It is one of the most striking passages in His Beatitude Michel Sabbah´s Lenten Letter for 2001. In the letter he writes: “If you need, at all costs, some sort of collective punishment or ransom, we offer you our churches to destroy, in order to restore tranquility to innocent children and families.”
Before writing the letter, the 67-year-old Latin patriarch visited Palestinian parishes, communities and civil authorities. The letter addresses Christians, but in many parts speaks openly to Muslims and Jews.
The patriarch refers to fighting in Gilo and Beit Jala, Jewish and Palestinian (mostly Christian) villages, respectively, used by both the army and militants as a shield for attacking the opposite side.
Patriarch Sabbah addresses the Israelis, and pleads: “Look at the Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, not as a terrorist, or as someone who wants to hate and kill. … Remember, [in the past] you also cried out for freedom, with the same cry of the oppressed. … What you term security measures are no more than a call for more violence. Restore the land to its rightful owners, restore their freedom.”
The patriarch´s pleas are also addressed to the Palestinian militants, requesting them to “spare the homes of innocent civilians,” and not to turn “tranquil homes into gunfire lines.”
Moreover, he urges Palestinians to remember the “difficult commandment, love your enemy. … Love is not weakness or running away. It is seeing the face of God in every man, whether Jew or Arab. The Jew who keeps us prisoners, still bears the image and likeness of God.”
The patriarch wrote the letter after witnessing the people´s living conditions: “roads closed, towns and villages in a state of siege, no work, constant bombing.” The desperate situation is causing many Christians to abandon the area.
“Brothers and sisters, do not leave your land,” the patriarch says. “Have patience. God wants you to believe in him and witness to his Son Jesus Christ here, in this land. Remain here in these Holy Places … why let others build your future?”
Referring to the conflict as a “war imposed on us,” Patriarch Sabbah calls Christians to acts of friendship and charity, in view of the growing poverty in the Occupied Territories: “We invite you all … to share your bread with those who have none, either by inviting them to sit at your table, or by giving to Caritas or some other similar organization, the same amount you would spend on food for a day.”