Christians Will Not Desert Holy Land, Delegation Hears
Dec. 9, 2000


[Ecumenical Delegation to Jerusalem
December 7-12, 2000]

Contact: Jim Solheim, press officer
Notre Dame Center
Tel: (973-2)627-9111

Episcopal News Service
New York City, NY USA
Tel: 800-334-7626

Website: or

Christian leaders are determined to continue
their witness in Jerusalem, despite dwindling numbers

Sheikh Asks Outside Support as Protection from "Ethnic Cleansing"

By James Solheim

JERUSALEM, December 9, 2000--- "The number of Christians in Palestine is dwindling so much that the situation is becoming dangerous," Armenian Patriarch Torkom II told a visiting delegation of church leaders from the United States during a conversation today.

"But we are here, and we will be here in the future," he said, "because the holy places are not museums."

Yet he admitted that "it is a miracle that we have survived." Christians are determined to "make our presence strong—and to make it heard and seen."

The Armenian Patriarch and other church leaders said that the churches are living in some difficult times. "As Christian communities we have our problems. So far we have not succeeded in stopping the violence—and this is not a local concern but one for the whole world." The situation is complicated by "the presence of extremists on both sides."

Sometimes the difficulties are very direct. The Armenians are one of the guardians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the traditional site for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. During the procession to the church every other week, "We meet Jews who spit on us," occasionally provoking fights. "These are realities," he said.

"Yet we have been here with a history of 1500 years and our tradition should be accepted," he added.

"Palestinians and Israelis must live together, whether we want it or not," the patriarch said. The goal is for both peoples to live on their own lands in peace and brotherhood, he said. "We want no one to suffer but to live in peace. We have to learn, if we don't know already, how to live with each other and pray together."

Seeing both sides

"What we need is not people who take sides but those who can see both sides—and will help seek and work for justice," the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told his visitors.

"The Palestinian people are under Israeli military occupation and they want to be given back their freedom, they want the occupation to end," he said, adding that their patience has worn very thin and there is great disappointment in the peace negotiations over the last seven years.

That frustration has fueled the recent eruption of violence, the patriarch contended. The Intifada that erupted after the visit of Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary") where the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque are located was "very spontaneous, it surprised everyone."

In conversations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and with Israeli leaders, Sabbah argues that the Palestinians returned to violence in order to be heard. He urges Israelis to look at Palestinians "not only as troublemakers," because "Palestinians don't want to kill Israelis, they are asking only to be free—and that freedom is in the hands of the Israelis."

The Israelis "may have won wars but they have not won the peace." And that peace won't be won through violence. He is calling for "another vision," one beyond the increasing cycle of violence. Yet he warns Israelis that the Palestinians are determined to continue the struggle until they gain freedom—"and that could take many years."

"The peace of the region is in the hands of Israel alone," he said. He is trying to convince the Israelis that they have the power to make peace. "If we have peace, it will be thanks to the Israelis. If we have no peace, it will be because of the Israelis."

Sabbah is convinced that Palestinians "could be good neighbors," citing the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians within the State of Israel for the last 50 years. Peace would also make the Israelis better neighbors with Arab nations in the region, he said. "Until there is justice for the Palestinians, they will face continued opposition from the Arabs."

In response, the Rev. John McCullough of the National Council of Churches (NCCC) said, "We are aware that the rocks of this country are scarred, the soil is stained by blood. We join you in grief but also in hope, believing that our God is all-powerful. In time, peace will be established," he said.

Visitors bring encouragement

"I am sorry to tell you how difficult our situation is in Palestine with many villages and towns closed so that people can't come to Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas," said Metropolitan Vassilios in welcoming the delegation to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

He added a grim note to the conversation by noting that "yesterday eight were killed." He asked his visitors to do what they could to stop the violence "so that peace may prevail." He added, "Violence is not good for the Holy Land, for both peoples," Israeli and Palestinian.

"This is the first place that peace was proclaimed," added Metropolitan Vassilios, "but now there is no peace. Either God does not hear us, or we are not deserving." He said that it is not the role of the churches to propose political solutions but rather "to identify with those who have a just claim." He is afraid that people are so filled with bitterness that they are not in a mood to listen to their leaders.

