December 22, 2006


The Holy Land in 2006


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.

That’s the way we began our editorial last year. Unfortunately, our reasons for optimism soon faded. We thought then that Ariel Sharon’s new party, Kadima, would win Israel’s election in March, and that he would continue efforts to return land to the Palestinians. Instead, Sharon suffered several severe strokes and was succeeded by Ehud Olmert.

We were also cautiously optimistic because the Palestinians had elected Mahmoud Abbas as their president. We believed that Sharon and Abbas would continue their efforts toward peace. But then the Hamas Party won the Palestinians’ Jan. 25 election, putting men in power who refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The result is that the situation in the Holy Land appears worse today than it was a year ago. Much worse considering what happened in Lebanon this year when, after being provoked by Hezbollah, Israel invaded the country and destroyed much of it.

This was particularly devastating to the Christians of Lebanon because the war strengthened Hezbollah, which has long sought to make Lebanon an Islamic state.

Prior to the war in Lebanon, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had been able to preserve the interreligious harmony that had existed there for some time. Since the war, many more Lebanese Christians have joined the exodus of Christians from the Middle East because of uncertainty about their country’s future.

Christians continue to leave the area in droves. It’s probably not surprising that 600,000 Iraqi Christians—more than half of the country’s Christian population—have left since the U.S. invasion of their country. But they also are leaving Palestinian areas because Christianity has become more and more associated with the West, especially the United States, and the United States is seen as supporting Israel.

With all this bad news, is it possible for us to say again that we are cautiously optimistic that the situation will improve? Or will we be wrong again? What basis could we possibly have for optimism?

We believe that there is finally some recognition on the part of governments in the Middle East, as well as in the West, that there must be a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Arabs. Therefore, we believe that more efforts will be made—by Arab governments, Israel and the United States—to find that settlement.

We should listen to Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, who said during a Nov. 2 interview with Catholic journalists from the United States, “The main question for the U.S. administration and for Israel is survival. But if the United States wants Israel to survive, to be recognized, then it should take measures to surround Israel with friends. But current U.S. policy is surrounding Israel with enemies. That’s not the way to protect your friend.”

It’s quite possible that only peace in the Middle East can save the ancient Churches of that area. But we agree with Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, who wrote in America magazine on Sept. 11, “Middle Eastern Christians [Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, other oriental Christians, Protestants and evangelicals] are a resilient people, who have endured the coming and going of empires for two millennia. Given a chance, they will rebound.”

Father Christiansen also wrote, “In a very real sense, the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, particularly of the Eastern Catholic Churches, depends on what happens in Lebanon, home to a number of Eastern patriarchates and to the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East.”

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are signs that many of the Palestinians now believe that they made a mistake by electing a government controlled by Hamas. When aid from the West was cut off because their government would not recognize Israel, the oil-rich Arab countries failed to come to the rescue. Once again, we are cautiously optimistic that they have learned a lesson, and will be more willing to negotiate with Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israeli people are tired of war, which is why they elected Olmert to be prime minister after Sharon’s strokes. He should be a willing participant in the comprehensive peace negotiations we hope will occur next year.

— John F. Fink

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