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5/8/2009 4:24 AM
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I really question the wisdom of Catholic prelates expressing their political judgment especially in matters as sensitive as the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and especially not when they involve the Pope! I think the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has spoken out of bounds in this interview where he makes a few totally gratuitous and even embarrassing statements. It is also given a strange title by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Trembling before the Pope
By Lily Galili

Four days before Pope Benedict XVI embarks on his trip to the Holy and, the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, is one of the most worried people in the Middle East. In an exclusive interview with Haaretz yesterday, Twal concluded with a personal confession.

"The thing that worries me most is the speech that the Pope will deliver here. One word for the Muslims and I'm in trouble; one word for the Jews and I'm in trouble. At the end of the visit the Pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences."

[Is that any way for the head of a local Church to talk?]

In advance of the visit, in advance of the speech that will be delivered here, the local patriarchate sent the Vatican a document enumerating the bleak situation from its perspective with warnings of possible complications. All that remains for Twal is to pray that the words are heeded.

Twal's frank admission embodies all the difficulty of the position he holds. Even at the best of times, it is complicated for the important but shrinking Roman Catholic Church to navigate in this quarrelsome region between Jews and Muslims; it is immeasurably more difficult to do this in advance of the visit by Pope Benedict, from which all sides expect to benefit, when the visit is taking place such a short time after the bloody war in Gaza.

"The tension that the this war has left behind is making the necessary organization and coordination between the Israelis and the Palestinians even more difficult," said Twal, "but it is also making things difficult for me personally. During the war, the faithful wondered what the patriarchate was doing for them, and there was nothing I could do to stop the death machine. I was helpless and I felt humiliated. This is a feeling that I experience here often. Even the Vatican could do very little. It, after all, has to be cautious and to maintain balance."

[For heaven's sake, there are all of 286 Catholics in Gaza - could the Latin Patriarchate not have arranged to take them out of the city, if not to the West Bank, then at least to the southern end of the Gaza Strip where there was no fighting???? No one certainly was expecting him to 'stop the death machine', only to provide practical help. And thankfully, it does not appear that any one of those 286 was killed or injured during the Gaza offensive - or we would not hear the end of it! One more crime to brand those 'murderous Israelis' with.]

Indeed, not everyone in the Arab community agreed with Twal, who had the authority to approve the date of the pope's visit, and chose a time just four months after Operation Cast Lead. The patriarch deliberated the matter, but eventually decided that now, of all times, his flock needed spiritual guidance and encouragement, and Benedict should come and pray with them.

Church officials said that even so, critical voices were few and far between. If not now, when?

In advance of the visit, Twal has a list of expectations and wishes that have to do with agreements between Israel and the Vatican that have not been concluded.

Most of them have to do with tax breaks, the issuing of visas to clergy and greater freedom of movement for them, issues which has been under discussion since the upgrading of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993.

The implementation of these agreements, as well as the final formulation of the Church's material assets here, could make the life of the Christian community in Israel easier.

Twal expected that these things would have been resolved as a goodwill gesture in advance of the visit. Since this has not happened, he expects that this will perhaps be the outcome of the visit.

To put it differently, Twal is wondering if agreements aren't finalized in honor of the Pope's visit, when exactly will the right time come around?

Nevertheless, it appears that at this stage the main thrust of Twal's prayer is that the visit goes peacefully.

It was only less than a year ago that Twal replaced the legendary Latin patriarch Michel Sabbagh, an Israeli Catholic who, to the distress of the Jews in Israel, adopted a Palestinian identity for himself.

Twal, 69, who holds a doctorate in law, is a Jordanian, a member of the large Al-Uzaizat tribe. He says that in the first century C.E. the tribe accepted Christianity, a fact that earned them a mention in the New Testament.

For generations his clan led a nomadic life, until 150 years ago an energetic priest settled them in the town of Madaba, which Pope Benedict XVI will also visit during his journey through the region.

At the age of 14, enchanted by the personality of a priest who became his "teacher for life," Twal chose the priestly life.

"The Church has brought me back to a life of wandering," he jokes, summing up a diplomatic career that took him from Latin America to Cairo and from Germany to Tunis.

