Received on April 3rd 2003
An Appeal for Peace

Celebrating 40th Anniversary Pacem in Terris

Challenges for the Future

H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

President of Pax Christi International


On April 11, 2003 the Catholic Church celebrates the anniversary of Pacem in Terris or “Peace on Earth.” This letter was written 40 years ago by Pope John XXIII after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Berlin Wall symbolized the division between East and West. That Wall pierced the whole of humanity and penetrated people’s hearts and minds, creating divisions that seemed destined to last forever. Just six months before the Encyclical, and just as the Second Vatican Council was opening in Rome, the world had come to the brink of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The road to a world of peace, justice and freedom seemed blocked. Humanity, many believed, was condemned to live indefinitely in that precarious condition of “Cold War,” hoping against hope that neither an act of aggression nor an accident would trigger the worst war in human history. The Cuban Crisis brought the prospect of a Third World War – this time between the USA and the Soviet Union – awfully close. With his letter, John XXIII wanted to express his hope and belief in the possibility of peace on earth. The letter was an expression of the Pope’s optimism for the future and a belief in progress at the beginning of the sixties. For him, there were four pillars of peace:  truth, justice, love and freedom.


Pacem in Terris became the Magna Charta of Pax Christi International. For many this was an inspired document, clearly reading the ‘signs of the times’ and reminding the peoples of the world of their responsibility to work for the common good, for human rights and for peace and justice for all.  It said that “everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from our mind.” The task of creating peace on earth is as urgent as ever, which is why Pope John Paul II has returned to this theme for his 2003 World Peace Message. Peace on earth, he reminds us, is a constant endeavour! Many Pax Christi sections celebrate this anniversary in their country by studying the further consequences of this letter for our future humankind.


When the encyclical was published on Holy Thursday 1963, it was addressed not only to the Catholic bishops, clergy and faithful as was customary.  It was also addressed “to all men of good will.” And Pacem in Terris was embraced by non-Catholic readers like no previous encyclical had ever been. One reason was its refusal to be constricted by the stalemate of superpowers or by the balance of nuclear terror that at that time defined peace. Pope John XXIII, in a phrase not then current, was thinking “outside the box.”


His thinking focussed on two topics. One was a lengthy catalogue of human rights, including economic rights that he said all people and nations had a duty to respect. The other was a call for some new kind of global authority adequately empowered to address what he called the “universal common good.” The United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been the first steps in that evolution. John XXIII had co-drafted this historic Declaration when he served as a diplomat.  Years later, just two months after the publication of Pacem in Terris, the good pope died.  In September 1963, Cardinal Joseph Suenens, Archbishop of Mechelen – Brussels, presented the letter at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

War creates divisions and hatred
In the Iraqi crisis a political authority de facto guaranteeing international law and peace has been lacking.  The UN, NATO and European Union reveal profound divisions. Relations among the great civilisations are threatened by fundamentalism in the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and elsewhere.  At the same time, persistent misunderstanding and insensitivity in the West have deepened these divisions.  World leaders continue to view events through the lens of their own interests alone.  Violence and acts of intolerance erupt in the multicultural cities of the Europe and America.


Let us remind ourselves of the clear truths that war once engaged in is difficult to disengage from, that the course of any war is altogether unpredictable, that war leaves behind a legacy of bitterness and hatred that lasts for generations, that in desperate situations any available weaponry will tend to be used, that the bulk of casualties in any war will be innocent civilians and that irreparable environmental damage will be the inevitable outcome of any modern war. We may very well survey the results of future wars amidst the shattered wreckage of ruined civilizations.


If war is destruction and death, the consequences are no less tragic: divisions, hatred and swelling numbers of refugees. The world has already witnessed the millions of refugees coming out of Bosnia and from all over the former Yugoslavia.  It has seen the unbearable living conditions of Palestinians, living like refugees in their own land or in foreign lands for generations. It has viewed the horror of genocide and a major refugee crisis due to protracted civil strife in Central Africa.  As war rains down upon the people of Iraq, how many more refugees will be added to those who have already been forced to leave their country, a country that was already bleeding from an earlier war and from many years of living under a punishing embargo?


