and Michael Hirst interview
the Latin Patriarch, Michael Sabbah
LAS'I' MONDAY, Palestinian hospitals were filling up with wounded Arabs who had either been involved or caught up in the clashes with Israeli security forces.
As staff hurried between beds, removing rubber-coated "butterfly" bullets, visitors streamed in. Amongst them was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah. He had just returned from official business in Brussels; now, he wanted to visit his wounded compatriots at the Al-Maqassed hospital in East Jerusalem, prior to opening a new chapel at the Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. The Patriarch was greeted with gratitude and delight by a crowd almost entirely made up of Muslims.
One of them, a Sheikh, exclaimed "I have heard so much about you, and now I see you in person. We are honoured to have you here," The clashes may have broken out over the visit of a Jewish politician to a site sacred to Muslims and Jews; news images may have depicted stonehurling Arab youths chanting Qu'ranic slogans whilst behind them loudspeakers from the minaret relay the muezzin's call; but that does not mean that the Christian community is not involved.
The Patriarch was unable to open the new chapel in Beit Jala: Israeli soldiers at a military blockade warned him away "for his own safety". At the seminary, priests present and future awaited his arrival, congregating on an open esplanade that looked over the smoke and turmoil around Rachel's Tomb, a source of fierce contention. Many of them were concerned at the Israeli use of helicopter gunships and missiles, the damage that this was doing to the peace process, and partic ularly the loss of life that had taken place.
Christian Palestinians, a mere 3% of the population, do not see themselves as a distinct, cut-off community. They feel solidarity with their Muslim compatriots, as they did in the original intifada, in which the first fatality was a Christian. The Chancellor of the Patriarchate, Abuna (Father) Raeed, explains: "we have the same language, we have the same culture, we are the same people." The Patriarch himself has issued a statement condemning "the provocation of religious feelings in the Haram Ash-Sharif."
He speaks as a religious leader whose voice transcends religious boundaries. A favourite of Yasser Arafat. with whom he is frequently pictured, he does not seek out a political platform; rather, the close connection between religion and politics in the Holy Land necessitates that his views resonate with political ramifications.
This is no recent development: throughout the Crusades, the motivations for which were not entirely spiritual, the Latin Patriarchs held positions of enormous power. Compared with them, the current incumbent lives like an ascetic. But he carries clout as a moral religious figure in a city where religion is frequently exploited for political ends.
Rarely, in his annual Christmas message to his diocese, will he ignore the current political climate. He stands out as a voice for the Christians; he stresses the importance of their presence in the land of Christ's birth, ministry, death and resurrection. An important part of the Patriarchate's diplomatic work is to show that the current situation is not simply between Jews and Moslems. The Temple Mount may not be integral to Christian worship; what is important is the realisation, as the Patriarch stresses, of "dignity and rights" fur all Palestinians. The Christian community here is testimony to the fact that Arab does not mean the same as Islam; that military bullets do not distinguish between a follower of Christ and a follower of Mohammed.
A stocky man whose features at once suggest integrity and hard-mindedness, the Patriarch is loaded with personal political implications: as a Palestinian, born in Nazareth in 1933, and. after 1948, a refugee unable to return to the city of his birth, he has a natural connection with his congregation.
He has described Christ as a refugee who died a redeemer. With over three million Palestinian refugees living in camps in the Near East, he perceives a personal relationship between himself, the people, and Christ.
We met him in a small but ornate assembly room in the Patriarchate build ings. We had been fortu
nate: on a typical day he meets religious figures, foreign dignitaries, and personalities in the morning, and pilgrims in the afternoon; he visits the parishes, and presides over First Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies in every part of his diocese, whether in Amman or Cyprus. He is President of the Conference of Latin Bishops in the Arab Regions, member of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East, Honorary President of the Middle East Council of Churches, and elected International President of Pax Christi International. He travels abroad about 15 times a year, excluding 2 or 3 visits to Jordan per month; and attends frequent conferences,
international congresses and meetings in Rome (such as the Synod of Asia). Added to these are the Masses and paperwork that occupy the rest of his time.
exponent of the diplomatic soundhite, the
Patriarch is convinced that a peace settlement will come. "The turbulence", he says, "is in the souls of the people." With his wide experiences not only in the Arab world, but also in studying and teaching about the Arab world, he has a strong Arab identification. After his ordination, in Nazareth on 29 June 1955, he took up the curacy of Madaha, in Jordan. Between 1957 and 1970, he taught Arabic, philology and Islamology in Beit Jala, Beirut and Djibouti, before receiving his doctorate in Arabic philology from the Sorbonne.
He feels that the recent events have reinforced "the Palestinian people's claims for life and freedom, And they will have life and freedom, sooner or later." He exhorts the people, both Israelis and Palestinians, to "imitate God in his love and justice", but he also interprets the situation at the ground-roots level: "it is not in vain", he says, "that the situation came suddenly to this explosion. Those young and old who are offering their lives are not doing it to aggress anybody: they are only defending their holy places, their freedom and their lives." The Patriarch sees the Palestinian fatalities in terms of martyrdom. "Blood today", he says, "is crying to God claiming justice and dignity." But he would like to see a stop to the violence and a return to "the peace talks and to see how to go back to the situation which was prevailing before 1967."
As a native Palestinian, it is hardly surprising that he is so prominent an advocate of Palestinian independence: "The people should be given their right to life and to selfdetermination," he says. "The Palestinian state must be born and have stability which allows it to re-organise its own affairs, external and internal." On the question of Jerusalem itself, he supports a divided city in which "Palestinian Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem the capital of Israel." But over and above political cartography comes the importance of Jerusalem as "the Holy City". He would like to see its "holiness protected and respected by its own governors, and by the
requirements which its sanctity imposes on the entire international community." For the Patriarch, the support of the Christian West, in countries such as Britain, the USA and France, is not simply a favour, but an obligation.