None of those assignments was as difficult and challenging as the one with which he is grappling with in the Holy Land, where he heads the Catholic community in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

When Twal is asked to indicate the main problem the papal visit could solve to make his life easier, he says instantaneously, "The roadblocks."

The difficulties in mobility are embittering the lives of the Palestinians in general and weighing heavily on the functioning of the Church, he says.

"It is hard to move priests, it is hard to move nuns among hospitals. It is hard to get to funerals, it is hard to come to weddings. The entire functioning of our priesthood is hampered," he said.

However, Twal acknowledges that there is another aspect to this difficulty, which is even more distressing.

"I have a hard time with the total distrust that the government of Israel evinces towards us," he said. "You can trust us and you can even get help from us."

Twal is aware of what are seen as improved Jewish-Christian relations. He listens patiently to a description of Jewish claims that in contrast to Muslims, "It's possible to live with Christians," while the Muslims in the territories and in Israel are envious of the Christians "who have a big brother in the Vatican."

He listens, but rejects this outright.

"We don't derive any benefit from what the two sides see as preferential status," he said. "At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn't help." [I don't think it is fair for Roman Catholics - even priests and nuns - to seek preferential status compared to other citizens. Roadblocks and checkpoints are a fact of life in frontiers where there is a state of 'perpetual war' as Israeli territory has been since 1948.]

Twal does not agree with the claim that all the open complaints by the Christian community are always directed at the Jews while troubles with Muslims are swept under the rug.

"I say openly that we have serious problems with the Muslims and with the strengthening of Islam in the region," he says. "Christian families in Bethlehem are suffering quite a bit. However, this too is a result of the weakening of the central government in Palestine. When Islam gets stronger we suffer. When the regime gets weaker, we suffer. Look at what is happening to our people in Iraq."

Surprisingly, the situation of the Christians in Gaza under Hamas rule (only 286 Catholics) is in fact just fine.

"We aren't a threat and we're also not an electoral asset," laughed Twal. "We are simply too few for it to be worth opening another front because of us. The children of Hamas families attend our schools. Apart from that, they too know that we have a voice that echoes in the world. You could call this propaganda."

Now he is partner to an effort to obtain exit visas for as many Gazans as possible to allow them to take part in the ceremonies for the pope's visit. This is a complex reality, especially for someone who has also seen better situations for his coreligionists.

Christians constitute only about 3.5 percent of the total population of Jordan, but they are prominent in all walks of life "as though we were 30 percent," he said.

They have always been close to the Hashemite dynasty and now Twal is observing the ease with which the Pope's visit to Jordan is being organized, in contrast to the difficulty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Alongside the practical achievements the patriarch is hoping to reap from the visit, he is well aware of the Jewish expectation of hearing some sort of diplomatic statement, perhaps in the matter of Jerusalem or, in quite a different area, in the matter of the Holocaust-denying bishop. If you read between the lines of what Twal has to say, apparently neither sort of statement will be made.

Bishop Richard Williamson, according to Twal, "is an insignificant nobody" and the Pope's attitude toward him isn't a significant criterion for evaluation.

As for Jerusalem, the patriarch reiterates the Vatican's position to the effect that the city must remain open to adherents of all religions in a arrangement that will be anchored in international law.

He himself would like to hear words of encouragement for the Christian community in the Holy Land, a call for peace, a condemnation of violence and an explicit statement of support for a two-state solution for two peoples from the Pope. [Statements which the Pope has made on several occasions, only not in the Holy Land itself, so there is no reason to suppose he will not reiterate all of the above!]

At the end of the conversation, the patriarch again wonders about the Israeli government's wisdom.

"We need you, but you also need us," he says. "It isn't clear to me why the government of Israel doesn't understand that it cannot separate its attitude towards the local Christian population from its relations with the Vatican. The local church and the Vatican - it's one entity. Maybe this is the opportunity to internalize that."

Interview with
the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel

Translated from
the Italian service of

May 7, 2009

Forty five years since Paul VI’s historic visit and nine years since the Jubilee Year visit of John Paul II, another Pope comes as a pilgrim to the sites made holy by Jesus’s life on earth.

He does so at a time of high tension for the troubled Holy Land where the current ‘truce’, after the Gaza conflict last December, is only a surrogate for true peace.

