As in the past, the Holy See condemns both terrorist attacks on one side and military reprisals on the other,” Cardinal Sodano said. “In fact, a state’s right to defend itself does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards safeguarding civilian populations.

“In particular, the Holy See deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation,” he said, adding that the Vatican is close to the Lebanese people, “who already have suffered much to defend their independence.”

Although an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on Israel in which two soldiers were kidnapped and Katyusha rockets were lobbed into northern cities is “unacceptable,” Israel’s response is not “appropriate,” said a Catholic theologian in Jerusalem.

“I don’t know why Hezbollah did what they did. It is unacceptable to [launch] rockets into Rosh Pina, Tzfat, Meron, Haifa [in Israel]. I think Israel has to react. They can’t tolerate the taking of soldiers, the Katyushas,” said Father Michael McGarry, rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem. “They have to do something in response, but killing civilians is not appropriate.”

Israel was holding Lebanon responsible for the kidnapping and attacks as opposed to the past when they only blamed Hezbollah, he added.

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. However, the Lebanese government regards Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories.

Hezbollah, with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, has carved out its own territory in southern Lebanon and many analysts say that the Lebanese army is not strong enough to confront Hezbollah to prevent such attacks.

The Israeli reprisals for the Hezbollah kidnapping included bombing the Beirut airport and establishing a naval blockade of the country’s ports. The Lebanese government said 47 people died in the Israeli bombardments July 13.

Hezbollah responded by firing rocket and mortar shells into northern Israel; the Israeli government said July 14 that two people had been killed and more than 100 wounded in a dozen different cities and villages. At the same time, Israel continued its offensive in Gaza.

Israeli TV commentator Ehud Nahari said that perhaps Israel’s reaction was an attempt to weaken Hezbollah so much that it would allow the Lebanese army to regain control of the southern stretch of its country which borders Israel.

Israel in 2000 withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon, where they had been stationed since the end of the Lebanon war in 1985. From 1985 to 2000, together with the mostly-Maronite southern Lebanese army, Israel maintained a presence there against Hezbollah gunmen, creating a buffer zone for northern Israel.

Although Israel needs to react, there must be another way, Father McGarry said.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, said that both the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the retaliation by Israel in attacking Lebanon are deplorable.

Lebanon is always paying the price for this [Israeli and Palestinian] conflict,” said Cardinal Sfeir in a telephone interview while he was staying in New Hampshire.

The cardinal, seen as a prominent spokesperson for the Lebanese people, was in the United States after he was a special guest for a July 2-9 convention of the National Apostolate of Maronites in Chicago.

Cardinal Sfeir said he is trying to meet with someone in the Bush administration.

President Bush arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 14 for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations.

France and Russia have criticized the Israeli attacks while Bush has said that Israel has a right to defend itself. Bush also said he was worried the attacks could weaken Lebanon’s democratic, anti-Syrian government.

Meanwhile, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is in charge of Christian sites in the Holy Land, said the Israeli response did not come as a surprise.

“It was clear when Katyushas fell on Nahariya and Haifa the reaction of the Israelis would be furious. I think it was an invitation for the Israelis [to attack]. I think it is very sad,” said Father Pizzaballa. “It is a very difficult situation. I don’t understand either the position of Hezbollah or of Hamas, and not even Israel’s reaction.”

One of the Hezbollah rockets that landed in Haifa hit only a few hundred yards from the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery where about 20 monks and nuns had gathered.

“Thank God it happened without hurting any people,” said Sister Eliana Karram, superior of the monastery. “We pray for all these things to stop. It is better for all sides that there [is] peace and quiet. No people want this violence.”