Friday, April 03, 2009

Peace is elusive, but patriarch is hopeful

from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver By Paul Schratz
JERUSALEM -Every diocese has its own unique challenges, but the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem faces obstacles that make most Church territories look positively tranquil by comparison.

The diocese encompasses not only the entire country of Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, but also Cypress and Jordan, a huge expanse made all the more unwieldy by the myriad political and religious interests at play: ongoing political disputes between Jews and Arabs, religious division among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and competing claims on Jerusalem by Israel and by Palestinian and Arab leaders.
Archbishop Fouad Twal
the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

The fallout from all this is that many of the Catholic flock in the Palestinian territories have never been to Jerusalem, simply because they're Palestinian.

It means priests in Jordan are not allowed to come to Jerusalem to meet with their bishop, while priests in Jerusalem are not permitted to take a pilgrim group to Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian territories.

Consequently the Latin Patriarch must be part pastor, part theologian, and part diplomat. Fitting, then, that the current patriarch, Archbishop Fouad Twal, served in the Vatican's diplomatic service before being named a bishop. After a stint in Tunisia, he was named coadjutor Patriarch of Jerusalem, and last summer became patriarch after the retirement of Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who had reached the retirement age of 75.

When our small group of Canadians met with Archbishop Twal a few months before he replaced Archbishop Sabbah, we thought the honour was all ours. It turned out, however, that he was equally delighted that we had come to see him.

Our visit meant a lot to him, he said, and one can understand why. The Christian population of 140,000 is a mere 2 per cent of the population of 7.1 million. Catholics are fewer still.

The visit, he said, meant "we are not abandoned, forgotten, or alone in this mission, in this life here in the Holy Land. We need this communion between us; we need to feel that we are not alone."

Archbishop Twal invited us to use the opportunity to "pray together: you pray for us, we pray for you, and together we pray for the peace that we need, that we've been looking for for many years...."

He utters the words with a hope that is conveyed by faith. "Remember the words of the Lord, when He said, `Anybody who wants to follow Me must take this cross.' So we take our problems and we go on with hope."

The archbishop is not naive. He realizes that until the day of "our personal resurrection, when peace and justice come, we are in conflict, political conflict with religious repercussions."

"Political conflict with religious repercussions" is an interesting way to describe a problem that exists in part because it's called "the Holy Land." As the archbishop said, "Everybody's fighting for this land, and nobody's fighting for the holiness of this land. We want to give to this land again its holiness, its vocation of holiness; we want to give to this land what we call our Mother Church - the land who received everybody, where everybody can live in peace, justice, and security."

However peace, justice, and security will not come about on their own, especially while violence and killing rage on. The solution is simple, he said: "Go back to dialogue ... I don't think anyone in the world wants to see children in wars. Enough of the struggle, the wars, the violence. No more injustice, no more occupation. We need more relations, more friendship, more trust, than walls and separation."

One of the obstacles to that dialogue is that Christianity rarely speaks with one voice. How can Christians serve as a bridge between Arab and Jew, as Archbishop Twal dreams, when they suffer from a schizophrenia of sorts that scrambles their message?

Jerusalem abounds with Christian organizations, Catholic groups, and even a flock of Christian converts. There are Christian travellers in the Holy Land praying, studying, and working. There are the Christians of Palestine, not to mention Christians in neighbouring Jordan.

"Not all have the same sensibility to the conflict," he added, and yet "All are ours. We [the Church] have to take care of all of them."

The Christian voice can reach out and deliver a message of conciliation and hope, he said, and to a degree it's doing just that. In Jerusalem alone there are councils that bring bishops, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants together in dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

"We must be ourselves," said the patriarch. "We must remember we can be a bridge between two people in conflict, a bridge to more reconciliation."

Unfortunately the Christian vocabulary of love and pardon doesn't always sit well with Jews, whose focus is on security, and Arabs, whose overriding concern is the occupation of their land.

Archbishop Twal hopes the Christian message can somehow address all those concerns: "We Christians, we remember the first commandment: Love God and love thy neighbour, and do what you can for more peace, more justice."

Eventual reconciliation will only come about when there is trust on both sides, he said, and right now "there is no trust between parties."

"This is the mystery of Jerusalem, a city which unites all of us, and a city which divides all of us. When we have peace, it will be wonderful, so we can consider each other as God's creations and as brothers."

Catholic institutions and especially schools are seen as particularly important, since it's there that a "dialogue of life" occurs with Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim children playing and studying together. "It means in the future a kind of preparation for a kind of dialogue."

Another sign of hope is tourism, which after years of violence is increasing again. "We are very happy when we have many tourists, many pilgrims who come to pray, to know, to be in touch with."

Who knows, when Pope Benedict XVI visits next month, he just might help kick start the tourism as well as the dialogue that is so badly needed in Jerusalem.