In this critical stage, the Fides news service spoke with Father David Jaeger, spokesman of the Franciscan Custody, about the “road map” peace plan and the prospects for long-term stability.
Q: The Holy Land is living a kairos of peace, a favorable moment, an opportunity. What positive elements and hopes weigh in favor of the peace process?
Father Jaeger: For the first time since Sept. 28, 2000, there would appear to be well-founded hopes that the sides will return to the negotiating table.
Nevertheless our optimism, although quite justified, must be curbed. For this to be truly a kairos of peace it must be clear that this is not simply a return to the stalemate situation existing before the outbreak of the second intifada.
If this were so, if it were a question of simply restoring a previous situation which showed itself to be unbearable, the present moment might reveal itself to be only a pause before resuming the battle. …
Instead, what is needed is a change of heart, a conversion on the part of all those involved to allow rapid progress to reach the declared objective of the road map “to put an end to occupation of Palestinian territory started in 1967 and to create in these hitherto occupied territories a free, independent and democratic state of Palestine,” to live in peace with the state of Israel. This was the vision described by American President George Bush in June 2002, and which was recently confirmed with the road map.
Q: What is your opinion of the road map?
Father Jaeger: The road map is important because of its detailed objective, which was lacking in the Oslo agreement in 1993.
The path is positive and offers new hope, but one would wonder for example about the utility of the definition of a temporary state with temporary frontiers for the Palestinians, as a step toward the definitive state with definitive borders. Observers say it would be better to reach first a lasting peace agreement and draw lasting borders to be implemented gradually.
This would help prevent dangerous tension which would easily arise in a temporary situation of uncertainty about the final arrangement of relations between the two countries. It should be said that this final arrangement is no mystery. Its main lines have been known for years and they are almost inevitably drawn from basic considerations, such as international law, healthy realism and respect for the fundamental equality of the sides.
There is a very interesting initiative at the moment: a call made to both peoples Israelis and Palestinians by two well-known personalities to adhere to an organic list of the essential principles of this peace agreement. The persons in question are two men well known for their patriotism and loyalty, professor Sari Nuseibeh, president of the Al Quds Palestinian University in Jerusalem, and General Ami Ayalon, former chief admiral of the Israeli navy and former chief of Shin Beth secret police.
Q: What role can the Church and indeed the whole Christian community in the Holy Land play in this situation?
Father Jaeger: The Church, because of her role and vocation, cannot fail to applaud and support any serious initiative for peace.
In this context her specific task could be to stress the inevitable international dimension of the final arrangement of the Holy Land, mainly with regard to the much requested “Internationally Guaranteed Special Status for Jerusalem” and surrounding areas, including Bethlehem, to protect in particular the holy places and Christian communities and institutions which express the presence of the whole of Christianity in the “spiritual homeland” of all believers in Jesus.
Moreover, it is up to the Church and Christian citizens in both nations to promote values of democracy, justice, freedom — first of all freedom of conscience and religion — in both orders.
At the moment it is important to ensure that the constitution of the future state of Palestine responds fully to these values and that there is no wavering in the face of strong Islamic pressure felt in the Palestinian society. It is a matter of strengthening the original secular character of Palestine’s national movement. In this I see a major role for Europe.
Q: In an atmosphere of general peace-making and also new confidence in Israel-Holy See relations, at what stage are negotiations for the return of the Shrine of the Upper Room to the charge of the Franciscan Custody?
Father Jaeger: Negotiations for the return of the shrine are officially under way. It would be correct to say that the Catholic Church expects Israel to make an act of generosity which would be deeply appreciated.
The Franciscans are the lawful owners of the shrine. It was taken from them by the Ottomans and then given to Israel in 1948. Its restitution would be no sacrifice for the state of Israel and we hope it will come about soon. These negotiations are part of the talks aiming for an overall agreement on heritage and fiscal questions pending for more than half a century between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel.
In the basic agreement reached in 1993, the Holy See and the state of Israel promised to reach this overall agreement which should reconfirm and consolidate the indispensable and centuries-old fiscal exemption which concretely allow the existence and work of Catholic communities and institutions in Israel.
With regard to the aspect of heritage, we hope for the restitution of certain properties lost in the past, such as the Chapel-Shrine of Cesarea maritime, a significant site for Christian history and part of the Franciscan St. Anthony’s monastery in the center of Jerusalem and other places.
We hope that the state of Israel will show itself to be wisely friendly. Negotiations are taking place in a good atmosphere. We hope they will conclude in time for the 10th anniversary of the Basic Agreement — Dec. 30 — and in this way reward the courageous decision on the part of the Holy See to premise full normalization of formal relations, with the establishing of diplomatic relations — for the effect resolution of concrete problems.