Address to the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation Regarding Christians in the Holy Land, October 21, 2000

Year Published
  • 2018
  • English

October 21, 2000

Shoukran, Shoukran, Ateer.

My dear friends, thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you this evening on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I am grateful to you for your thoughtfulness in recognizing the work of my brother bishops in this country on behalf of our sisters and brothers in the Holy Land. In a special way I thank you on behalf of our President, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, the Bishop of Galveston-Houston and the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I spoke to Bishop Fiorenza only a couple of days ago and he asked me to extend his greetings and his prayerful good wishes to you all. Bishop Fiorenza is truly very committed to the cause of the Christians in the Holy Land. He regrets very much that he cannot be with you tonight but he asked in a special way that I be here to give you his good wishes. He personally took on the task of gathering support for the observance of the great Jubilee in the Holy Land among the United States Bishops last year.

In March, during the Holy Father's historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he deepened our ties even more in conversations with His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch and agreed to endorse the Child Support Program of the Patriarchate Schools. In August, as president of our conference, he wrote a letter to all the American Bishops urging their support of the Program in their dioceses and already contributions have been arriving at the Bishops' Conference Headquarters to enable us to take part in this very important work for the future of the Christian people in the Holy Land.

Bishop Fiorenza also sends his warm greetings to the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation. He wants you to know how much he appreciates the vital work that you are doing for the development of the Christian presence in that most important part of the world. I would also like to add my own word of praise for the work of the Foundation. In a short time, you have created a truly remarkable ecumenical collaboration, one that is already benefiting the Christians of the Holy Land. Your Board of Directors has given generously of its time, talent and treasure, to help make the Foundation grow and to make it a well-known and respected organization among the already established institutions which are addressing the concerns of the Holy Land.

You have truly done astonishing work in mobilizing Palestinian and Arab Christians in the United States and energizing their own engagement to a remarkable degree. Let me tell you that the Conference we are concluding today has been looked on with envy by many. I hope you will make the most of the array of talent which you have assembled here today and share it wherever people in Washington need to the hear the voice of the Christians of Palestine. May God continue to look kindly on your efforts.

The cycle of violence following Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif on September 28 has put this evening's events in a whole other perspective. Others here tonight can speak more eloquently than I possibly could to the pain and loss the people in the Holy Land are experiencing at this time; to their outrage at violence that has left more than 100 people dead -- mostly Palestinians, including many children; to their frustration and disillusionment with the post-Oslo peace process, and to their diminished hopes for peace.

The recent violence clearly has poisoned the wells of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, and has only further diminished prospects for a just peace. Yet Scripture says, "We must seek peace and pursue it." What should be clear from the horrifying images we have seen over the past few weeks, is that now is the time for courageous leaders in both communities to work tirelessly for peace. Peace without justice is unacceptable; but violence on either side is not the way toward a just peace and actually can compound injustice. To fan hostilities further out of a misplaced sense of honor is to give into the devil's solicitation. An imperfect peace can be the road to greater justice in the future. A flawed peace, however, in which there is no equity, of course, will only prepare the way for more conflict. "Seek peace and pursue it." The opportunity for peace must be firmly grasped in the hope of achieving some justice now and attaining better justice in the future.

For Christians around the world this is a time of increased urgency for the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. The diminished prospects for peace will make for more uncertainty, more suffering, more harassment for Christians in the Holy Land. Their being a small community is always a danger and gives opportunities for them to suffer from so many directions. In Israel they are Arabs, among the Arabs they are Christians. The hostility which threatens them is manifested in different ways. Just last week on Sunday and Monday, the attacks by Israeli settlers on Saint James Church in Beit Hanina led to a terrible deterioration in inter-religious relations. Unless occasions like this are quickly mended by dialogue and mutual respect, it provides still another reason for the Christians of the Holy Land to feel that they are in danger of being dispossessed from their own homes.

Attacks by Israeli civilians on the residents of Nazareth, the heartland of the Christian North, plus the inaction of the police until they began to defend themselves against attack only add to the fear felt by Arab Christians in Nazareth, stimulated by the controversy over the mosque in Nazareth. This most recent tension must heighten our concern for their fate. I had the privilege of being with Bishop Fiorenza in Nazareth for the visit of the Holy Father and we thank God that it was able to be carried out in peace and in a great spirit of holiness.

The peace process is obviously something for which we must pray. Even before these most recent events, the situation of Palestinian Christians was serious. Now it is grave. Christians in the United States need to understand the terrible concerns of their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. We need to get the message out to them that they must be aware of how violence on all sides threatens the tenuous existence of their co-religionists in Palestine and Israel. We must speak out and continually call attention to this group of our own family of faith in that most sensitive and important part of our world.

