In the wake of a traumatic year for Israelis, Palestinians and the peoples of the Middle East, the work of our Co-ordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church of the Holy Land seems more important than ever before. In our home countries and among Catholic people, there is enormous interest in and concern for the situation in the Middle East.
This was our seventh trip to the Holy Land to walk in solidarity with the local Church and its bishops, while supporting the search for a just peace. We urge Catholics from all nations to follow in our steps, and those of millions of pilgrims, to visit the holy sites and the Christian communities of this land. We call upon them to “come and see”.
Many of us visited Gaza to meet the Christian community and Muslim and Palestinian leaders. We were warmly welcomed by people hoping for a better future while living in poverty. Our entire delegation then visited Galilee and met the “living stones” of the Christian communities. We prayed with them, listened to their stories of joy and concern, and learned of their initiatives to build a common future with persons of all faiths. We experienced an encouraging inter-religious dialogue with a panel that included a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim and a Druze.
Time and again we were reminded that pilgrims to this land ought to meet the living Christian communities in addition to visiting the holy places. We discussed with Minister of Tourism, Isaac Herzog, ways to encourage and improve pilgrimages and visits.
The Christian presence is a moderating influence and is essential to achieving peace. As Pope Benedict XVI recently said, “Christian witness will be of assistance and support for a future of peace and fraternity.” Christians are small in number but are an integral part of the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Their rights must be guaranteed through recognition of equality and improved security, along with religious rights enshrined in law.
The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel is built upon rights established over centuries to facilitate the unique mission of the Church in the Holy Land. The vitality of the Church and its institutions in Israel, including hospitals, schools, and hospices that provide valuable services to the whole community, will be enhanced when the Agreement and other measures are ratified in law and fully implemented. For more than a decade, the Church has pursued this goal. We ask Israeli officials to enable the negotiations on the Fundamental Agreement to be completed successfully and soon. The granting of visas and permits to Church workers continues to be an urgent concern.
Our belief in the one God compels us to work for the welfare of two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and members of three religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims, who belong to the one family of God. As bishops and pastors, we affirm our Holy Father’s recent address to the diplomatic corps in which he said, “The Israelis have a right to live in peace in their state; the Palestinians have a right to a free and sovereign homeland.” (8 January 2007)
In a meeting with Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, we expressed an understanding of the significant security challenges that face Israel. We discussed the proposed reduction in the number of checkpoints and the proposed release of Palestinian tax revenues which could be encouraging signs, but emphasised that bold gestures are needed to break the cycle of Israeli fear and Palestinian anger that dominate the current situation.
The future of all peoples of the Holy Land depends on securing a just and lasting peace. There is clearly profound suffering on both sides. Mutual trust should be established through specific measures that build confidence. The establishment of a viable Palestinian state, which would end the occupation, requires contiguous lands and calls into question the route of the security barrier and the expansion and establishment of settlements in the West Bank. In the meantime, Palestinians need freedom of movement so that they can work, visit family members, obtain medical treatment and get an education. Humiliating treatment at borders and checkpoints needs to be avoided. Since the foundation of society is the family, Israeli regulations should allow reunification of families where there is a Palestinian spouse.
In a meeting with President Abbas, we noted that we had witnessed during our visits the sufferings and deprivations that Palestinians experience on a daily basis. However, unity among Palestinian leaders is necessary for them to negotiate a just peace and create a better future. The restraint of violence and the recognition of the state of Israel by all elements of Palestinian society will help rebuild the international community’s confidence in and support of the Palestinian Authority. President Abbas affirmed the need for the international community to support a new, more serious and timely initiative to pursue peace.
On this, our seventh visit to the Holy Land, we note that 59 years after the conflict began, the search for lasting security and a just peace continues. Clearly something new is needed to achieve justice and peace so that Israelis can move beyond fear, which drives counterproductive security policies that oppress the Palestinian people, and so that Palestinians can move beyond anger and despair, which drive violence that terrifies the Israeli people. We were encouraged to learn that the Israeli Prime Minister, the Palestinian President and the US Secretary of State will be meeting soon to work towards a just peace.
In communion with the bishops of the Holy Land, we urge Catholics to pray for peace, come on pilgrimage and undertake other activities to support the Mother Church. We pray for the courage and guidance that are needed to break the hold of fear and despair in this Holy Land.
Bishop Christopher Budd
Bishop of Plymouth, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales
Bishop Pierre Bürcher
Auxiliary Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva & Freibourg, Swiss Bishops’ Conference
Bishop Gilles Cazabon OMI
Bishop of Saint-Jérôme (Province of Québec), Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Bishop Michel Dubost
Bishop of Evry, French Bishops’ Conference
Monsignor Peter Fleetwood
Deputy General Secretary of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences
Bishop Raymond Field
Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs
Archbishop Patrick Kelly
Archbishop of Liverpool, Vice-President of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales
Bishop William Kenney
Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales
Representative of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences of the European Union
Bishop John Kirby
Bishop of Clonfert, Trócaire, Irish Episcopal Conference
Mr. Ulrich Pöner
Director, German Bishops’ Conference Department for International Church Affairs and Migration
Bishop William Skylstad
Bishop of Spokane and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Bishop Joan Enric Vives I Sicilia
Bishop of Urgell and Co-Prince of Andorra, Spanish Bishops’ Conference