WASHINGTON (November 14, 2000) -- A just peace, including a Palestinian state and respect for Israel's right to exist, is the only way forward in the Middle East, according to a statement unanimously approved today by 300 of the nation's Catholic Bishops meeting here in their general assembly.
"The Holy Land must be a symbol of peace, love and unity, not a source of religious hatred and violence," the Bishops said. "Despite the events of the past six weeks, it is not naive or utopian to insist that the season of peace in the Middle East has not passed, that Palestinians and Israelis are not destined for yet more years of conflict."
While previous statements from the Bishops' Conference have endorsed elements which would indicate support for a Palestinian state, today's statement is the first explicit call for an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
The brief but wide-ranging statement also expressed the Bishops' concerns regarding the status of Jerusalem, the continued involvement of Syria in Lebanese affairs and the increasing marginalization of the Christian community in the Holy Land. They called on Catholics in the United States to pray, fast and abstain during the Advent and Christmas seasons in support of peace in the Middle East.
The Bishops' immediate concern is a cessation of the most recent hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians and a return to the peace process. More than 200 have died in the spasm of violence that began in September.
"A just peace demands speedy implementation of relevant U.N. resolutions and other provisions of international law, and the establishment of an internationally recognized Palestinian state," they said. "A just peace equally demands respect for Israel's right to exist and flourish within its borders. The future of the Middle East must be built on mutual respect, recognition and reconciliation, not hatred or exclusion or occupation."
Jerusalem, they said, must be addressed in any settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, and that a negotiated settlement is the only acceptable resolution. The Bishops echoed the statements of the Holy See urging "'an internationally guaranteed statute for the most religious parts of this unique city.' Such a statute," the Bishops said, "would provide guarantees for equality of rights for all residents, freedom of religion for all, and free access to and protection of the Holy Places."
They lamented the ongoing situation in Lebanon, saying a comprehensive peace must address the situation there.
"It is gravely troubling that, a decade after the close of the civil war, Lebanon is not yet a fully sovereign state. We call on the government of the United States to work energetically for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, and for respect for its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence."
Finally, responding to a plea from the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, the Bishops expressed their solidarity with the small Christian community in the region and urged that they not be forgotten.
"We fear that the continuing fighting and growing despair about the future will further marginalize the Christian community and will accelerate the departure of Christians from the Holy Land. These endangered Christian communities in the Holy Land merit, in a special way, the support and solidarity of Christians around the world."
"Catholics in the United States stand in solidarity with you and all our brothers and sisters who seek to witness to the gospel, in the most trying of circumstances, in the land of the Bible," said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference, in a letter to Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem. "Their vocation has been a difficult one and we want to express our admiration, gratitude and attachment to them as we mark together the second millennium of Jesus' birth."