The Holy Land

The Crossroads of Peace
The Certain Hope of the Church
Peaceful co-existence in the Middle East will bring good for the entire world. Issues at the fore in an interview with the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi: The help of pilgrims, the problematic relationship between the land and the identities of peoples; the wall, for one people a guarantee of defense, and for the other, a factor of apartheid; and the responsibilities of the politicians
edited by Andrea Finessi

In Jerusalem, there’s an air of change. There’s a need for something to happen, something to finally bring about the ever-delayed peace–delayed, even after the election of Abu Mazen.
In Notre Dame, the seat of the Nunciature, this air has the certainty and strength of someone who has re-found the clarity of an identity in this land: “I came here as a young priest, and Jesus Christ was for me a lovely phantasm somewhere up there in the clouds. But, through walking in the footsteps of Jesus, visiting the stones and the places that reverberate with His person, His teaching, His miracles, His suffering, death, and resurrection, I had another encounter, not with just a run of the mill Christianity, but with a person, true God and true man, called Jesus Christ.” These are the words of the Papal Nuncio, Msgr Pietro Sambi, welcoming a group of pilgrims from Italy, telling them that their simple “being seen” is “the most complete way of supporting the Mother Church of Jerusalem.”

Your Excellency, the Christians here are setting up works, interventions, and initiatives. What future can this seed have?
We have before us two peoples psychologically exhausted by the lack of chances for peace, broken hearted over the far too many victims in Palestinian and Israeli families, and exhausted economically as well. The situation is graver in Palestine, with its weaker economy. But poverty has arrived also in Israel now.

These days, we hear from both sides many words of goodwill about the resumption of the peace dialogue. There are also very clear positions on the international level. A new page has been turned, and this opportunity must not be lost. Abu Mazen has been elected the new President of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Sharon has succeeded in forming a majority government. The conflict, which has lasted 56 years and leaves a trail of reciprocal rancor and distrust, makes the road to peace an uphill struggle. The commitment and creativity of the international community is also needed to help reach peace. If the three civilizations in the Holy Land –Jewish, Christian, and Muslim–can succeed in finding the way to accept and respect each other, and to collaborate, then there will be peace in many other places where these three civilizations bear influence. It has been well said that Jerusalem holds the key to peace in the world.

The Holy Land, Israel and Palestine, seen in terms of square miles and number of inhabitants, is quite small. And yet, this reality is spoken of every day throughout the world. The message sent out from here speaks of hate, destruction, and death. But God chose this land to reveal Himself, incarnate Himself, and to save us. He entrusted this land with a message for humanity, that of love, of the fullness of life, and of fraternity. Giving back to the Holy Land the mission that God entrusted to her means strengthening foundations for peace in the world. The first step to take is to cease the reciprocal violence, and to respect human life.

Christians are few here, only 2% of the population. Their weight depends on the solidarity that the Christians of the entire world have with them. It also depends on the quality of their testimony of unity, of boundless love, and of fraternity shown in their daily behavior toward all. Pilgrimage is not only the best way to show solidarity with the Mother Church of Jerusalem, but it is also an encouragement for peace.

Walking around the city and the sites of Christendom, it seems that there is almost a relationship of tolerance among the various Christian churches…
If I compare what I saw 30 years ago with what I see now, I can say with pleasure that progress has been made. At Christmas and at Easter, the heads of the churches send a joint message to all the Christians of the Holy Land. Common documents have been written on problems of concern to all, such as the emigration of Christians, Jerusalem, the project for a mosque at the doors of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the negative consequences of the “defense wall,” etc. Almost every month, the heads of the churches meet to deal with subjects of mutual interest. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity currently involves all the churches of the Holy City, with still one exception.

In Jerusalem, where the Lord instituted the Church, ardently desiring that she be one as a confirmation of His mission–“May they be one in Us, as You are in Me and I am in You, so the world may believe it was You who sent Me”(Jn 17:21)– the fact that there are 13 churches and about 40 other Christian denominations can be considered scandalous.

Pride, and the lust for power and possession, brought about division. What will lead us back to unity will be faithfulness to the Spirit of Christ in the service of the Father and the brethren, humility, and holiness of life.
You alluded to the responsibility of local politicians and international politics. But politics in these years has weakened greatly, because of a religious factor.
The conflict currently underway is substantially about possession of land, even though religious motivations are not lacking. The Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are mostly located in spots where the Bible mentions the presence of Jews in the distant past. The Muslim extremists exploit the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories to justify unjustifiable terrorism, not infrequently done in the name of God.

Israel has a problem that it has been dragging along since 1948: the relationship between land and identity. There are those who say, “All this land is ours and we must conquer it,” and from this follows the annexation of a sizeable non-Jewish population. Others think it would be better to have less land, but a greater identity of the Jewish people.

Israel has the right to exist, in safety and within the internationally recognized borders, which is not the case currently, because these are lines of armistice. But the Palestinians also have a right to a homeland, to live in safety and within internationally recognized borders. Peace passes through the recognition of two sovereign states, living side by side in a spirit of collaboration, and through the recognition of the three religions that consider Jerusalem a Holy City: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Israelis are building a wall to defend themselves, and this seems contrary to a desire for peace.

Israel has the right to defend itself. If you feel attacked, you have a right to strengthen the defenses of your home. The problem with the wall is that it was built at home and on the land of others. In Beit Jala, the wall deprives local families of eight million square meters of land. How are they going to make a living? Two hundred of them have already left the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, the wall deprives the population of seven million square meters. One thousand people have already emigrated. In Beit Sahour, this wall has expropriated one million, seven hundred thousand square meters and, already, a hundred and fifty families have taken the road of exile.

In addition, the wall breaks bonds of family; it disrupts social, cultural, and religious bonds. The Holy Father, whose love for the Jewish people and the Palestinian people cannot be doubted, has said very wisely and in the best interests of both, that the Holy Land needs bridges, not walls.
But if the problem is the relationship between land and identity, how can two different cultures live together?
Some people are convinced that to be tolerant and promote dialogue, you must not have your own identity, or you must hide it, in order to avoid points of friction with the others. This is the true weakness of Europe in this period. Dialogue founded on a basis of non-identity is futile from the beginning, because it doesn’t take into account the reality you have before you. True dialogue takes place between clear and precise identities who decide to acknowledge each other for what they are, to respect each other in the differences each one presents, and to put together what they have in common. Only then can dialogue become reciprocally constructive.
Everybody is expecting a change after the election of Abu Mazen, but things already seem on an uphill climb.

Abu Mazen himself said in his first speech as the new President of the Palestinian Authority, “The road before us will not be easy. We will not achieve our aspirations with dreams or miracles, but with constant and untiring work.” A long journey always begins with some steps in the right direction: cessation of terrorist acts by the Palestinian extremists and cessation of the Israeli incursions and military occupation.