His Beatitude Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, Patriarch of Jerusalem,
First Palestinian R.C. Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (1987-2008)
in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas —————————————————————————————————————
What does it mean to be a Palestinian Christian?
To be a Palestinian Christian is just as any human being, in any people, being Christian. Nothing special. The Palestinian people, is one people, with two religions, Christian and Moslem. The special in the life of the Palestinian people is the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which we are living since more than sixty years. The Christian Palestinian, as every Palestinian, has to face the reality of this endless conflict. He has to act for the end of the conflict, for the end of the Israeli military occupation, for justice and peace for all. A Christian Palestinian helps understand the universal meaning of Palestine, a land wanted by God to be holy, a land holy for three religions, Judaïsm, Christianity and Islam. A land holy for all humankind. The Palestinian State, as the Israeli State, must respect this universal dimension and meaning of the Land. There can be and must be a political entity for Palestinians, the Palestinian state, and for Israelis, the Israeli state, but the land remains at the same time universal, first for both, for two peoples, then, being holy, it must remain open to all “pilgrims” of the earth.
Why did you become a priest?
While a child, it was the desire to pray, having seen priests who pray, and having been taught in a Christian school in which prayer has a place. Then, with more awareness, it is to know better God, and to make him known and to serve people. To serve people, means to accompany people, in their life and various preoccupations, human, and spiritual, and help them, and strengthen them. To be a priest, is to pray, to remain in presence of God, and to help people live their life, in all its variety, in the presence of God.
What was your role as the first Palestinian R. C. Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem?
The role of a Patriarch is the same, whether he is Palestinian, from the local clergy or foreigner, coming from outside the country. The people to take care of are the same, they are Christian Palestinians. The role of a Patriarch is the role of a pastor who takes care of his people, his spiritual needs, and when necessary, his material needs, or political and economic. Our patriarcate extends over Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Cyprus. The role of a Pastor is to feel the preoccupations of all these peoples. And try to respond. When I came to Jerusalem, as new Patriarch, the spiritual needs of the people were there. I paid attention to that and tried with the help of the clergy and the faithful themselves to respond: for example, we published a new series of books of catechism. We organized a “local Synod”, with the participation of all catholic churches present in the country: Greek Catholics, Maronites, Armenians, Syrians and Chaldeans). A synod is an intense effort of prayer, study and reflection on the situation of the people, for a certain period of time. Our synod of the Holy Land lasted since 1993 until the year 2000. Some headlines during the Synod: faith, hope, charity, charity works and institutions, educational institutions, dialogue with religions (Islam and Judaism), ecumenical dialogue with other churches, orthodox and evangelicals, the political situation of the country, and so on…
I collaborated also with all the Churches in Jerusalem, Orthodox, and Protestants.
When I came to Jerusalem, I found the country not only in the situation of the endless conflict, between Israelis and Palestinians, but also the Palestinians were in a situation of intense rebellion. It was the first Intifada (the Arabic word for rebellion). The people were tired of being under Israeli occupation. They wanted their independence, their freedom. I had to deal with that. Of course I was with those who ask for their freedom. But my main position was for justice and peace for all. A pastor, a man caring for all human beings, cares first for the oppressed and the poor.
What is the Kairos Palestine Document and what does it hope to achieve?
The word Kairos means “the right or the opportune moment” in which a faithful finds the grace of God. The Kairos document is a guideline for Christians to have the right Christian and human reflection on the situation. It is a vision of Christian faith, hope and love, in the conflict. It is a call to find in the events, which we are living, though difficult and oppressive, the grace of God.
The aim is to give a right faith position in this political situation. The aim is to give principles to the Christians as such and as Palestinians and as human beings: political occupation imposed by a people upon another people is a wrong thing, even a sin. It is depriving the people and individuals from freedom and dignity that God gave them. Every evil is to be resisted, and corrected. So the Occupation. But our Christian resistance will follow the path of love. We do not hate. But we ask for our freedom and independence. And our way is love. Jesus told us: you love God, and the neighbour, even the enemies. Here, we live in a situation in which we are called to apply this difficult commandment. Our aim is not to kill the enemy, our aim is to have back our freedom and dignity and independence. Through love we have to find and to invent ways of resistance that remain consistent with this logic.
It is a call addressed to the churches in the world in order to hear, to listen, to know what is going on in the Holy Land, in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and to try their best to bring both parties to reconciliation.
You were one of the signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism. Could you explain what this means and what is the purpose of this document?
