A Voice Crying in Holy Land
Region's Catholic patriarch, the first Arab in the post, is viewed
Israeli officials as a politicized Palestinian nationalist. Supporters
compare him to Latin America's liberation theologians.
By: TRACY WILKINSON
TIMES STAFF WRITER
JERUSALEM -- Scarcely had he been consecrated as the first Arab head
Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land when Michel Sabbah began sparring
The year was 1988. The Palestinian intifada, or uprising, was in full
and moving into the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. Sabbah,
appointed by Pope John Paul II to the post of Latin patriarch, went on
Vatican Radio to make a very public appeal.
"I don't think the [Israeli] authorities listen to the church or ever
will,"Sabbah said. "But here I am, and I appeal to the Israeli authorities to
abandon their repressive measures.
"The violent measures taken by the Israeli authorities . . . will never
bring about calm, let alone peace, because violence breeds violence and leads to
even stronger resistance."
And so Sabbah set the tone for what would be stormy relations with Israel
and sealed his position as perhaps the most controversial Christian in the land.
The pope made his way across the Holy Land last week in an effort to
promote peace and heal the 2,000-year rift between Jews and the Catholic Church. In
Israel and the Palestinian territories, however, the historical friction
between Jews and Catholics, marked by centuries of anti-Semitism, is further
complicated because most Christians are Palestinians.
It is a tension inextricably linked to international politics and the
Middle East peace process.
Sabbah has told associates that the animosity Israel displays toward
not because he's a Christian but because he is an Arab. True or not, he is
clearly a lightning rod for criticism and anger.
Israeli officials see Sabbah as nothing short of an ardent, politicized
His supporters, by contrast, compare Sabbah to the liberation theologians
Latin America, who speak out on behalf of an oppressed people against a
dominant ruler. He uses his pulpit and his annual Christmas and Easter
messages to denounce what he sees as discrimination and to call for an
independent Palestinian state freed of "Israeli occupation."
Born in Nazareth 67 years ago this month, Sabbah studied and worked
priest in Jordan, Lebanon and France in addition to Bethlehem and
He has a doctorate from the Sorbonne and speaks classical Arabic, as well as
English and French.
A short man with a round face and balding head, Sabbah was chosen by
Paul to be the first Arab to preside over the Catholic Church in this
All patriarchs had been Italians since the Catholic Church was restored to
the Holy Land in 1847 after its post-Crusades banishment. The pope wanted
to send a message of support to indigenous Christians by appointing one of their
own to the highest-ranking local church position.
As patriarch, Sabbah is responsible for the welfare of Roman Catholics
in Israel, the
Palestinian self-ruled territories, Jordan and Cyprus.
Under Sabbah's pen, the church's statements during the intifada repeatedly
challenged Israeli sovereignty and complained of abuse. Until those intifada
years, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most Christian communities had
been able to straddle the fence in their dealings with Israeli authority. But the
intifada forced them to take a stand, and invariably they came down on the
During the uprising, which eventually became a catalyst for breakthrough
peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Sabbah ran an underground
educational system for Palestinians that taught catechism and other
subjects in people's homes when military closures prevented free movement.
In his first Christmas homily as patriarch, Sabbah entered a tense,
bleak Bethlehem. He canceled the traditional religious procession in the
face of demonstrations and rioting that had claimed many Arab and Israeli
"The people, the Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem and the Holy Land,
not have the joy of Christmas in their hearts," he intoned in the ancient
Church of the Nativity during a Christmas Eve Mass that is broadcast the
world over. "Some had a son or a father killed, others are still in prisons,
and all face heavy military repression."
Eleven years later, in last December's Bethlehem Christmas message,
again touched on the most sensitive points dividing Israelis and
Palestinians. He demanded "dignity and rights" for Palestinian refugees and
freedom for Palestinian "political prisoners." He said any solution for
Jerusalem, a sacred city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians, had to
be based on "sharing and equality in sovereignty."
The clearly political message rankled Israeli officials once again.
head of the Christian department in the Israeli Ministry of Religious
Affairs, said at the time that Sabbah teetered on incitement of a "religious war."
In a recent interview, Mor said that on a personal level he and Sabbah
and often chat amiably in Arabic. But the formal and official relationship is a different matter.
"He sometimes forgets he is a religious leader," Mor said. "He becomes
political. He makes statements that we don't expect from a religious
But Mor said he is resigned to putting up with Sabbah's irritating pronouncements.
"We cannot do anything about it," Mor said. "He was nominated by the Vatican.
What can we do?"
Sabbah declined requests for an interview for this story, citing his
schedule of events associated with the pope's visit. But his defenders say
Sabbah is fulfilling the duty of a cleric who has seized the strain of
Catholicism in which the fight for social justice is paramount.
He routinely denounces Israeli authorities for confiscating identity
from Palestinians, for closures that restrict Palestinian movement into
Israel, for what he calls the Israeli "siege" that is choking Palestinian
life. Only rarely, however, has he criticized Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
"He is standing up for the basic human rights of his people, people
cannot go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem freely, people who can't get
passports," said Father Robert Fortin, who has lived and worked in this
region for more than a decade.
"Because the patriarch does not depend on the government, he can speak
where others cannot."
Israeli officials blame Sabbah for fanning the flames of a dispute
involving the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth, Jesus' boyhood home. The Israeli
government gave permission to Muslims in the city to build a mosque near the
Basilica of the Annunciation, the site where the angel Gabriel is said to
have informed Mary that she would give birth to God's son.
Nazareth Christians were furious, and Sabbah led the charge. Apparently
his urging, both the Vatican and American Christian groups issued scathing
condemnations of the decision, putting the blame squarely on Israel.
Israeli officials maintained that they were merely trying to reach a compromise.
In a letter drafted by Sabbah and sent to Israel's president and prime
minister, Christian leaders in Israel blasted Israel's action as a "grave
Sabbah has met, only twice and not until 1998, with Israel's two chief
rabbis, Eliahu Bakshi Doron and Meir Yisrael Lau, reportedly at the
patriarch's initiative. But there is no ongoing dialogue.