The fragility of global security has been highlighted by the growing economic and technological interdependence of the planet. The attacks on the Twin Towers showed the stark evil of international terrorism, one that can strike without conscience and with immense cruelty and facility. In a not-too-distant future, this terrorism could have at its disposal without much difficulty biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Given these new threats, world leaders have resorted to a theory of the "pre-emptive war," a position that raises serious moral considerations.

Moral Order and Public Authority
A guiding moral order has been lacking to direct and sustain the economic, political, cultural and military order of our day.  This is the relevance of the message of Pacem in Terris.  Without such guidance, ideological systems like Communism or unbridled capitalism arise with a seemingly solid base, but in reality they are very weak because they lack clear moral foundations. They are like the enormous statue in King Nebuchadnezzar's vision: of extraordinary brilliance and terrible countenance, his head was of pure gold, his chest and arms of silver, his abdomen and loins of bronze, his legs of iron, but his feet were part iron and part clay.  It was enough to strike the statue’s feet for it to crumble like sand on a windswept beach, blowing away and leaving no trace.


Pacem in Terris instructs us that war is not an apt means to rectify violations of international standards of conduct. Differences that emerge among peoples and nations must be resolved through negotiations and agreements. It states that the "universal common good" is promoted through properly constituted public authority at an international level, not through coercion or force but through the consent of the community of nations. The authority must not be a super-state. It must respect the principle of subsidiarity and respect the authority proper to each state.

Israel – Palestine and Elsewhere
Perhaps nowhere today is there a more obvious need for the legitimate use of political authority than in the dramatic situation of the Middle East. Day after day, year after year, an unending cycle of violence and retaliation has stalled efforts to engage in serious dialogue on the real issues. Conflicting interests within the international community itself has only contributed to the volatility of the situation. There is a clear need for men and women with the courage to implement policies that are firmly based on principles of respect for human dignity and human rights. Such policies are incomparably more in everyone’s best interest than the continuation of conflict.

In my country, new measures are currently underway that will lead to even more distrust, division and humiliation.  A new type of Berlin Wall is being constructed, though this time the wall is between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2002 the Israeli government began the construction of an 8-meter high boundary wall along 350 km of the Palestinian West Bank. The objective is to secure the physical protection of the Israeli population against possible Palestinian suicide attacks. We have clearly said that all such acts of violence, what ever their source, should be condemned. No doubt this barrier will constitute a psychological as well as a physical obstacle be­tween the two populations, a sort of Wall of Apartheid.  Palestinians will be virtually locked up, as if they are in a giant open prison. Some, no doubt, will lapse into an ever-deepening hatred for the Israelis, turning to more suicide attacks and retaliatory strikes, hence continuing the spiral of violence.


And yet there are many Pales­ti­nians who live in hope of a better time.  They do so even in the midst of the destruction of their homes and agriculture, being trea­ted as second-rate human beings and living under the curfews and humiliations endured at military checkpoints. They live in hope, pleading for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This is the deeper and the real cause of the violence. New negotiations are desperately needed, a real dialogue between all peoples concerned, and on all levels, in order to avert further conflict.


Of course, Israel-Palestine is not the only region of the world where we see a crisis in moral and political authority. Pax Christi International has different projects in other parts of the world as well, some of them for many years, in order to promote conflict prevention, demilitarisation, human rights and democracy. In Latin America, our movement focuses on the land problems in Brazil, the enormous level of violence in Colombia with the displaced people as a result, the culture of corruption and impunity in Guatemala, the poverty in Haiti. In El Salvador, still many light weapons are among the people and the impact of violence in the society is increasing. Our movement supports the work of Truth Commissions in order to bridge deep divisions between people, to reconcile and heal the wounds after wars and conflicts.