Christian Zionism is doing harm to Palestinians and to Christian Palestinians, and even to Israelis themselves, because of their limited theology that does not follow the law of Christian love. If they are Christians, they have to follow the commandment, “love God, and love all God’s creatures, even the enemies”. They have to love Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The duty of any Christian is not to support one part to become stronger to make war, it is to help both sides towards reconciliation. As Christians, two things are required from Christian Zionists, love equally Israelis and Palestinians, and help them to reconcile. The essence of the Christian message, in our conflict situation, is love and reconciliation.
There appears to be growing violence by right wing Jews against not only Palestinian Muslims but also Christians. Why are the Christians and their places of worship being targeted? Is it because they are Palestinians? Or is there a concerted effort by right wing Jews to cleanse Israel of religious minorities?
Christians are dealt with as Palestinians by general Israeli politics. By Jewish religious extremists they are targeted as Christians. Why? It is the old enmity between Jews and Christians in the world. “The Christian Church has been the deadly enemy of the Jewish people for centuries”, said Gopstein, head of an extremist group, in one of his lectures to his followers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben-Zion_Gopstein
This extremism is harming Christians through desecrating cemeteries, burning, insult and blasphemy scripts on the walls of monasteries or churches. Its true danger will be against its own Jewish moderate society. Jews themselves will be the next victim of such extremist groups. In the meanwhile the Israeli authorities seem unable to deal with it and to stop it.
How, in your opinion, can peace come about between the Palestinians and Israelis? And how can religious leaders on all sides help in this process?
Peace is possible if it is wanted. Now, Israeli leaders do not want it. Peace means two State solution. While, in principle, the Israelis leaders admitted the two State solution, they make every effort, through settlements to take as much as they can of Palestinian land. Recently some Israelis leaders say it clearly; there will be never a Palestinian State. The two State solution is becoming something impossible.
The only solution will remain one State for all. Israel does not want this solution either. They want one State for the Jews alone. Israelis leaders are facing a dilemma: either justice, end of Palestinian occupation, end of Palestinians’ oppression, or the political status quo – occupation, oppression, discrimination, and the conflict will go on for years. Religious leaders can help, if they are independent from the formal political line of the Authorities, and if they give a new education to Israelis and Palestinians, telling them both: we can live together in peace. This new education has not yet begun.
What is the BDS movement and how does it help the Palestinians?
BDS movement is not for aimed to help Palestinians. Its aim is to help Israelis, through international pressure, to enter the right path of peace. It is the only way that can help Israelis leaders move from their political status quo. They need to be pushed towards peace. True friends of Israel are not those who are afraid to help Israel take the risk of pace, they are those who help Israel take the risk.
Could you give a glimpse of your life and work?
I studied priestly studies in Beit-Jala, a small city close to Bethlehem. Ordained priest in 1955, I began my active life as vicar in the parish of Madaba, in Jordan, near Mount Nebo. Then, I studied Arabic high studies. I taught Arabic language and courses in Islam. I was director of the schools of the Latin Patriarcate in Palestine and Jordan. I was appointed to accompany the youth, and I was responsible for the youth movements. In 1970 I was parish priest in a popular parish in Amman, downtown, al-Misdar or Christ the King parish. I was appointed president of Bethlehem University in 1980. In 1987, I was nominated patriarch of Jerusalem for the Roman Catholic Latin rite.
My life is a life of a Christian and a priest to serve God and the people. I served in parishes, and engaged in pastoral works, listening to people, to their preoccupations and problems helped them with counselling and with prayer. My life was an effort to know better God and His love for people, and tried to make Him known among people, those whom I served as parish priest, and those whom I served as Patriarch. I shared in the preoccupation of the public life, the political life, as well. In this domain, I spoke for the defence of the oppressed.
What is your message to the readers and contributors of Live Encounters?
My message, for the readers and for all, is to live one’s life in full, according to the word of Jesus: ‘I have come so that they may have life, and life to the full” (Jn 10: 10). Life in full is life with others and for others. One reaches his own perfection through service to others. In difficulties, and oppression, he takes the side of the oppressed and the poor. Last, we are not alone to live our life. God is with us. We live with Him, and He gives us strength and guides us through all events of all kinds.
Born in Nazareth, on 1933. Ordained R.C. priest on 1955. Pastoral work in parishes for two years. Then higher studies of Arabic language, in Beirut (Lebanon) Jesuit University.1973 PHD in Arabic Philology, from the Sorbonne, Paris. Then back to Pastoral work in Christ the King parish in Amman (Jordan).
President of Bethlehem University in 1980. Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1988-2008.
Since 1999 until 2006, Patriarch Sabbah has been the International President of Pax Christi, a world Catholic organization promoting peace.
On the 11th of December 2009 Patriarch Sabbah together with other prominent Christian Leaders launched the Kairos Palestine Document in an international conference in Bethlehem, Palestine.