ROME, APRIL 1, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The retiring patriarch of Jerusalem has completed his mission as the leader of the Latin Church in the Holy Land, a mission he characterized as very difficult for his entire 20-year tenure.
Archbishop Michel Sabbah offered an interview to the news service of the Custody of the Holy Land reflecting on the conflict that has plagued the region he led as pastor since his appointment in 1987.
The Nazareth-born prelate, who turned 75 on March 19, contended that it is the fear of peace that is the main obstacle for peace in the land of the Resurrection.
Q: Beatitude, what is your message to the Israelis and the Palestinians for Easter?
Archbishop Sabbah: As a Christian, Easter in the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and this means the victory over death and over every sort of evil.
Here in this country, which is the country of the Resurrection, which is a land of God and which is the Holy Land, we continue to be at the heart of a conflict and in a situation of death and hatred. Our message to the Israelis and to the Palestinians is this: “Up to the present time, and for almost 100 years, you have walked in the paths of violence and despite this, after 100 years, you have not reached peace or security. Take different paths, find other ways and you know them: talks, dialogue, understanding the needs of others, putting oneself in the place of the other to reach an agreement that [you] can find and give everything that is due to each of the parties.”
The Israelis want security and they want peace; the Palestinians want their independence, their security as well, and peace. And they are capable of attaining it. There is much opposition for ideological reasons, for political reasons because of a fear of peace. In my opinion, the main obstacle to peace is the fear of peace.
In Israel, peace is a risk that the Israelis consider it premature to take. It is a risk that would expose them to allowing the Palestinians to become stronger and to develop their means of resistance and violence. This is why the Israelis are afraid of peace.
My advice is not to be afraid. Fear does not let any person or people live their lives to the full. Quite simply, they have to run the risk of peace. And this is the only means to obtain real and total security. The political powers have an alternative: either peace, and they will have security, or no peace and extremism will grow and insecurity will increase. They have to choose. And they should choose peace.
Now, choosing peace may be a risk for the personal life of the head of state who signs a peace agreement. But if a political leader is there to serve his people and not to keep hold of his seat, he has to accept the risk of giving his life for his people.
Q: As the first Palestinian Latin patriarch in centuries, do you have a different interpretation of what is happening in the region?
Archbishop Sabbah: I simply have the interpretation of the facts that occur. There are the Israelis with their needs and the Palestinians with their needs. For me, in both cases, they are human beings with the same dignity, rights and duties. As a Palestinian and as a Christian, each ought to have what is due to them: Israel its state recognized, its security, its peace, no longer needing its soldiers and reservists who kill or are killed. For the Palestinians it is the same thing. It is a question of walking toward peace, to put an end to everything that is militia, irregular arms and every form of violence on their side.
Q: Now that you are at the conclusion of your long career as the Latin Patriarch, is there hope for peace?
Archbishop Sabbah: There must always be hope, because we believe in God, and here in this country, in the whole of the Middle East, everybody is first and foremost religious and a believer, although not all are practicing. The Jew is first Jewish and then Israeli, the Palestinian is first a Muslim and then Palestinian, the Christian is Christian first and then Palestinian. We believe in God. We hope because we believe that God is good, that he is watching over us, that he is providence.
Q: You say that courage is needed to make peace. Is it the Israelis who ought to have more?
Archbishop Sabbah: Both, but the greatest decision is in the hands of the Israelis. If the Israelis say: “We have decided to make peace,” there will be peace. The Palestinians are ready. The Arab world is ready to normalize relations with the state of Israel. The Palestinians have already chosen peace. They are holding talks to obtain peace. Israel still hasn’t decided. There is a lot of opposition against this decision.
Q: In Israel, is there a political will to make peace?
Archbishop Sabbah: No, there isn’t. It doesn’t exist yet. The Israelis are afraid of peace, for them it is a risk. They would be throwing themselves into the unknown and this could increase insecurity for them. In my opinion, the only future for Israel lies in peace. Violence is a permanent threat for their security, and even for their existence. The Palestinian population is growing. Twenty percent of Israeli Arabs with full citizenship rights are Palestinians. Tomorrow 20% of Palestinians will become 40% or 50% and the Jewish character of the state will disappear, and therefore it will be Israel that disappears as a Jewish state. It is up to them to make a decision, and their salvation is only in peace. The risk of their death or their insecurity does not lie in peace but in the continuation of this situation of war.
Q: Do you think that the Annapolis peace process really does not offer any hope of peace?
Archbishop Sabbah: It simply offers it; it has to be acknowledged and accepted. The United States wants that. President Bush is determined. But we have to ask whether Israel has decided. The Palestinians are ready.
Q: When you met [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert (before Christmas), did you get the impression that he had a political will?
Archbishop Sabbah: Mr. Olmert has a real political will. He has decided to make peace but, as he has said, he encounters obstacles. It is his job to convince his opposition and then we will have peace.
Q: What are these obstacles?
Archbishop Sabbah: The far right, the religious extremists, the religious party that believes that the whole land should remain Israeli and not an inch of this land should be given to the Palestinians. And the religious party has political power, they have seats in the Knesset. They are the opposition Mr. Olmert has to deal with.
