WASHINGTON (April 14, 2004) -- On the eve of the United States-Israeli summit, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for the United States to provide "strong support" for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"I write regarding our grave concerns about developments in the Holy Land, and our hope that you and your Administration will take new steps to reverse a seriously deteriorating situation and to revive the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians," said USCCB Bishop Wilton D. Gregory in a letter to President Bush delivered yesterday.
The president is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today.
Citing a joint appeal issued in December by 33 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, Bishop Gregory told President Bush that "however daunting the challenges, the United States must remain committed to the goal you articulated in announcing the Road Map - the establishment of a viable, independent and democratic Palestinian state alongside the existing state of Israel, with enduring peace and security for both peoples, based on existing UN Resolutions."
Bishop Gregory emphasized that "a just and lasting peace will not be possible if the United States acquiesces in unilateral initiatives that undermine these legitimate goals."
He also articulated a number of specific concerns for President Bush:
He strongly criticized both Palestinian and Israeli actions.
"Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians cannot be tolerated - both because they are morally abhorrent and because they undermine the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people," said Bishop Gregory. "Israeli occupation cannot be sustained - militarily or morally; nor can the repressive measures that are sometimes used to enforce this occupation be justified."
Israeli security wall.
Bishop Gregory said the Israeli security wall being built through Palestinian areas divides families, land, neighborhoods, and is a grave obstacle to peace.
Deteriorating relations between Israel and the Catholic Church.
Bishop Gregory also reiterated for the president concerns that were raised last week by the chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee with the Israeli ambassador to the United States over the deteriorating relations between Israel and the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
"The growing problem of denial of visas or indefinite delay in their issuance, recent cases of the mistreatment of clergy and religious awaiting visa renewal, difficulties over taxation, including those of our own Catholic Relief Services, and the suspension of negotiations on treaties regarding fiscal matters and other issues have created the most difficult situation in living memory for the Church in the Holy Land," said Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, in a letter last week.
NOTE: The letters from Bishop Gregory and Bishop Ricard are attached.
April 7, 2004
His Excellency Ambassador Daniel Ayalon
Ambassador of Israel
3514 International Drive, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Once again, the holy festivals of Passover and Easter are celebrated by Jews and Christians at nearly the same time. On this occasion we wish to express to you the joy that our Catholic community in the United States continues to experience through ongoing dialogue with the Jewish people.
Against the background of this mutual affection, and in light of the progress made in Catholic-Jewish relations and honest dialogue these past forty years, we are dismayed at the deterioration of relations between your government and the Catholic Church in Israel and the territories under Israel's control. The growing problem of denial of visas or indefinite delay in their issuance, recent cases of the mistreatment of clergy and religious awaiting visa renewal, difficulties over taxation, including those of our own Catholic Relief Services, and the suspension of negotiations on treaties regarding fiscal matters and other issues have created the most difficult situation in living memory for the Church in the Holy Land.
In December 1993, we celebrated, with your predecessor, the signing of the Fundamental Agreement, which is so important, not just for the Church and the government of Israel, but for freedom and pluralism within Israeli society as a whole. Regrettably, as the agreement's tenth anniversary passed, provisions respecting the Church's right to deploy its own personnel in Israel and for both parties to avoid "actions incompatible" with negotiating an agreement on fiscal matters, including taxation, were being routinely ignored. Despite repeated promises of remedies, the visa problem has grown still more serious, and, the requests of the Holy See notwithstanding, negotiations on a fiscal agreement have been suspended.
With all our affection for the Jewish people and without wavering in our commitment to the state of Israel, the many disappointments and the multiplication of problems are a cause of grave concern. In accord with its commitments under the Fundamental Agreement, we hope and urge that the Government of Israel take quick action to restore its good relations with the Church in the Holy Land, its local and foreign personnel, and its many institutions. We trust you will take up our request at the highest
levels, and look forward to the courtesy of a substantive reply.
In all sincerity, we wish you, and through you all the Israeli people, Hag sameach shel Pesach!
