Middle Eastern State of Affairs
H.B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah
Patriarch Sabbah says peace in the region 'depends on peace in the Holy Land'
The following is a translation from French of the address to the Holy Father by H.B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem for Latins, President of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Region (CELRA).
Most Holy Father,
We are happy to come to Rome during this season of the year when one still breathes the grace of Christmas and the New Year, Your Holiness, to wish you a New Year filled with the Lord's graces.
We represent different Countries: the Holy Land with its three Countries: Israel, Palestine and Jordan, as well as the Countries adjacent to the Holy Land: Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, all Lands of biblical history, plus the Gulf States, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen and Arabia and, lastly, the Horn of Africa. Djibouti and Somalia.
A common feature unites all these Countries: the fact that in them Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ, are living out their faith in Muslim, Arab countries. A special feature distinguishes the Christians of the Holy Land, Palestine and Israel: these disciples of Jesus belong at the same time to a Muslim-Arab society and a Jewish-Israeli society.
The Gulf States (Kuwait, the Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Arabia) have another characteristic in common: all the Christians, numerous in these Countries — more than 1 million in Arabia alone — are guests and foreigners, not citizens, who have come to contribute to these Countries' development and well-being. Some of these States, Kuwait and the Emirates, permit a relative, supervised religious freedom. They allow the construction of Christian churches and schools.
In this area Saudi Arabia continues to enclose itself in a dogmatic framework in which it defines the whole Country as a "mosque" which does not therefore admit the presence of any other religion. It will take time for this situation of closure to give way to a treatment that is humane and dignified from the religious viewpoint for all Christian foreigners who work in the service of the entire Country.
Among the Christian communities in these Countries Christian life is flourishing: the clergy consist of Religious: Carmelites in Kuwait, Capuchins in the Emirates and in the Sultanate of Oman, Salesians and Mother Teresa's Sisters in Yemen. The teams of committed lay people are numerous and do wonderful work preparing people for the Sacraments of First Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation and Marriage.
In the Horn of Africa, the tiny Christian community of Djibouti lives in peace and in relative calm. Nevertheless, it will be some time before this minute Christian community feels at home in the Country and in its small parishes.
Somalia is still in the throes of serious political and military unrest. The Christian presence there is minimal. Yet these few Christians continue to love this Country and pray for its stability.
In the other Middle Eastern Countries: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, the Christians are native-born citizens and coexist with an international Christian presence, smaller or larger in one or other of these Countries, made up mainly of domestic workers who tend to be Filipinos or Srilankans.
Another important feature in all these Countries is that we find ourselves working together with other Churches of various Eastern rites. Catholic and Orthodox, and even with Protestant communities. Inter-Church cooperation is improving from one day to the next, thanks to the Assemblies of Patriarchs and Bishops in each Country, to the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East and, lastly, to the Middle Eastern Council of Churches.
In all these Countries the faithful are Arabic-speaking Arabs, and the Latin liturgy is translated into Arabic.
We Christians live in our Countries whose citizens are either Muslim or Christian, with a Muslim majority. Religion dominates society. It is the State religion. The Constitutions recognize the equality of citizens without religious discrimination.
It is true, we enjoy religious freedom and religious life, we are able to build our churches and schools. Yet at times incidents with religious connotations can happen. Those that get the greatest coverage in the international media are events that occur in Iraq, Egypt (Copts and Muslims) and Palestine, given the political instability that prevails there.
The balance or imbalance of relations in our Middle Eastern Countries is due to denominational criteria among Muslims themselves or between Muslims and Christians: such is the case in Iraq, between both Shiites and Sunnis and Islamists and Christians; it is also the case of the many religious denominations in Lebanon; it is the case in the Holy Land.
Denominational criteria mean there is a long way to go, a journey that requires a new education in openness to and understanding of the other, who is different by religion but the same through belonging to the same homeland. During this journey there will always be some who are wise, some who are ignorant, some who are irresponsible and mediators to quench the fire that has just been lit.
In addition to all this is the phenomenon of extremism born as a reaction provoked by the sentiment of oppression in the homeland, which is an incentive to use extreme means to be rid of it.
In addition to armed conflict, the fight against terrorism and extremism must deal with the forms of oppression imposed upon peoples, upon their cultural and religious identity and their aspirations. Everywhere we need less armed conflicts and more education of the human person, at home and among others.
In the Holy Land, let us not forget the Custody of the Holy Land or the Island of Cyprus, with its Greek language, religion and culture.
In the Holy Land, it is right to repeat this before you. Your Holiness the Christian presence today is suffering from a precarious situation due to the refusal of the Israeli Authorities to issue the necessary visas and residence permits for the clergy and for the indispensable ministry of the Church. Many efforts have been made in Jerusalem and here in Rome. There have been many approaches. Many promises have also been made but so far the same precarious situation still endangers the Church in this area. It is a threat that we live under which must be known and followed.
In speaking of this negative measure on the part of the State of Israel, it is also right to recognize the Israeli Authorities' concern to guarantee a proper celebration of the Christmas festivities as well as the attention they gave to Bethlehem and Nazareth and the reception given for the occasion by Mr. Peres President of the Israeli State, and Mr. Olmert, the Prime Minister.
Equal gratitude is likewise due to the Palestinian Authority, and especially to President Abu Mazen, for the same Christmas celebrations.
All our Countries in the Middle East are going through a stage of political development and instability. In three of them — Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land — the situation is explosive.
The peace of the entire region depends on peace in the Holy Land. And in the Holy Land, peace depends on human planning, but here, after more than a century of conflict, it draws the believer's attention to the essential identity of this Land, the Land of God where he revealed himself, hence, the land of salvation, the land that is welcoming to all the land with a universal vocation.
God revealed himself in his Eternal Word made man, born in Bethlehem. This revelation will unconsciously remain the mystery with which human beings wrestle, as Jacob wrestled with Yahweh's Angel, but also without reaching a peaceful solution for the life of the inhabitants of this region.
Believers must return to this vision the mystery, they must put peace in God's hands, but at the same time continue to act, to resist every form of evil: war, conflict, occupation, violence and oppression of every human person.
Holy Father, in the Holy Land, with my Brother Bishops of the CELRA and also on behalf of the members of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, we renew our invitation you to come as a pilgrim to the Land the Lord, with the hope that all the obstacles on this pilgrimage route may be smoothed out. Thank you, Holy Father
Weekly Edition in English
30 January 2008, page 3
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