“There Must Be Justice for Both Sides”

by Hugh Schofield

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On January 6th, Pope John Paul II consecrated Michel Sabbah as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was the first time that a native Palestinian has been elevated to the seat, which has authority over 65,000 Roman Catholics in Israel, the occupied territories, Jordan, and Cyprus. Born in 1933 in Nazareth, Michel Sabbah was ordained in 1955. He served for nearly 20 years as a priest in Amman. More recently he has been president of Bethlehem University.

Patriarch Sabbah sees his appointment as an important boost for the Catholic community in the Middle East, made doubly significant by the background of continuing unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The current uprising began last December and has cost Palestinians hundreds of lives, thousands of injuries and continuing imprisonments, collective punishments, untold economic hardships, and severe repression by the military occupiers. In the following interview with Hugh Schofield, the patriarch speaks about the violence of these recent months and about the Church’s role in bringing it to an end.

The appointment of a Palestinian to be Patriarch of Jerusalem was a historic milestone. How was it interpreted by Catholics here?

There were two reactions. First of all, there was of course general satisfaction that for the first time one of their own people was their pastor. This was the intention of the Vatican. It knew the diocese needed a pastor, and it believed the diocese was mature enough to produce one for itself. But on another level, the special situation at the time – the uprising in the occupied territories – has given an added significance to my nomination, though this was purely coincidental.

What then is your role, and the role of the Church, during the violent confrontations which we have seen in recent times?

It is the role of the Church to do everything it can to achieve peace. It has to present to the people the spiritual values embodied in Jesus Christ: that man must ask for justice and that man must ask for truth. On these two bases – on justice and truth – peace will be built. How in a specific context that peace can be achieved is not our realm. It is the realm of the politicians and the solutions they can offer.

But mustn’t the Church give guidance on how to react in a Christian way to a given situation – in this case the Israeli occupation?

It is not our role to judge. What we do is give these values to the people, and they apply these values to their own situation. A military occupation is an abnormal, exceptional situation, and here it’s lasted more than 20 years. The people want to get out of it. So they use the methods they judge best able to achieve it.

Is violence as a method justified?

War is violence. Everywhere in the world there are wars. Everywhere in the world, Catholics are engaged in wars. They have to be part of one side or other. How in their own consciences they come to terms with that is a difficult problem.

So what advice does the Church give?

The advice we give is that everybody must do everything he can to achieve all his rights. He must not allow his rights to be abused by anyone. As for specific acts of violence, you cannot condemn or justify individual actions. You have to take into account the whole situation.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Palestine Israel Violence against Christians Occupation