JERUSALEM, JAN. 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- At the start of a meeting of European and American bishops, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land made an appeal to all churches worldwide to help promote reconciliation.
Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem made his appeal Monday before the bishops from England and Wales, the United States, Canada, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and Switzerland, as well as two European episcopal groupings. Also present was the bishop representing Caritas in Latin America.
The Holy Land is “not only the scene of a political conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” the patriarch said.
It is also “a Christian land,” he said, and therefore “churches of the world have the responsibility to affirm this Christian character of the land by making themselves present through many ways of presence, pilgrimages, reconciliation and to respect the human person in general.”
Patriarch Sabbah added: “What is required indeed from the churches of the world is not to side with this side or the other but to help toward reconciliation, because the reconciliation of both peoples is also the best way to help the Christian presence in this land.”
The Latin-rite patriarch highlighted the obtaining of visas and residence permits for Church officials in the Holy Land as a new difficulty relating to “freedom of movement for the personnel of our various Churches.”
“It is a question of religious freedom, a question of free access to the Holy Land which allows Churches according to the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the state of Israel, to have the freedom of maintaining their presence in the Holy Land with all the required personnel, religious or lay,” said Patriarch Sabbah.
“These meetings are important in order to strengthen our mutual communion and in order to find support and hope,” he added.
The patriarch’s address came near the beginning of a busy schedule for the bishops, who are meeting for four days, initially at Bethlehem University, then at the Knights’ Palace Hotel in the Old City, Jerusalem, according to the coordinator of the meeting, the bishops’ conference of England and Wales.
The apostolic nuncio to the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, told the meeting of the grim reality of daily life for the Palestinian population and of his fears that the security fence the Israelis are building would pass through Catholic land.
“The Pope has said that the Holy Land does not need walls, it needs bridges,” the nuncio said.
Archbishop Sambi noted a bright spot, however. “The religious are active in the Holy Land, and that is a sign of hope,” he said.
Brother Vincent Malham, president of Bethlehem University, reported that the school — whose student body is 34% Christian — had been forced to close a dozen times in its 30-year history. “Around three years ago, the building we are in was hit by three large missiles,” he said.
“When Westerners come — and we have not had too many in the last three years — people here notice it,” he said. “Your presence is very, very important. I pray it will be a sign of hope for people here in the Holy Land.”
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said: “I am relieved we can all meet in the Holy City of Bethlehem.” He outlined some of the work that was being done to make it easier for Church workers to get visas and residence permits.
Bishop Gregory also said that he has urged U.S. President George Bush to support the “road map” for peace and, with ecumenical colleagues, was lobbying to have a meeting with Bush on the Holy Land.
Archbishop Patrick Kelly, vice president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, told the meeting of the efforts being made at home, including communications with the Israeli Embassy in London, and debate in the House of Commons and House of Lords, where a letter from the archbishop had been quoted.
Commenting on the Holy Land situation, he said: “In many things which happen, we see the seeds of hope.”