Michel Sabah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, had not planned to mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest this way. This week, on his return from a visit to the United States, where the Palestinian-Christian community held celebrations in his honor, he set out for Shfaram to comfort the families of the four people killed there last week, two of whom were Christian. The visit was also planned to include a meeting with the Arab Knesset members.
It is this tightrope between religion and politics that Sabah, who has a Ph.D. in Arab philology from the Sorbonne, has walked almost his entire life. Sometimes he sounds like a man of the cloth, sometimes like a politician. A Palestinian politician, it should be added. So much so, that in the eyes of official Israel, he is no more than yet another branch of the Palestinian political system, and a hostile one at that. Behind his back, he has been dubbed "the Islamic Patriarch."
It is difficult to disassociate his declared Palestinian identity from his dramatic biography. In 1946, when he was 13, he left his home in Nazareth, where his family has lived since the 16th century, to study in a religious seminar in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Then came the War of Independence, and Beit Jala was cut off from the nascent State of Israel, separating the young Sabah from his family. He did not see them for 10 years. On his first visit, he did not recognize his two brothers, who were very young when he left. In 1957, he was barred from coming to his father's funeral. In 1967, two months before the Six-Day War, he was barred from coming to his brother's funeral too.
"I have no doubt that my sensitivity to human suffering stems from those first years," he said this week in a rare interview with the Israeli media, held in the Latin Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem. Some might say that this is sensitivity mainly to Palestinian suffering, although he did not always have an easy time with them. Arafat was furious with him when, in 2003, at the height of the intifada, he called in his Christmas greeting for the resignation of leaders unable to bring peace.
What is your response to the murder in Shfaram?
"This is not a story disconnected from its context. The entire path taken by Israel and the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict have produced extremism. Now, the leaders have the responsibility to resolve not only the conflict, but also to amend 50 years of a mentality that is sustained by ignorance and hate, which lead to irrational acts such as this. After all, not only Arabs, but also Druze, whom Israel views as friends, were in danger there. A great blindness has settled in the heart of a group of extremist Jews who no longer are able to distinguish between friend and foe. I am talking about the need to heal both sides, but I am turning to Israel because it is the stronger side and it has the responsibility." The Arab leadership in Israel has demanded that the lynch of the murderer not be investigated. What is your opinion?
"I agree. In principle, it is forbidden to kill another human being under any circumstances, and one must not take the law into one's hands. As a Christian, it is forbidden to take revenge. Only God can avenge. But in the situation that existed in the bus fury overcame law and logic. That is why I think that for the benefit of all of Israeli society, it would be better not to get too deep into this matter. There is no point in continuing to raise issues that only feed the hate between the two sides. It should be condemned, but it is unnecessary to perpetuate the negative feelings in a way that could cause even greater harm, not only to all of Israeli society, but even to the law. An investigation of this kind could lead to further bloodshed on both sides." He adds that he was favorably surprised by the fact that the murderer was immediately described as a "Jewish terrorist.? "I heard it on the radio in America and I view that description, coming from the mouth of Sharon, as a change in Israeli society."
There are those who will not be happy to hear an analysis of Israeli society coming from you. In the eyes of many, you are located somewhere on the axis between "friend" and "foe."
"I know. Two weeks ago, on the way back from Rome, I met an Israeli passenger on a flight who, when he heard my name, told me how famous I am in Israel, for better or worse. That is a price that I pay for my comments and my nonconformism. Once, Israeli security people came to the Patriarchate to find out my exact identity. I told them that I am a Palestinian exactly as they are Jews. That does not necessarily make me pro-Palestinian. I am a Christian religious leader. But since I have served as Patriarch, the Palestinians have been the occupied and oppressed and you have been the occupiers and oppressors. That is why I am with them, not because they are Palestinians."
That still does not explain various comments you have made for example, when you said that perhaps one day the Israelis would disappear from here just as the Crusaders disappeared. It was in the wake of that comment that a senior Foreign Ministry official called you "the Islamic Patriarch."
"All I meant to say was that for 2,000 years, this land has known different rulers. The Crusaders came and went. The Israelis came and perhaps will go. It is not the expression of a wish but rather a description of a historical situation. Incidentally, that same official was born in a Muslim country. I think he is a Moroccan."
Some of his statements, when exported abroad, sound like incitement. In a sermon he gave four years ago, he protested against the pain of demolishing homes. He called upon the Israelis: "We say to the Israelis: Destroy our churches, but spare the homes of our faithful. If you must impose at any price collective punishment, and if there needs to be ransom in order to procure the tranquillity of innocent children and families, we offer our churches. Destroy them. We will find other places in which to pray, and we will continue to pray for ourselves and for you."
In the local context, this may sound like legitimate political criticism. But when you send words like these to solidarity parades with the Palestinians held in the United States, Australia and Europe they sound more like an inflammatory description of a brutal pogrom.
