Stop the Massacres, Pleads Patriarch of Jerusalem

His Beatitude Sabbah Leads Procession in Bethlehem

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, MARCH 12, 2002 ( His voice shaking with indignation, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah cried out for peace in the Middle East, during a Mass in beleaguered Bethlehem.

«The peace and security of Israelis depends on the peace and security of Palestinians,» the patriarch stressed, during a homily at St. Catherine´s Church, located next to the cave where tradition says Jesus was born.

On Sunday morning, at the height of the most violent and bloody week of the 17-month intifada, Patriarch Sabbah left his see in Jerusalem and went to Bethlehem´s control post to get permission to enter the city, besieged by Israeli tanks.

The patriarch then prayed publicly «for peace and solidarity with the Palestinian people.»

Hundreds of faithful surrounded the patriarch, including many youths, local authorities, a delegation of French Catholics led by the bishop of Lourdes, and a group representing the Lutheran church.

The manifestation took place following the peace appeal signed three days ago by all leaders of Christian Churches in the Holy Land. Patriarch Sabbah reiterated the appeal during his homily at St. Catherine´s.

The Sharon government «has taken a mistaken path, using methods that do not lead to peace and do not even guarantee the security of Israelis,» the patriarch said.

In anguish, the patriarch cried out: «Stop the violence, destruction and massacres against the Palestinian people!»

After removing his sacred vestments, the patriarch led a «procession» that ended at the ruins of the Palestinian Authority´s palace, bombed by Israeli planes.

The little procession moved through devastated and deserted streets, in a city enveloped by an eerie silence.

A few hundred meters away, Israeli armed vehicles, marked with the Star of David, stood guard. Yasser Arafat´s residence, where John Paul II was received two years ago, was just grazed by the missiles targeted at police and secret-service offices, as well as those of the Palestinian president´s militia, and seriously damaged many houses in the surrounding area.

A woman wept as she made her way through the rubble of what was once her home. Twenty families were made homeless in the bombing.

«Lord, give our people the strength to endure all this evil,» Patriarch Sabbah said. «Open the minds and change the hearts of those who cause so much suffering. Give us the gifts of justice and liberty.»

He was besieged by journalists, and was reminded of the suicide attacks the previous day against defenseless Israeli citizens.

The patriarch retorted: «Violence leads nowhere. But Palestinians also have the right to live in peace and safety! Peace cannot be attained through war, as Sharon thinks.»

«Once and for all he should recognize the right of Palestinians to sovereignty and self-determination; all problems will be able to be resolved through dialogue and negotiation,» the patriarch concluded.

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