[In the Holy Land] the State of Israel has to be able to exist peacefully in conformity with the norms of international law; there, equally, the Palestinian people has to be able to develop serenely its own democratic institutions for a free and prosperous future.
The Middle East is a land holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, but tragically it is also a land that yearns for a just peace. USCCB has a long history of working to address the conflict that has taken too many lives and crippled too many others. Violence, occupation and hatred have resulted in thousands killed and injured, most of them civilians, and in a denial of security and dignity to many more.
Palestinian leaders must recognize Israel and clearly renounce terrorism, take effective steps to stop it, and bring to justice those responsible. It is reprehensible to call suicide bombers martyrs. Israels often aggressive military response, its expansion of settlements, and its construction of a wall deep in Palestinian areas increase the misery and tension that often breed violence. The route of the fence presents a further impediment to creation of a viable Palestinian state that is necessary for a two-state resolution of the conflict.
Last year Palestinians elected a new President, Israelis withdrew from some Palestinian lands, and President Bush urged a renewed peace process. The President secured U.S. funding to support Palestinian political, economic and security reforms, but Congress attached provisions delaying delivery of aid and making it less effective. Many hoped that concerted U.S. leadership could help seize the opportunity for a solution to the conflict.
Despite new leadership, the Palestinian Authority was widely seen as plagued by corruption, cronyism and inefficiency that crippled its ability to improve the lives of the Palestinian people who suffered growing poverty and desperation. The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, while welcome, was not seen as a result of the peace process or President Abbas efforts. The security situation in Gaza collapsed after the withdrawal and Palestinians believe that Israeli security measures and the wall effectively confiscate Palestinian lands and water resources.
The recent election of a Hamas majority to the Palestinian parliament is a serious setback for the peace process. Although many voted for Hamas because they deliver effective social services and to protest cronyism, the fundamental premises of Hamas are antithetical to the peace process and to religious freedom. Many have rightly called on Hamas to reject terrorism and recognize Israel, basic prerequisites for a peace process.
The dwindling Christian community feels increasingly isolated and some Christians are still emigrating. The goal of Hamas to create an Islamic state may pose a fundamental threat to the freedom and future of the Church and other Christians in the Holy Land. The precarious situation of the Church in the Holy Land is exacerbated by the failure to make adequate progress in the Vatican-Israeli negotiations on the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See. Many Church agencies and institutions are put at risk by tax policies and other problems.
National Interreligious Initiative for Peace
Since 2003 USCCB has been part of an unprecedented initiative of over 30 U.S. Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders who offered Twelve Urgent Steps for Peace in the Middle East and urged the U.S. government to work to revive the peace process. This Interreligious Initiative, with a growing network of local interreligious groups in cities from coast to coast, have called on President Bush to exercise leadership to support a just peace. In November 2005 Bishop Ricard and Cardinal McCarrick signed a letter to the President from the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East (www.mideastcalm.org). Despite significant setbacks and discouraging developments, religious leaders cannot abandon the people of the Holy Land. The work for a just peace con tinues. The Interreligious Initiative is currently seeking meetings with high ranking Administration officials to urge concerted U.S. action to address the increasingly difficult situation in the Holy Land.
The Catholic Campaign for Peace in the Holy Land
The Catholic Campaign for Peace in the Holy Land was launched in February 2005 as part of the National Interreligious Initiative. The Campaign invites bishops and Catholic leaders to work with local religious leaders in Jewish, Muslim and other Christian traditions. The goal is to create a shared commitment to the broad outlines of a just resolution of the conflict and to raise a united voice with policy makers and the wider public.
USCCB holds that a just peace demands an end to the violence, real security for the State of Israel, an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the establishment of an internationally-recognized and viable state for Palestinians, just resolution of the refugee problem, an agreement on Jerusalem that protects religious freedom and other basic rights, an equitable sharing of resources, especially water, and implementation of relevant UN resolutions and other provisions of international law. USCCB continues to believe that U.S. leadership is needed to challenge and restrain both parties to the conflict, but in different ways. We join others in calling on Hamas to reject terrorism and recognize Israel in order to enter into a sustainable peace process. We urge Israel to restrain military responses and avoid actions that compromise a two state solution.
This past year USCCB met with U.S. officials, including the National Security Advisor and the President, and with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and officials of the Israeli Embassy. In February 2005 Bishop Ricard issued a statement noting encouraging developments and urging progress toward a just peace. In January 2006 Bishop William Skylstad joined the Co-Ordination of Bishops Conferences in Support of the Holy Land in issuing a call for peace with justice and on behalf of the group delivered remarks to King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The Christian Communities in the Holy Land
The Christian presence in the Holy Land must not be forgotten. They need our constant support. The continuing violence and growing despair could further marginalize the Christian community and accelerate the departure of Christians. Successful completion of negotiations between the Holy See and Israel on the Fundamental Agreement of 1993 is critical both for the future of the Church in the Holy Land and for religious freedom in the region. In the past year, USCCB has worked to promote a resolution of the issue, including numerous meetings with and letters to American and Israeli officials. At the request of the Church in the Holy Land, USCCB has also intervened with officials regarding the route of the wall near the Christian town of Aboud. For the past five years, leaders of episcopal conferences from Europe and North America have met in the Holy Land with Catholic Bishops there to enhance our solidarity with the Church in the Holy Land.
Despite significant setbacks and discouraging developments, religious leaders cannot abandon the people of the Holy Land. The work for a just peace continues.
- Join the Catholic Campaign for Peace in the Holy Land. Reach out to Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to work together to promote strong U.S. leadership. Website: www.usccb.org/sdwp/holylandpeace.shtml.
- Address U.S. Policy. Urge President Bush to make pursuit of a just peace a top priority and to challenge and restrain both parties. Ask Congress to support funding for NGOs providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
- Support the Church in the Holy Land. Urge members of Congress and Jewish leaders to press Israel to successfully conclude negotiations with the Holy See related to the Fundamental Agreement.
For additional materials, see www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/mideast.shtml. For further information: Stephen Colecchi, Director, Office of International Justice and Peace, 202-541-3160 (phone), 541-3339 (fax), firstname.lastname@example.org (email).