Sincerely yours in Shalom,
Most Reverend John H. Ricard, SSJ
Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Chairman, International Policy Committee William Cardinal Keeler
Archbishop of Baltimore
Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-
April 13, 2004
George W. Bush
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
In this season when we celebrate the Risen Christ, I write regarding our grave concerns about developments in the Holy Land, and our hope that you and your Administration will take new steps to reverse a seriously deteriorating situation and to revive the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Catholic community in the United States has strong ties to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and we strongly support a secure and prosperous Israel. We also have strong ties to Christians in the Holy Land, many of whom are Palestinian. Moreover, through Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and other programs, we are responding to the dire needs of Palestinians of all faiths, and strongly support their legitimate aspirations for an independent, viable state where they can live in dignity and security.
Given these strong ties to both communities, we are especially clear that the current violence and repression, suicide bombings and aggressive responses are unacceptable. Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians cannot be tolerated -- both because they are morally abhorrent and because they undermine the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people. Israeli occupation cannot be sustained – militarily or morally; nor can the repressive measures that are sometimes used to enforce this occupation be justified.
U.S. leadership is essential if both sides are to escape this spiral of violence and injustice. Last December, I joined thirty-two other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in an unprecedented joint appeal to you and Members of Congress to renew high level U.S. engagement in order to help both sides take the bold steps necessary to rebuild hope that peace is possible. In that appeal, we all agreed that, however daunting the challenges, the United States must remain committed to the goal you articulated in announcing the Road Map – the establishment of a viable, independent and democratic Palestinian state alongside the existing state of Israel, with enduring peace and security for both peoples, based on existing UN Resolutions.
A just and lasting peace will not be possible if the United States acquiesces in unilateral initiatives that undermine these legitimate goals. Christian leaders in the Holy Land are especially concerned about the security wall, which they have called "a grave obstacle" to peace. In my visit in January, I saw first-hand the devastating effect of the wall, which is dividing families, land, and neighborhoods, and is cutting people off from their livelihoods. In Jesus' birthplace, for example, the Christian community is increasingly trapped and the ability of religious institutions to function normally throughout the Holy Land is severely impeded.
As Pope John Paul said last November, "[t]he Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges!" Bridges must be built on a foundation of respect for the legitimate rights and aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians rightly insist on an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an end to the construction of the wall along its current path, an end to the continued establishment and expansion of settlements, and an end to the collective punishments and the daily indignities that make their lives so hopeless. Israelis rightly insist that Palestinian leaders clearly and unequivocally renounce and take effective steps to halt terrorist violence, and show the Israeli people that they are fully committed to prepare their people to live in peace with Israel.
I have heard Israelis and Palestinians express their strong desire for peace, justice and reconciliation. They know that the land that is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims is destined to be shared by two peoples and three faiths. Despite the spiraling violence, they share a vision of a just peace based upon real security for the State of Israel, a viable, democratic state for Palestinians, just resolution of the refugee problem, an end to the humanitarian and economic crisis in the Palestinian areas, an agreement on Jerusalem which protects religious freedom and other basic rights, and implementation of relevant UN resolutions and other provisions of international law. The Israelis and Palestinians need strong support from the international community, especially the United States, to achieve this vision.
Finally, let me share my grave concern about the deteriorating relations between the Israeli government and the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. The growing problem of denial of or delay in granting visas, new difficulties over taxation, failure to implement the Fundamental Agreement signed with the Holy See in 1993, the suspension of negotiations on treaties related to that Agreement, and other matters have created the most difficult situation in living memory for the Church in the Holy Land. It would be a great tragedy if the vital role of the Christian community in the Holy Land is undermined because of these and other actions.
In calling on all parties to "renew dialogue without delay," the Holy Father recently said that "the international community cannot flee from its responsibilities … but must assume them courageously." The challenge is daunting. Please be assured of our prayers as you use your position of leadership and the special role that our government must play to help bring about a just peace in the Holy Land.
Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
Bishop of Belleville