Q: You said that the Arab world was ready to normalize its relations with Israel. But we cannot ignore — and Israel cannot ignore — that Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel. Moreover, fundamentalist Islam is growing in Arab countries.
Archbishop Sabbah: Hamas exists. Hezbollah exists. They are a threat. But what makes Hamas exist and what makes it grow is this situation of war in which there are injustices, there is poverty and misery and as long as this situation exists, there will always be Hamas and all its declarations and its will to have it destroy Israel. But when there is serious and lasting peace, the influence of Hamas and Hezbollah will decrease and in the end they will lose it.
There will always be extremists on the Palestinian side, as on the Israeli side, but these parties will be reduced to a minority without influence on the future of the country. If there is peace, there will be fewer extremists and people will no longer need them.
Q: Do you think that Israel should speak to Hamas? Should dialogue with Hamas be by Israel and the United States and the European Union?
Archbishop Sabbah: Israel, the European Union and the international community must speak to the Palestinian Authority and accept that the Palestinian Authority reconciles with Hamas. But as soon as Hamas enters the Palestinian government, the international community boycotts everything that is Palestinian. It is a question of recognizing that the Palestinian Authority has the possibility of forming an alliance again, because peace cannot be made only with a part of the Palestinian people.
There are more than 1.5 million people in Gaza. That has to be taken into account. Therefore the two groups have to unite and become a single Palestinian entity, representing together the Palestinian will so that the international community and Israel can make peace agreements. But as long as Hamas is subject to a boycott and, as soon as it enters the government, there is a boycott against the whole Palestinian people, we are in a blind alley.
Q: When you met Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], did you advise him to resume dialogue with Hamas?
Archbishop Sabbah: This is our advice. The two parts of the Palestinian people have to be put back together again. This alliance does not depend only on Abu Mazen, but on the international community. Once the union has been made and as Hamas has the right to be part of the government, the international community will again boycott everyone.
Q: What advice can you give to the international community?
Archbishop Sabbah: To leave the Palestinians in peace, to let them be united and simply to act together. And if ever Hamas were in the Palestinian government, then that the Palestinian will be respected.
Q: You have been Patriarch for 20 years. What was the most difficult time?
Archbishop Sabbah: All the times have been difficult because we have never ceased living in the same conflict. Each day is a repetition of the other. Each year in the repetition of the previous year: violence and victims on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side.
There have been times of truce; we were able to celebrate the Jubilee in 2000, the visit from the Pope. This was the least difficult time. Otherwise, at all other times, we have experienced difficulties and difficult life has become our vocation and our routine.
Q: In your pastoral letter you said you have no money or a bank account. How will you live now?
Archbishop Sabbah: I will live in the patriarchate. I do not have a salary or a bank account, but the patriarchal institution takes care of this as it does for every other priest of the patriarchate. It is the patriarchate that looks after the health, the food, the home etc. of retired priests. We are part of a community which never abandons any of its members.
Q: Are you sorry to retire?
Archbishop Sabbah: Sorry? But when you are at the service of God, you don’t want a job! We live a mission. A mission is assigned to us. When it is over, we put it into the hands of [the one] who assigned it to us, simply. There is a difference between a religious leader and a political leader.
Q: You were the first patriarch of Palestinian origin since the times of the Crusades: Does being a Palestinian patriarch change anything?
Archbishop Sabbah: It changes something in the sense that the Church has had a pastor chosen from its clergy. Having a Palestinian patriarch in a Palestinian church is a normal fact, not an extraordinary one. It is the situation of all the churches in the world. Pastors are chosen from their clergy and their people.
What could change here in our situation, which is a situation of conflict, is that the Palestinians are on one side and the Israelis on the other — the fact that all the Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, feel supported … they have felt that a new figure could speak on their behalf, share with them and act for peace.
But always being careful. Because if we say to the Israelis: “You are in your full right to serve and protect your people,” to the Palestinians: “You are Palestinians, you are in your full right to serve and protect your people,” a priest, a bishop, whether Palestinian or something else, is for everyone.
He is not confined to his people, he is for his people, but at the same time he is for every human being with whom he lives; and here we live with two peoples. Therefore our responsibility as a bishop and as Christians extends and covers and includes Palestinians and Israelis. Now, the Palestinians are the oppressed, they are under an occupation and we say: “The occupation has to come to an end.” We say to the Israelis: “You are the occupiers and you have to put an end to this occupation.”
Q: What will your role be now?
Archbishop Sabbah: The bishop has three functions: to sanctify, to teach and to govern. With retirement, the function of governing passes on to another; the other two remain; sanctifying and teaching. So there will still be a great deal to do.
Q: Will you give your mission a more political role?
Archbishop Sabbah: Not so much political as Christian. But a Christian who will step into the political field. Because here politics is human life. It is not the politics of left- or right-wing parties; it is human lives that are threatened. Whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. It will be the continuation of the commitment for every human person in this country, Israeli and Palestinian together.