The Holy Land continues to suffer the worst violence in more than a decade. The new intifada and the resurgence of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against civilians, and an often harsh Israeli response have resulted in thousands killed and injured, many of them civilians, and a terrible humanitarian crisis. With moderates marginalized on both sides, the Bush administration’s Road Map for Peace has not been able to break the impasse. Meanwhile, the dwindling Christian community feels increasingly isolated and some Christians are emigrating.
New Interfaith Initiative for Peace
In December 2003, the USCCB participated in a major new initiative of 33 U.S. Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders that offered “Twelve Urgent Steps for Peace in the Middle East” and urged the U.S. government to do more to revive the peace process. These leaders are convinced that most Israelis and Palestinians accept that what they need most – real security for Israelis and the end of occupation for Palestinians – cannot be achieved by violence, but only by negotiations. They believe peace between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states is possible and that determined U.S. leadership is absolutely essential if the Road Map for Peace is to succeed.
Violence, Human rights, and the Humanitarian Crisis
- The escalating cycle of provocations, terrorist attacks, excessive force, assassinations, reprisals, destruction of homes, curfews and closures, only compound injustice and inflame hatred and fear.
- Palestinian leaders must clearly renounce violence and terrorism, take effective steps to stop them, and bring to justice those responsible. Lifting up suicide bombers as “martyrs” is particularly reprehensible.
- Israel’s often aggressive military response; its virtual destruction of the Palestinian Authority, civil society, and civilian infrastructure; its blockades of Palestinian areas, and strict limits on humanitarian access; its continued establishment and expansion of settlements; and its construction of a wall/fence deep in Palestinian areas increase the misery that breeds terrorism and strengthen opponents of peace.
- Revival of the peace process is the only realistic way forward. In a letter to President Bush (5/03), Bishop Wilton Gregory welcomed the Road Map to Peace: “The elements of the road map and the international commitment it represents offer a new opportunity to break the recurrent cycle of violence and bring about, within a short period of time, a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would create an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state while ensuring Israel's peace and security.”
- 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 and the establishment of an internationally-recognized and viable state for Palestinians, just resolution of the refugee problem, an agreement on Jerusalem which 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.
- Jerusalem is perhaps the most intractable of the issues in the peace process. During his visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II called on Jerusalem to be “a City of Peace for all peoples” (3/23/00). The Holy See believes the difficult issues of territory and sovereignty should be resolved by negotiations. It also has repeatedly urged “an internationally guaranteed statute for the most religious parts of this unique city” (Archbishop Jean-Louis Tourna, 3/9/99). Such a statute 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.
- A comprehensive Middle East peace must address the situation in Lebanon as well. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 was a welcome development. It is gravely troubling, however, that, a decade after the end of the civil war, Lebanon is not yet a fully sovereign state due to the Syrian presence. The U.S. should work energetically for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, and for respect for its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence.
In the pursuit of a just peace for all in the region, the Christian presence in the Holy Land must not be forgotten. The 300,000 Christians in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan) give witness to the Gospel in the Land of Jesus. The continuing violence and growing despair about the future could further marginalize the Christian community and accelerate the departure of Christians from the Holy Land.
- In recent months, the Israeli government has been denying visas and residency permits to some priests, religious, and other church personnel, as well as relief and development workers. Some government officials have also been increasingly open in their public efforts to discredit and harass Church leaders.
- The USCCB and other episcopal conferences have been coordinating efforts to strengthen bonds of solidarity with the Church in the Holy Land. For the past three years, leaders of episcopal conferences from Europe and the Americas have met in the Holy Land with the Catholic Bishops there. In August 2002, the USCCB urged dioceses to support the major national organizations that are providing support for the Church’s relief, development, educational and pastoral programs. Dioceses and parishes are also encouraged to establish twinning relationships with the Church in the Holy Land.
- Interfaith Action. Reach out to Muslim and Jewish communities to discuss ways to work together to promote strong U.S. leadership on this issue. The Interfaith Initiative (see above) could be a model.
- U.S. Policy. The U.S. should renew efforts to stop the violence and to revive the peace process in a way that is truly balanced, that does not acquiesce in unilateral actions, such as the expansion of settlements or the construction of a fence/ wall deep inside Palestinian areas, and that responds with respect to Israel’s need for increased security and the Palestinians’ need for an independent, viable state.
- Visas. Urge your Member of Congress and Jewish leaders to press the Israeli government to end the denial of visas and work permits to church personnel.
Statement of Catholic Bishops in Holy Land (1/04); Interfaith Initiative for Peace (12/03); Letter to President Bush on Road Map (5/03); Statement of USCCB Administrative Committee (3/02); Statements of full body of bishops (6/01 and 11/00). For additional materials, see www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/mideast.shtml.
For Further Information: Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., or Gerard Powers, Director, Office of International Justice and Peace, 202-541-3160 (ph); 541-3339 (fx); firstname.lastname@example.org