For us Christians, Jerusalem is the "Mother Church". It is there that disciples gathered after the crucifixion of the Lord. It was there that Jesus commissioned them to spread the Gospel "to all Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth." It was in Jerusalem that the disciples, gathered with Mary, waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit and there that the Spirit assembled the Church out of all nations. Outside of Jerusalem, Steven, the first martyr, gave up his life for the Faith.

From the very beginning, Jerusalem has been a matter of solicitous concern for the Christian communities everywhere. Indeed, it was with concern for the poor of the Christian community in Jerusalem that Saint Paul began the first collection in the history of the Church, giving to the world the unforgettable advice about God loving a cheerful giver.

In modern times, the Church in the Holy Land has been the concern of the entire Church. For 150 years the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre provided material support for the needs of the Latin Patriarchate. Since 1949, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Holy See's relief and development agency for the entire Middle East, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association have provided a variety of assistance to the Palestinian people in the wake of the Nakbah of the first Arab-Israeli War. Through five decades of suffering, our Catholic Relief Services has been in the lead in meeting the needs of the Palestinian people, Christian and Muslim alike. I am privileged to serve as a Member of the Board of CRS and I have seen personally the many projects which Catholic Relief Services continues to direct toward the help of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

The Holy Father, with careful and measured words, has called for peace and reconciliation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Recognizing in a very clear way the rights of Israel both to exist and to flourish with security, the Holy Father has recognized the rights of Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, who also have an historic share in the territory of the Holy Bible. When our Holy Father was at the refugee camp near Bethlehem only a few months ago, Bishop Fiorenza and several of us American Bishops were present to hear his stirring words and to admire his courage, his consistency and his love. His visit to this refugee camp and to other parts of the Holy Land, illustrated for all of us the path to peace in the Holy Land as he stood up for the rights of Palestinians and their legitimate aspiration for a homeland, insisted on respect for Israel's right to exist within secure borders, and defended the equal rights of the Christian community in the region.

The U.S. Bishops took a similar approach in their 1989 statement, Toward Peace in the Middle East. Quoting the Holy Father, the U.S. Bishops were clear that Palestinians and Israelis, "have an identical, fundamental right to have their own homeland in which they live in freedom, dignity, and security in harmony with their neighbors." In recent years, the Bishops have spoken out against confiscation of lands, against the abuse of human rights, against the withdrawal of residency permits by the Israeli government, and very clearly against the use of force against civilians and disproportionate force in retaliatory acts. The bishops of our country have been especially vocal in joining the Holy Father in defending the unique and sacred character of Jerusalem, and encouraging a political solution that respects basic principles of justice and international law. These public statements, letters to public officials and representations to government leaders have been an expression of our solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and of our prayerful hope for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Over the past decade the Bishops of the United States have increased our involvement with the Church of Jerusalem and strengthened our commitment to preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land. We have made frequent visits to the region, have been in regular communication with Jerusalem and with the authorities of the Church there. We have provided support of many kinds on practical matters as well as our advocacy on public policy. We recently added our voices to those of the three Patriarchs and the other local leaders of the Christian Churches on behalf of justice, peace and human rights.

As President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops, Patriarch Sabbah has taken note of this "special relationship". He has praised the Church in the United States for its singular work of solidarity at the 1997 Synod for America. This year he honored us by inviting a delegation of the United States Bishops to be the only national delegation to join Pope John Paul II's Jubilee Pilgrimage. Bishop Fiorenza and I were honored and privileged to be part of that delegation. We are indeed proud of our "special relationship" and we are pledged to continue to work, alongside the Foundation and other Catholic and ecumenical groups, to secure the future of Christianity in the Holy Land -- not just now but in the years ahead.

Today, at the request of the Holy See, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops carries out its work on behalf of the Christians of the Holy Land in concert with other Bishops' Conferences in Western Europe, in Canada and in Latin America. Even these days, the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe is meeting in Brussels and the Presidents of the different Conferences have the Holy Land very high on their agenda. In January, the Bishops of England and Wales will hold a special workshop to learn about the present condition of Palestinian Christians. The Episcopal Conferences coordinate in an effort to strengthen their work on behalf of the Church in the Holy Land. Although each Conference responds in its own way to the challenges we face, this coordination helps keep the Holy Land before the eyes of the Church in this part of the world and makes each of us conscious of the opportunities for action presented to us all.

With interest rising in the fate of the Christian presence in the land of Jesus, it behooves us all to consider coordinating our efforts. There is no room for rivalry or tension here. We must learn from each other and cooperate with each other rather than compete with each other. New groups, like the Foundation, and established ones, like the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, must pull together for the sake of Christianity in the Holy Land and in the interest of its people.

