The Israeli policy in the occupied territories is undermining the custody of the Holy Land and its Christian churches.
By Stuart Littlewood
I have nothing but admiration for the work of Catholic priests in the Holy Land. Unlike church life in the leafy suburbs of England, theirs is a dangerous job in a perpetual war zone, a world where religion and international politics collide.
With great skill and dedication they hold together the Christian communities in towns and villages that suffer greatly under Israeli occupation and where Catholic schools teach Muslim as well as Christian children. These courageous men are routinely abused and subjected to humiliating searches, and some have been shot at. Let's not forget the nuns in the front line either, surely some of the most remarkable women on the planet.
While visiting Palestine recently a priest friend explained how he can't go home to see his family in Jordan because Israel's new visa policy would prevent him returning to his parish. The effect cuts deep. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem covers the territories of Palestine, Israel and Jordan, and a large number of its priests and nuns in Palestine are Jordanian. If Jordanian priests and church personnel are not allowed to travel back and forth across these borders, the Church will eventually be divided. The custody of the Holy Land, its Christian churches and their religious congregations will also be badly affected.
And if students at the Latin Patriarchal Seminary in the West Bank, most of whom are Jordanian, visit their families for Christmas, Easter or any other occasion including family emergencies these lads automatically lose their residence visa. They must apply for a new visa while outside the country and that can take three to four months. Even then, re-entry is not guaranteed.
The same applies when they graduate to the priesthood. As soon as their residence visa runs out they have to leave, then apply for a new visa, which might very well be refused, in which case they cannot go back to their parishes and ministries.
Father Manuel, the Catholic priest in Gaza, is a case in point. He has been trapped there for nine years knowing that if he leaves to visit his family the Israelis will not allow him back. So he stays where he is, isolated like all Gazans by the merciless siege but determined not to abandon his “flock” or his excellent school where, incidentally, most of the pupils are Muslim.
So the Israelis are now expanding their notorious “administrative” controls to disrupt the life and work of the Christian Church. By June this year, the Catholics in the Holy Land stand to lose many of their clergy to visa restrictions and the Seminary, founded in 1852, may have to close. Struggling parishes will be left priestless.
No Muslim or Palestinian Christian living outside Jerusalem is allowed to visit the Holy Places in the Old City. This goes for priests, too, although the Israeli military may from time to time grant “permits” restricted to certain entry points and limiting the duration of stay.
These bully-boy tactics make pastoral work a nightmare and participation at major religious ceremonies impossible. It even makes office meetings at the Latin Patriarchate difficult.
The freedom of the Church, set out in the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel in 1993 (but never ratified by the Knesset, I'm told) is treated with contempt. Buried deep within this high-sounding document is the clause:
“The State of Israel recognizes the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions, and to have its own institutions, and to train, appoint and deploy its own personnel in the said institutions or for the said functions to these ends.”
It turns out to be another worthless promise from a regime that occupies the Holy Land illegally, ignores countless UN resolutions, disregards International Court of Justice rulings and is contemptuous of human rights and Geneva Conventions.
This latest attempt by Israel to hinder and paralyse Christianity in the Holy Land is one more turn of the screw in a process that has been going on for years. When Palestine was under British Mandate, Christians accounted for 20 per cent of the population. Sixty years of hostilities and economic ruination imposed by military occupation have reduced their presence to 2 per cent at most. At this rate there will soon be none left in the land where Christianity was born.
Those who remain stand with their Muslim friends and neighbours against the common enemy, an enemy, ironically, that's armed and bankrolled by Christian extremists in the West.
-- Stuart Littlewood is a businessman-turned-writer from Norfolk, England. He recently published a book entitled Radio Free Palestine about the plight of the Palestinians under occupation (see details on http://www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk). This article appeared in Redress Information & Analysis
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