During the Camp David summit, in June, he wrote a joint letter with the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs, to Clinton, Barak and Arafat, stressing that the "fundamental freedoms of worship and access by all Christians to their holy sanctuaries and to their headquarters within the Old City are not impeded."
But for the Patriarch, as important as the Holy Places are "the Christians who are living around the Holy Places".
In order to stress these issues, he has cultivated a strong relationship with Arafat, which was illustrated at a recent dinner. The table-plan had been set out by the Greek Orthodox Chancellor. The Patriarch was seated several places down the table from Arafat. But when he entered the room, Arafat scanned the table-plan, took the Patriarch by his arm, and sat him to his right. "Your place is here", he said.
THIS JUGGLING OF the political and the religious is part of the job. Whenever an issue arises which blurs the two, it demands Patriarchal comment. For example, last November, a dispute arose between the Muslim and Christian communities over the erection of a Mosque in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The site where Gabriel brought Mary "tidings of great joy" became the focus of angry demonstrations on both sides. The Patriarch could hardly keep quiet on this subject. Together with the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs, and the Custos of the Holy Land, he arranged the closure of all sanctuaries in the region for two days, along with a statement criticising "a clear discrimination against the Christian community in Galilee". When we questioned him about this issue, he shook his head. "We do not play political games," he said. But he is involved in them: "The Christians are not as useful as the Muslims...The government is attempting to promote electoral interests at the expense of the national unity of the Palestinian people."
An argument broke out prior to the Pope's visit to the Holy Land, over the site of Christ's baptism. Both the Israeli and the Jordanian governments claimed the site on their own sides of the River Jordan. There was considerable commercial advantage at stake, contested between essentially Jewish and Muslim administrations, whose interests in the site were hardly theological. The Patriarch came out on the Israeli side. But for him, the west of Jordan is Palestinian territory.
"Dignity and rights", he stresses, are the bedrock of any peace settlement: "Israeli security will best be achieved by justice to the Palestinians." He is critical of the use of "soldiers, military cars and even missiles" in the recent clashes, which he does not think will bring "tranquility, and even order". Rather than aggressive tactics, he believes dike. "God should be more present in political decisions." After all, Israel is "the guest of God in the land. The chosen people has to become worthy of the land of God." In his most recent pastoral letter, he warned that these, guests must observe "the Divine Law", otherwise the land "vomits out its inhabitants" (Leviticus 18,25).
HIS BEATITUDE'S answers often seem evasive, couched in ambiguous Biblical and theological terms. It is from the younger priests that one receives the most direct and passionate response. Sitting on a large balcony above a church on the West Bank, a few days before the violence erupted, we were entertained by a group of priests, aged between 26 and 34. They offered us canapes of olives, capers and crisps, and platefuls of baklava. They seemed like any group of young men, enjoying one another's company as they exchanged jokes and tales of their everyday experiences. But the everyday experiences were different from those of ordinary young men. One of them told us about a double agent who works for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Apparently, both sides know this, but use him nonetheless as a convenient source of information. When we commented on the abundance of mobile 'phones, they explained that there were no telephone lines in the area; the Israeli government had refused permission for lines to be laid down. Most alarming was the threat that at any moment, electricity might he cut off. Apparently, this is a popular tactic in the winter.
One priest was determined to convey to us his bitterness over the occupation: "It's like I come into your house and I occupy three rooms," he said, "and there is a fourth room, and you don't want me to live in it, you want some independence; and I say I'll give you half of it, or I want to control whether you come in or out." At this point he shook his head and abandoned metaphor for a more direct approach: "It's an historical injustice imposed on the Palestinian people, and we are paying a high price for what we have not done, in the second world war. This is all for the Nazis, and their
Many of these priests were concerned about the "depression" which the Palestinian people were feeling towards a peace process that did not seem to have produced any concrete results. One of them, in an ominous forecast of the events that would take place days later, said: "People will say that we tried our utmost in order to negotiate, to reach a solution, but if they don't understand our language we are ready to use another language.... They don't want violence, but if it is the best means, they might use it."
The same priest groaned as he peered at the traffic on the way back to Jerusalem. A large army truck was parked in front of us, the Star of David proudly stamped across its side in blue and white. He turned to us, biting his lip in frustration: "This is ridiculous", he sighed. "To say that after 2,000 years, 'this is mine', is ridiculous. It is like the Romans from Italy come to the Middle East and say, 'this was ours, we want it back' ...And the Jews bad control of it never for more than 50 years...And when they did, they occupied it by force."
Many Palestinians, losing patience as they wait for results, are increasingly skepheal about the historical and spiritual validity of a Jewish homeland in the land that they feel belongs to their ancestors. Fighting, for many, is a justified extension of the on-going negotiations. One priest, when we referred to the recent violence, corrected us: "Resistance," he said.
Few of the priests, the Patriarch included, expect instantaneous peace. The Patriarch believes that, when a settlement has been made, it will take "two to three years of preparation, of the people, for these situations".
But they arc all confident that, peace or no peace, the Christian Church will continue to play a major role in the Holy Land, morally, politically and socially. It provides services not only to Christians, but also to Muslims (who represent 30 per cent of the students in its schools), whilst its importance to the international Christian community, as indigenous Christians in the land of Christ, cannot be underestimated.
As he bustled out of our interview, we asked the Patriarch about his hopes for the future. He glanced at an icon of Mary on the wall. "The future", he said, "like the past and the present, is in the hands Of God."