"Those words were said at the time of the Palestinian shooting from Beit Jala. The Israelis knew perfectly well that the homes they were demolishing were not the homes of the shooters. I meant what I said. The homes are more important than the churches. You can pray to God anywhere, but there is no alternative to a home. Human dignity is more important than the stones of a church. Does that sound like incitement? The government of Israel should be aware of the repercussions of its actions. The interpretation is not the fault of the critics; it is the fault of the perpetrators. If they don't want criticism, they should not take steps like this."
We did not hear your voice as a Christian leader on the matter of suicide terrorists.
"As a Christian, I condemn all suicide. No person may take his own life. Pragmatically, it has only negative implications. The Palestinians have the right to resist, but nonviolent resistance is more effective. That is the message that the Christians bring to the Palestinian struggle."
As a major Christian leader, you are probably pained at the diminishing Christian presence in the Holy Land. Many have left due to the situation.
"That is true. Our meager presence here is part of the mysteries of God in the Holy Land. The church of Jerusalem, despite its centrality, has never been large. In Jesus' time, it numbered only about 100, so that in any case, we are many more now than then. I repeat to believers who leave that it is a mission to be a Christian in the Holy Land, to remain here as witnesses to Jesus' life. Some listen and others don't. Over half a million Christians have left the Holy Land in the past century. Not everyone in the community is a hero."
Paradoxically, the current increase in Christian population comes from immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The late Pope John Paul II appointed an assistant to Sabah to deal with non-Arab Christians, Jean-Baptiste Gurion of the monastery in Abu Ghosh, who recently passed away. This created a situation in which you were the Patriarch of the Arabs and he was the Vatican's representative vis-a-vis the "others." In the world Catholic press, this has been termed a policy of "divide and conquer." Were you offended?
"Not at all. The move was coordinated with me. A person's greatness is measured by his ability to admit that he needs help. The political reality is that there is a group of non-Palestinian Christians who tend more to Israel, and it is only natural that they would want to have someone that identifies with the Jews. After all, Jean-Baptiste was a converted Jew. In any case, a policy of divide and conquer is not wise. Christians and Muslims live here together under Israeli law, and the state loses when it fosters resentment between them. Historically, Muslims and Christians are one society here."
Do you have any connection with Christians who have immigrated to Israel?
"Very little. It is a strange situation. According to what I read, they number over 300,000 more than the entire Christian community in the Holy Land [which numbers about 200,000 in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the vast majority of whom are Arabs L.G.]. But Israel is not interested in an organized Christian community and consequently, we only help individuals who ask for our help."
Although you have diplomatic status, you sometimes fall victim to the policy of checkpoints and closures. You have been prevented on occasion from attending religious ceremonies in the territories. Are you offended by that?
"That is part of the policy of divide and conquer. Sometimes at a checkpoint, they ask a person's name and they let George go through, but not Mohammed. I could write a book about my experiences at the checkpoints. There are soldiers who behave in a humane way and there are those that don't. Sometimes I am not allowed entry, such as to pray at Ein Ariq near Ramallah, and sometimes they want to search my diplomatic vehicle. Sometimes funny things happen. Once, I encountered a Russian soldier at a checkpoint. My driver explained that the man in the car was the Patriarch. The soldier was surprised. 'The Patriarch is in Moscow,' he said. He was apparently a Christian and was referring to the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, the only one he was familiar with." You often speak about the state of the Christians in Israel, but rarely mention the tension between Muslims and Christians.
"I never said everything was perfect. On the contrary, I had a very difficult talk with Arafat on this subject two months before he died. I told him that the situation was not good, that an effort must be made, that education for better relations was needed. Our relations with the Palestinian Authority and the educated Muslims are good, but there are definitely problems and incidents. Take Gaza for example. There are 1.5 million people there, 5,000 of whom are Christians. Perhaps 50,000 Muslims are aware of the presence of Christians among them, and they have no idea what it means to be a Christian. But we have two schools there, we have sent good priests to Gaza and there is no threat to our presence there, now or after the withdrawal. Nevertheless, we will have to see how things develop after the withdrawal. I hope that Gaza does not turn into one big prison."
Do you support the withdrawal?
"Yes, on condition that it is the beginning and not the end. I join the voice of the Palestinian Authority to enable the withdrawal to be carried out quietly in the hope that the future will be better than the present. But I nevertheless think that true peace will be possible only in a decade. This generation is not able to make peace and we may experience further violence."
As someone who sees the Muslims and Christians as a single social entity, it must be difficult for you to hear some voices in the Christian world that describe Islam as Satan.
"There are Christian politicians in the West that dangerously mix their religion with politics."
Are you referring to President Bush?
"Bush too, but not only him. A leader who is really a believer must refrain from taking certain military steps. It is not enough to say that the Muslims are terrorists. They must look for the reasons for these deeds in their policies too. If they have sufficient humility and intelligence, they will find the reasons. Christian politicians and leaders have a unique role that they don't always know how to fulfill."
You, a religious leader, on the other hand, often sound like a politician.
"Perhaps. But even when I sound like a politician, God is always very present in my life."
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