In Africa, we have been working on projects in a.o. Sudan, Uganda and the Central African countries. It is our aim to expand our programmes on democracy, non-violence and human rights in Africa. We foresee two regional consultations for Africa, one is focussing on Central Africa; the other is bringing our partners for the whole of Africa together. Again this year, our organisation has been submitting a written intervention on the DRCongo and the Great Lakes Region at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.


Yes, war is a horrible thing. In such a world it is imperative that we ask ourselves: where are the moral foundations on which we can build a sustainable peace? The image of Nebuchadnezzar's statue has never been more relevant than it is in our day.

Role of Religions
If we are to make a successful transition from a culture of war to a culture of justice and love, the world's religions have a crucial role to play.  Interfaith dialogue is an essential step in the process of creating a more just and peaceful world. Religion should never have been nor continue to be used as a grounds for war.


Pax Christi International will continue to promote dialogue and harmony both at the ecumenical and interfaith level.  We recognise and respect the search for truth and wisdom that goes on beyond our own religious tradition.  We will continue to listen to the cries of the oppressed and, in the spirit of Pacem in Terris, work with all people of good will to create a more just and harmonious world.  We recognise that the foundation for all these efforts must be tolerance for one another and equal respect for religious freedom everywhere.


Pax Christi International continues to seek effective ways of promoting active non-violence as a means of conflict resolution. Peace education is essential at all levels if we are to halt the xenophobia and racism that plagues many parts of our world today. Children must be taught to live in a multi-cultural society that respects the rights of others to be different. Religious education must promote a true spirit of openness and tolerance.

Promise of Hope
Lent carries with it a sense of anticipation. We prepare ourselves in this season for the promise of Resurrection.  It never makes sense to prepare for hopelessness.  Our preparations are ultimately linked to hope.  In all of our efforts, we can help nourish this hope.  We can do this especially through a genuine solidarity with those whose hope is challenged on a daily basis by acts of violence and death, with those who find themselves in war zones and refugee camps around the world. Many of these people hold fast to the vision of a world that is transformed into something much more beautiful than it is today.  If these people do not give up, then neither must we! We can find strength  - and the courage to act – from the acts of solidarity we see in those who refuse to be contained by walls and barriers, those in Belfast and Bethlehem who cross barriers that are being erected to separate Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Christians and Muslims. These are those who refuse to let fear and suspicion diminish their witness to God’s love and their work for justice. They are the ones who sustain our hope. The yearning for peace is always present.  John XXIII knew this when he called world peace ‘humankind’s perpetual dream.’  He also recognised that this vision would only be achieved when ordinary people like you and me work together to become bearers of God’s peace to a broken world.



During this Lenten period, we pray that a peaceful solution will be found for the crisis with Iraq, one that secures peace with justice and one that will spare us the nightmare of countless deaths and unimaginable suffering. We also hope the world will not forget that the road to peace for the entire region passes through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps during this Lenten season we would do well to commit to a thoroughgoing examination of our own integrity to the same degree that we are doing our ‘neighbour.’ The evil of our times is terrorism, and indeed terrorism must be condemned and fought.  However, at all our efforts in this struggle will not end terrorism if we do not address its root causes, including our own weaknesses in permitting injustice and the oppression of the poor.


The fortieth anniversary of Pacem in Terris is an appropriate occasion to return to Pope John XXIII's prophetic teaching. This year Pax Christi sections will mark the occasion with initiatives of a mostly ecumenical and interreligious character. They will welcome anyone who brings a heartfelt desire for justice and peace.

I join this hope with a prayer to Merciful God, the source of all our good. May he who calls us from oppression and violence to freedom and the good of all creation help people everywhere in their efforts to build a world of peace.  And may that world find a solid foundation on the four pillars of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s historic Encyclical: truth, justice, love and freedom.


National Congress Pax Christi France

Paris, 29 March 2003