We must remember the admonition of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: Paul planted; Apollos watered; but God gives the increase. The Foundation has had great success in being able to motivate people who have been long interested in the well being of their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, to come to old issues of concern with new energy and imagination. It has motivated Palestinian and Arab Americans, and drawn Protestants and Catholics to their side in this cause. Because of that success, it is all the more important to be attentive to the need for coordination and to be determined to work together in communicating with all those who are also working to support the Christians of the Holy Land.

The Holy See's Nuncio to Israel, who is also Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi has indicated that one of the strengths for the Holy Land is the opinion of the Christian people in the United States. In this time of crisis -- not just for the future of peace but for the very survival of the Christian presence in the Holy Land -- it is important for the Christians in our own country to be heard by our leaders as we profess our concern and our love for the Holy Land and our solidarity with the Christian community there. The Holy Father's voice was heard so clearly and with such strength last March and, indeed, since that time. We must make his words our own.

At the same time, as we speak out in defense of our Christian brothers and sisters of the Holy Land, we must do so with respect for their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. You will note that I say respect not just tolerance. We need positive regard for their dignity as God's children, for their religious tradition and for their own rights which the Holy Father and the Holy See have supported and defended clearly. We are all children of the one God. Indeed we are all people of the Book and we have one Father in Faith, Abraham. In these tumultuous times it may prove difficult to continue with love and respect to work with all the parties that play a role in the tragedy of the Holy Land today, especially when we feel the loss of those who have been killed, the pain of those who have been wounded and the disillusion of a people whose hopes have been so often frustrated. But we have no choice. Working together is the right thing to do. It is the only way to lasting peace.

We listen to the words of Patriarch Sabbah during a recent ecumenical peace vigil at St. Stephen's Church: "Amidst the hatred and the bloodshed, the Word of God should dwell in our hearts; we have to listen to it, to meditate on it, even if it hurts our feelings." The Patriarch then goes on to quote from the Scriptures: "Bless your persecutors, never curse them, bless them. Rejoice with others when they rejoice and be sad with those in sorrow and never pay back evil with evil. As much as it is possible and to the utmost of your ability, be at peace with everyone and do not be mastered by evil but master evil with good."

In the Holy Land so troubled and broken apart by strife these days, the way to the survival of the Christian community lies in dialogue and reconciliation with both Jews and Muslims. In the Holy Land, we Christians are a small community. Securing a future depends in no small part on good relations with these majorities and on their understanding and appreciation of the Christian presence. The responsibility for that dialogue lies primarily with the Christians of the Holy Land, but we in the United States have unique experience and some special resources to bring to that dialogue and so this must be our commitment too.

In the United States, with our history of religious freedom and pluralism, we are witnessing an increasing importance and success to interreligious dialogue and cooperation. We work with other religious bodies to relieve famine in the Horn of Africa, to serve refugees in the Balkans, to combat religious discrimination at home. We can bring that experience to bear in assisting the local Church in dialogue. There are many ways in which we can do this.

Dioceses take joint pilgrimages with Jewish organizations, and other organizations run interreligous study tours to the Holy Land. Such joint visits can be an occasion for introducing our American colleagues of other faiths to Palestinian Christians and educating them on their concerns. Similarly, our formal dialogues in the United States ought to be an occasion, not just for discussing our care for the Christian presence, but even more for engaging our partners in efforts to strengthen the Christian presence and to deal directly with concrete problems which concern and are important to us all, like discrimination in employment and the continuing open wound of the problem of the Mosque in Nazareth. These problems make life for Christians hard and prompt them to emigrate. In the same way laity and clergy ought to make their attachment to the Christians of the Holy Land and their anxiety over their future a matter of conversation with Jewish and Muslim friends, colleagues and business associates. When people are in love they share good news with their friends. When they are worried about a child or a spouse who is ill or in trouble, they tend to share their concern with friends and acquaintances. Our love for the people of the Holy Land should be something we talk about whenever we can, especially with the children of Abraham, who share our attachment to these sacred places.

Tonight, we Christians pray as the followers of Christ always have. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We are concerned for our sisters and brothers in Israel and in the Palestinian territory. We recognize always in our concern that they continue to be a small community. It is absolutely essential that they know that they have not been forgotten. Just as his oft-repeated words of love and concern reminds them that the Holy Father has not forgotten them, so too we - through our prayers and our presence -- help give them the sense of security and family that they need so much.

These are indeed difficult days for peace. But 2000 years ago, in the heart of a Roman Empire and in the realm of an evil tyrant named Herod, there in the land called Holy, a Child was born who was destined for the rise and fall of many. It is He to whom we go; it is He who listens and loves and works His own wonders. He alone is called the Prince of Peace. Come Lord Jesus and make the world over again. As for us, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 

Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick
Archbishop of Newark
Member, International Policy Committee
U.S. Catholic Conference

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