"We believe very strongly that this place is one where Christians, Muslims and Jews should be able to stand together and have freedom of expression," responded McCullough, executive director of the NCCC's Church World Service and Witness.

"We are sad when we hear about the migration of Palestinian Christians."

Both church leaders stressed how important visitors are for the churches because "they encourage us to bear the burden when it often seems that we are alone." They urged delegation members to send other visitors to reinforce relationships.

Prayer undergirds visit

"Our churches are bound together in prayer," said Bishop Herbert Chilstrom in his opening comments at an ecumenical discussion at the Greek Patriarchate.

He described how the ecumenical movement in the U.S. "has been a miracle," and "as a result of the spirit of God walls are coming down. We bring that as part of our witness to you."

The Rev. Peter Vasko of the Franciscans raised the issue of Christian emigration again, pointing out that there are only 160-170,000 Christians in a population of seven million in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. "Christians need to continue to remain here."

Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (and Palestine) issued an urgent plea, "You must not allow the Christian witness to cease." He said that the Christian churches here are "the local expression of Christianity worldwide."

Some members of the delegation felt embarrassment and expressed anger with the American role in providing military support for Israel. "It is chilling to see the label of our country on the shells used to destory homes," said Donella Clemens of the Mennonite Central Executive Committee.

The delegation has been strengthened by the faithfulness and courage of the Christian communities in Jerusalem, and nurtured by its own spiritual life along the way. Serving as chaplain, the Rev. Said Ailabouni led and encouraged prayer at traditional pilgrimage sites, such as the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and also with families who have been forced to flee their homes because of Israeli shelling.

Same pain, same hope

"We Muslims and Christians live in this town as family, with the same pains and the same hopes," said Sheikh Muhammed Hussein in his opening comments to the delegation crammed into his offices near the Dome of the Rock. "We have full respect for each other."

He echoed comments expressed by the Christian leaders about difficulties of expressing religion in a climate that lacks freedom. To make his point, he pointed to the hassle by Israeli security in trying to prevent the delegation from entering the area—and an attempt to prevent delivery of some construction blocks. He said that the delegation was "carrying for us hope" that would help overcome obstacles.

"As Palestinians we deserve to live in peace, just as other nations. We have hopes that your churches will carry the message to government officials," he said.

Bishop Edmond Browning of the Episcopal Church said that one purpose of the visit was "to build solidarity between us." He said that the churches represented in the delegation were committed to the peace process—and to concern for the victims of suffering, mentioning the Prayer Vigil for Middle East Peace that began December 3 in many churches across the nation (see "It is our intention to continue the vigil until violent acts cease and peace is achieved," he said.

In response, the sheikh said, "It is well-known that we want international legitimacy." That would include full implementation of the U.N. resolutions that say Jerusalem is occupied territory. "We want full implementation, based on justice and truth." Yet it is not clear, he said, what kind of solution the Israelis want. "Sometimes it seems hopeless."

He said, "Our people will live side by side with the Israelis—but only with dignity." He asked for help in pressuring the American Administration "to allow us to live with dignity as Palestinians."

As the conversation ended, he took the group through Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, offering historical and theological commentary. He took the delegation on a dramatic walk, showing the path where Sharon and Israeli troops had crossed through the area, arguing that "only Prime Minister Barak could have stopped this provocation." Only outside support would prevent what he called "an ethnic cleansing."

The delegation presented a crystal plate in the form of a dove, a symbol of peace in both religions. The sheikh expressed his gratitude for the visit and pointed to a large print on the wall of his office, expressing his hope that the dove and the peace that it represents would fly over the city of Jerusalem.


The delegation will scatter Sunday morning to a variety of worship services in the area, including indigenous Palestinian parishes. In the afternoon a meeting is scheduled with Faisal Husseini, representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jerusalem, and later Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and the apostolic delegate for the Vatican in the Holy Land.

The day will conclude with a candle-light procession in Bethlehem.

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--Jim Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information and is serving as press officer for the peace delegation. To follow the stories and photos check the Web site of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs (LOGA):

For photos check: United Methodist Photos - Delegation to Jerusalem