Churches discuss access to holy sites with Palestinians
      By Eli Muller
    Tuesday, July 25 2000

      JERUSALEM (July 25) - The patriarchs of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches met with PLO official for Jerusalem Faisal Husseini in what Palestinian Authority officials described as an effort to involve the churches in the decision over Jerusalem's future.

      "We look at the local churches as being part of the Palestinian side, and expect the patriarchates to raise their voices in the international community against the continuation of Israeli occupation," said Issa Kassicies, an assistant to Husseini.

      Yesterday's meeting came after a letter was sent to the heads of state at the Camp David summit by the Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, in which they requested representation at Camp David and at any future peace negotiations in order to safeguard Christian rights in Jerusalem.

      The primary concern of the three churches has been to guarantee pilgrims access to holy sites, which they fear would be threatened if the Old City were divided.

      Father Raed Abu-Sahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, whose congregants and hierarchy are primarily Palestinians, said his church defers to the PA on political issues. "Our concern is the religious problem: We don't want the Old City to be divided because of the political dispute."

      Instead, the Latin Patriarchate favors "a special statute taking into account the Old City's special nature as a geographical and demographic unity," he said.

      Abu-Sahlia said meetings were also being arranged between church leaders and Israeli officials.

      Although the Holy See will not be directly represented at the meetings, Kassicies said discussion was already under way on how to facilitate access for pilgrims of all three religions to holy sites in areas under Palestinian control, in accordance with Vatican proclamations that Jerusalem should be an international city for people of all faiths.

      Pope John Paul II said Sunday that a special international statute is needed to assure freedom of religion and access to holy sites for Jews, Moslems, and Christians.

      Representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church could not be reached for comment.

      The two major Catholic monastic orders in Jerusalem are also wary of the prospect of dividing the city. Although the Dominican order is subject to Vatican policy on Jerusalem, Father Kevin McCaffrey, vicar of the house for the Dominican Fathers Monastery, said it would be "a disadvantage to all to have to travel from one entity to another were the Old City to be divided."

      "It is difficult to believe the Old City will be divided, said Father Claudio Barrato, spokesman of the Franciscan Custos (administrator of holy sites for the Vatican). "Jerusalem has always been both mixed and divided - divided because we are different, but unified because we have to learn to live together."


     Tuesday, July 25 2000