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Israel's identity as a Jewish state discriminates against non-Jews, the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic clergyman said in a pre-Christmas address on Wednesday.

"If there's a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against," Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told reporters at the annual press conference he holds in Jerusalem before the Christian holiday.

In his address, which he read in Arabic and English, Sabbah said Israel should abandon its Jewish character in favor of a political, normal state for Christians, Muslims and Jews.

"This land cannot be exclusive for anyone," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel provides full religious freedom to people of all faiths.

"We reject his claim that other religions are not enjoying equal rights in Israel," Mekel said.

With his statements Wednesday, Sabbah, a longtime advocate of the Palestinian cause, waded into a debate that has marred the fledgling peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

He said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had unleashed "forces of evil" across the Middle East and it was up to Israel to relaunch the peace process.

"I hope we are entering into a new phase with Annapolis," Sabbah saud. "The one who will decide is Israel. If Israel decides for peace, there will be peace."

"Until now, there has been no peace, simply because there has been no willingness to make it," he added.

Israel has defined itself as the homeland of the Jewish people since it was established in 1948. The Palestinians, however, refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying that would mean Palestinian refugees who lost their homes after Israel's creation would not have the right to return.

Sabbah, who has been the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1987, is the first Palestinian to hold the post and is frequently critical of Israel.

"He also lashed out at Israel for visa restrictions he said were unfair to Christian clergy. A state in this land must...be open to welcoming to all believers of other religions," he said.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, there are an estimated 170,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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