Why Christians Embraced Arafat

JERUSALEM — Catholics in the Holy Land hope that the successor to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who died on Nov. 11, will be as even-handed as Arafat was perceived to be.

Pope John Paul II, who met with Arafat 12 times between 1982 and 2001, when Israel confined the Palestinian to Ramallah, sent his condolences to Arafat's family and the Palestinian people, but did not laud Arafat's character. The Pope prayed that “the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land” and that Palestinians and Israelis will soon “live reconciled among themselves as two independent and sovereign states.”

The Vatican sent a delegation to Arafat's funeral in Cairo, which was headed by Jerusalem Patriarch Michel Sabbah, himself a Palestinian. Other top officials included Msgr. Dennis Kuruppassery, an official of the Apostolic Nunciature in Cairo, and Fr. Camillo Ballin, a Comboni missionary in Egypt.

Those who live in the Holy Land and are familiar with Arafat's dealings with the local church and Catholic organizations, said that he put Christians on a par with Muslims. “Arafat was always very open to all Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians and their institutions,” Father Shawki Baterian, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, told the Register.

Father Baterian credited Arafat with having “a universal vision: that Palestine belongs to all Palestinians, including Christians. He was always cooperative with us when we had problems. He dealt with these problems even while locked up in Ramallah.”

Arafat spent more than three years of his life confined to the Muqata, his West Bank headquarters, due to Israel's attempts to isolate him politically. The Israeli government blamed Arafat for rejecting a peace deal four years ago and launching the violent Palestinian uprising known as the intifada.

Approximately 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians have died in intifada-related violence.

Father Baterian, who did not comment on the intifada or its toll on human life, said that Arafat's government worked hard to make Christians feel welcome in the Palestinian territories.

“If you want to build a Catholic school, for example, you must first receive a building permit, and sometimes a local municipality doesn't want to grant us the permit or won't grant the church tax-exempt status,” he said. “Arafat was our redress whenever we had a problem.”

Father Baterian expressed the hope that a successor to Arafat will emerge in the coming months, and that he will continue Arafat's example vis-à-vis the church.

“We hope elections will take place soon and that the people can democratically choose their own leader, and that he will continue Arafat's universal vision,” Father Baterian said.

Father Pierre Battista, OFM, Custos of the Holy Land, admitted that relations with the Palestinian Authority were initially shaky. “When the Palestinian Authority was first established, there were no laws. Not all the municipalities, or even certain officials in the parliament, agreed to exempt the churches from taxes.”

Since the year 2000, however, when the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority signed a fundamental agreement guaranteeing the rights of church institutions in the Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank and Gaza, things improved tremendously, Battisa said. From then on “relations between Arafat and Catholic institutions were excellent,” the Custos said. “He paid very close attention to our needs. He provided us with freedom of education, which was very important.”

With Arafat's death, the Palestinians have entered “a very difficult period of passage,” Father Battista said. “Our concerns are for the Palestinians in general. We don't know exactly what will be.”

Though Father Battista admitted feeling “a little bit concerned” that fundamental Islamic factions will try to wrest greater control of the territories, putting not only Christians but moderate Muslims in danger, he expressed confidence “that there won't be any backlash against Christians.”

Unlike some other Middle East countries such as Iraq, where Islamic fundamentalism has caused Christians to fear for their lives, relations between Palestinian Christians and Muslims are mostly cordial. This is due in large part to their shared suffering under Israeli rule.

Where discrimination does exist, for example in the allocation of building permits, Christians tend not to discuss it publicly. Constantine Dabbagh, who heads the Gaza branch of the Middle East Council of Churches, said that Arafat's Palestinian Authority has been much easier to deal with than the Israeli government.

“Our relations with the PA are very respectful and based on mutual recognition,” Dabbagh said. “They facilitate our work in the fields of health and education.”

The Israelis, in contrast, establish closures on the territories that obstruct our ability to get supplies and proceed with our work. They have barriers [checkpoints] in the south and north and in the middle,” Dabbagh said. An Israeli government spokesman said the checkpoints “are necessary for security reasons” and that the government “does everything possible to facilitate humanitarian aid organizations.”

The Dark Side

While Christian institutions concur that Arafat did everything possible to assist them, some individual Christians are not sad that the Palestinian leader is gone.

“He didn't give anything to his people,” said a Christian named Emily, who spoke on condition that her last name not be published. “People can come and see how we live. I leave my house and 6 am and return at 6 pm. I have a secretarial degree but the only work I could find was as a housekeeper in a hotel. After our rent and my children's tuition, we don't any money. None.”

Emily, who moved to the quiet Jerusalem village of Beit Safafa from the sometimes-volatile West Bank town of Beit Jala when it was under siege by the Israeli military, said, “I expect nothing from the future. I hope my children will have a better life than mine.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem. Wire services contributed to this report.