December 23, 2005


The Holy Land in 2005

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, this year we find reasons for cautious optimism that the situation in the land where he was born might improve.

We never thought we’d be praising Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because in the past he has been among the strongest opponents of the Palestinians. It was he who spearheaded the building of Jewish settlements on land confiscated from the Palestinians so that the Jewish state can be expanded into land that the international community considers to be Palestinian. Yet he has appeared in a new guise as a man of peace, returning the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and insisting that he wants to follow the “road map” to secure a lasting peace.

The Likud Party disavowed Sharon, so he has started another party, called Kadima, a middle party between Likud and the Labor Party. Meanwhile, in the Labor Party, Amir Peretz defeated Israel’s elder statesman, Shimon Peres. Peres has now joined Sharon in Kadima. Opinion polls indicate that this centrist party will attract many voters in the elections scheduled for March.

It’s doubtful that any of these three parties will get a majority of the votes, but it’s quite possible that Sharon will be able to form a coalition and hence remain prime minister. As surprised as we are to be saying this, that appears to be the best course for peace.

As for the Palestinians, they have important elections coming up on Jan. 25. Here it’s important that the Fatah Party of the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas defeat most of the candidates of the Hamas Party. Abbas is more willing to negotiate with Sharon than are the Muslim extremists in Hamas.

Our feeling of cautious optimism comes from the hope that Sharon and Abbas are re-elected next year and that they will continue efforts for peace. We know, though, that it’s likely members of Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade will use terrorism to try to disrupt peace negotiations.

One of the obstacles to peace remains the wall that is being built to keep terrorists out of Israel. It is cutting through Palestinian territory, preventing freedom of movement for Palestinians and creating new on-the-ground boundaries for Israel.

In a statement on Nov. 2, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, told the U.N. General Assembly that the Holy See remains concerned about that wall because it “cuts access to some Palestinians’ lands and water sources, as well as to employment, commerce, education, medical care and freedom of worship.”

He acknowledged the right of people to live in security, but said, “We believe that the Holy Land is in greater need of bridges than of walls.”

A new problem has arisen for Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. Historically, Christian and Muslim Arabs have been able to live together in peace. In the city of Nazareth, for example, the 100,000 Arabs were about evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, was once 80 percent Christian.

Not any more. Muslim extremists are now discriminating against Christians. In that statement he made to the U.N. General Assembly, Archbishop Migliore also said, “We are obliged this year to draw attention to the growing difficulties faced by Palestinian Christians who, although they belong to a faith born in that very land, are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their neighbors. Doubly discriminated against, it is hardly surprising to learn that this tiny group, less than 2 percent of the local Palestinian population, is particularly marginalized.”

Some of that has happened in Bethlehem, where the Vatican established Bethlehem University to try to help Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, get an education. The purpose was to encourage Palestinians to remain in the Holy Land. Instead of keeping Christians in the Holy Land, the university has made it possible for its graduates to find fellowships or employment elsewhere.

We continue to hope, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, that the Holy Land will one day be “a home of harmony and peace” for all. Let’s pray that events next year will lead to that peace and harmony.

— John F. Fink


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