ROME, Feb. 26, 01 ( - Latin-Rite Patriarch
Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem released his annual Lenten letter
this week, telling Israel's army, "Destroy our churches if
you must, but leave the people their homes."

He added, "If you need at all some sort of collective
punishment or ransom, to restore tranquility to innocent
children and families we offer you our churches to destroy."

The Patriarch's Lenten Letter is an anguished call for
peace in the Holy Land, at a time when tension is high.
Before writing it, the 67-year-old Patriarch visited
Palestinian parishes, communities, and civil authorities.
Although the letter is addressed to Christians in view of
Lent, in many parts it openly speaks to Muslims and Jews.

Its main concern is for the political situation: "Roads
closed, towns and villages in a state of siege, no work,
constant bombing...." This desperate situation is causing
many Christians to abandon the area. "Brothers and
Sisters," the Patriarch says, "do not leave your land. Have
patience. God wants you to be believers in Him and witnesses
of his Son, Jesus Christ here in this land. Remain here in
these Holy Places... why let others build your future?"

Referring to the conflict as a "war imposed on us," the
Patriarch calls Christians to make acts of friendship and
charity in view of the spreading poverty in the Palestinian
territories: "We invite you all... to share your bread with
those who have none, either by inviting them to sit at your
table or by giving to Caritas or some other similar
organization, the same amount you would spend on food for a

The Patriarch goes on to beg Israeli soldiers to destroy
Christian churches rather than Christian homes, and he asks
Palestinian militants to "spare the homes of innocent
civilians," not to turn "tranquil homes, into gun-fire
lines." The Patriarch was referring to fighting in Gilo and
Beit Jala, two villages respectively Jewish and Palestinian
(mostly Christians) used by both army and militants as a
shield for attacking the opposite side.

Again addressing the Israelis, Bishop Sabbah writes: "Look
at the Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, not as a
terrorist, not as someone who wants to hate and kill...
Remember you too [in the past] called out for freedom, with
the same cry of the oppressed.... What you term security
measures are only a call for more violence. Restore the
land to its rightful owners, restore their freedom...."

He urges Palestinians to remember the "difficult
commandment, love your enemy... Love is not weakness or
running away. It is seeing the face of God in every man,
whether Jew or Arab. The Jew who keeps us prisoners, still
bears the image and likeness of God."

The letter closes with a call to make Lenten prayer and
fasting a constant plea to God to grant the power and the
spirit of love, as well as justice and peace.