Catholic World News
[APR. 05, 2002]

As Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield continued into
this week, Christian leaders in the Holy Land took an
increasingly active stance in opposing the violence.
They wrote to President Bush and their sister churches,
met with Israeli officials, and arranged a series of
events to publicize their united position.

Such events were made all the more necessary when
Palestinian Christians were propelled into the thick of
the conflict by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force)
incursion in Bethlehem: gun battles raged around the
Church of the Nativity, and several Christian
civilians, such as the Church’s caretaker and
bell-ringer--Samir Ibrahim Salman--were among the

Christian leaders, including Latin Catholic Patriarch
Michel Sabbah and Anglican Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal,
assembled outside Israeli Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon’s
house in West Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon. "We are
here to tell the world that occupation will not bring
peace," explained Bishop Riah, who had met with
Israel's deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael
Melchior, on Good Friday, to put the Christian
perspective across. He added: "It is time for the
Israelis to come to terms with the need for
Palestinians to have a state side by side with Israel."

On Wednesday, Church leaders reassembled at the Tantur
checkpoint outside Bethlehem. As the wind and rain
lashed those who had forgotten their umbrellas, Bishop
Riah quipped that "it is not only the weather that is
bad!" Crowded behind boulders placed by gun-wielding
soldiers who stood staunchly in front of several
military jeeps, a throng of around 50 clergymen and
local Christians sang Arabic songs and condemned the
IDF "re-occupation." Journalists milled among them, as
did some foreign visitors, keen to express solidarity
with the local Christians.

Archbishop Serverios, spiritual leader of the Holy
Land’s approximately 5,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians,
held up an olive-branch as he expressed his wish "to
enter Bethlehem to see our churches and people. Because
yesterday we heard our church had received bullets and
our people maybe need food and water. So we come here
to have solidarity with our people."

Archbishop Abraham, leader of the Coptic community,
agreed that such events strengthen solidarity between
the Christian communities. "We all worship the same
God," he said, pointing out the unity not only among
Christian denominations, but also among the
monotheistic faiths: "all the children of Abraham must
live together in cooperation for peace."

"Church leaders are in a strong position to mediate,"
pointed out Bishop Riah, "because we are caught in
between. Some of us are Arab Palestinians, but also
Israeli citizens. And we are obliged to help peace,
because Christ said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.'"

The dilemma of being "caught in between" was never more
vividly demonstrated than at the Church of the
Nativity, where Franciscan, Greek Orthodox, and
Armenian monks were trapped inside, along with
approximately 200 Palestinians, some of whom were
believed to be gunmen, while Israeli soldiers reputedly
broke open the doors.

But in spite of the dangerous circumstances into which
their co-religionists had been thrust, the Christian
leaders were unable to penetrate the Tantur checkpoint.

"Go back," snapped one of the soldiers.

"Why back?" asked Bishop Riah; "why always back and
never forward?"

The soldier had no answer.

- Report from Jerusalem by CWN correspondents Nicholas
Jubber & Michael Hirst