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We are shocked and saddened by the current disastrous events in the Middle East. In his November 7, 2000 letter to Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah described this ongoing tragedy: "Our people in the Holy Land are living gloomy days during which the dream of peace which seemed very close is now vanishing away. Violence, retaliation, fear, death, unemployment, the end of the peace process summarize our situation today."
We are deeply disturbed by efforts of extremists, in the region and abroad, who incite and intensify religious conflict through inflammatory rhetoric, and anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts. The Holy Land must be a symbol of peace, love and unity, not a source of religious hatred and violence.
Despite the events of the past six weeks, it is not naive or utopian to insist that the season of peace in the Middle East has not passed, that Palestinians and Israelis are not inevitably destined for yet more years of conflict. Reviving the peace process in the Middle East is not only possible, it is the only realistic way forward. Muslims, Jews and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis cannot separate themselves into walled enclaves; they must find ways to live together, as equals and in dignity. This is impossible amidst an escalating cycle of provocations, threats, violence, excessive force, and reprisals, all of which only compound injustice and inflame hatred and fear. The only acceptable option is an end to the violence, respect for the basic human rights of all, and a return to the path of peace.
While the peace process has led to significant progress in some areas, it cannot be denied that it has also created deep resentment about unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations. Nonetheless, as the Holy Father recently said, "Only a return to the negotiating table on an equal footing, with due respect for international law, is capable of disclosing a future of brotherhood and peace for those who live in this blessed land ." He continued, "[A]ll individuals [must] see their fundamental rights guaranteed: both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are equally entitled to live in their own homeland in dignity and security" (Letter to the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, November 6, 2000).
A just peace demands speedy implementation of relevant UN resolutions and other provisions of international law, and the establishment of an internationally-recognized Palestinian state. A just peace equally demands respect for Israel's right to exist and flourish within secure borders. The future of the Middle East must be built on mutual respect, recognition and reconciliation, not hatred or exclusion or occupation. We urge the U.S. government to continue to work tirelessly to revive the peace process, and we pray that it will do so in a way that is truly balanced, does not acquiesce to unilateral actions which undermine negotiations, and that responds with respect to the legitimate claims and expectations of both parties.
Any peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians must address the future of the Holy City of Jerusalem. During his historic visit to the Holy Land, our Holy Father witnessed to the universal religious significance of Jerusalem, calling for Jerusalem to be "a City of Peace for all peoples" (March 23, 2000). The Holy See believes the difficult issues of territory and sovereignty should be resolved by negotiations. It also has repeatedly urged "an internationally guaranteed statute for the most religious parts of this unique city" (Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, March 9, 1999). Such a statute would provide guarantees for equality of rights for all residents, freedom of religion for all, and free access to and protection of the Holy Places.
While attention is rightly focused on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, a comprehensive Middle East peace must address the situation in Lebanon as well. We are dismayed by the deteriorating situation in some areas of that country, and we fully support the call of the Maronite Patriarch and bishops for an open national dialogue. We share with them a heightened concern over the flight of young people from the country. It is gravely troubling that, a decade after the close of the civil war, Lebanon is not yet a fully sovereign state. We call on the government of the United States to work energetically for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, and for respect for its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence.
In the pursuit of a just peace for all in the region, the Christian presence in the Holy Land must not be forgotten. We fear that the continuing fighting and growing despair about the future will further marginalize the Christian community and will accelerate the departure of Christians from the Holy Land. These endangered Christian communities in the Holy Land merit, in a special way, the support and solidarity of Christians around the world.
We join our Conference president, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, in asking the faithful to pray from the beginning of Advent to Epiphany for a genuine peace in the Holy Land, and in recommending voluntary fasting and abstinence on Fridays during the same period, in accord with our call in The Challenge of Peace (1983).
With our Holy Father and our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and we ask Jews, Christians, and Muslims to join us in beseeching God Most High that by his grace "justice and peace may embrace" (Ps. 85) in the sacred land we all love. What people cannot do by themselves, God in his mercy can surely bring to fruition.
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