Benedict XVI is visiting, as he said again yesterday – to pray for ‘the gift of peace and unity’. The atmosphere of high hopes for political and social progress at the time of John Paul II’s visit in 200 has disappeared, and the attitude among the affected populations is one of resignation.

At the same time, the polemics over the Regensburg lecture seem to have tapered off on the Muslim front, and on the Williamson case, among the Jews.

In the autonomous Palestinian territories, the Pope is awaited by the political leaders of the Palestinian Authority and by the refugees in the Aida camp near Bethlehem, where they have lived in extreme poverty since 1948.

[According to the Radio Vatican briefing dossier, the Palestinian refugee camps are a misnomer today. They started out as refugee camps under UN sponsorship and support for Palestinians displaced by the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 who chose not to flee to other countries.

But over the years, they have evolved into veritable towns with permanent dwellings including condominiums. Palestine statistics as of the end of 2006 estimate the population of the Aida camp at 3,260.

It seems that after six decades, their problem continues to be economic - the lack of opportunities for gainful employment in the Palestinian territories, especially after Israel was constrained to restrict employment of Palestinians drastically, because of all the suicide bobbing attacks on Israeli citizens.

Who can deny that since these restrictions were tightened and Israel put up the security fence, it's been a long time since we've read of a suicide bombing attack in Israel (knock on wood!)? I believe that's why Hamas resorted to lobbing daily rocket attacks on the southern Israeli cities and towns.]

The Pope’s visit to them is an expression of his ‘closeness to the suffering of the Palestinian people'.

The Israeli government budgeted 10 million euros for organizing the visit, and another 10 million dollars to help 44 Catholic schools prepare their 24,000 students (Christians and Muslims) to welcome the Pope.

Israeli newspapers have been more concerned with reporting on the preparations than with commentary [Really????] and state radio has been broadcasting spots to publicize the various papal events.

Here is an interview with Mons. Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio in Jerusalem on the visit.

MONS FRANCO: There is great expectation for what the Pope will say. It is true that everyone hopes his words may reactivate a commitment to a genuine search for solutions to a situation that has dragged on for decades.

Excellency, this trip has a spiritual and religious character. You think it can be given a political reading and would it not be instrumentalized that way?
I would distinguish between a political reading and instrumentalization. Even a religious message within a social reality is a bit political, if we understand political in its etymology, polis, something that concerns life in society.

As for instrumentalization, I have tried all ways that I can to make it clear and to avoid any possibility that any one side can used the Holy Father for their own purposes which I am sure each side will consider noble, but which would be resented by the other. I really hope this is understood – so far, the press spears to get it.

What significance is there to the Pope;s visit to the Holocaust memorial which still presents Pius XII in a negative light?
Everyone asks me this, and I have explained that it is to pay a tribute to the Holocaust and to pray for its victims. It is a historical reality which should provide even us Christians with an occasion for reflection. That is the significance.

Now, there’s the other aspect. You know quite well that we are trying to develop, trying to establish a meeting point where we can reflect together, read together all the available documentation on World War II… And we have now reached a stage where one can speak of a historic-critical study. With time, there’s a certain distance from emotions even if they continue to run high, and I am confident this work will continue, indeed that it will bear fruit. It requires some patience, but it will bear fruit. Perhaps, creating a new mentality will make us look at a future in which events like the Holocaust will not happen again.

Is there still a problem with getting the permits for the Gaza Catholics to attend the Pope’s Mass in Bethlehem?
Personally, I am convinced we will get the permits. Not for Jerusalem, but for Bethlehem. I think at the last moment we will get it, because otherwise, it will look bad for Israel, The international media is watching this.

What exactly do you expect from this visit coming at a time like this?
In the first place, that it may, so to say, reduce the tensions and provide new breath, some oxygen, in order to resume the efforts to build peace.

It is a great joy for me personally, and clearly, we are all very moved that the Pope will be a with us for this brief time. But I have great hope that the Lord, through Benedict XVI, wishes to have his Word heard and will effect one of his miracles to set in motion something that will lead to a just and lasting peace, as the Pope has called it.

Jordanian prelates speak

Translated from
the Italian service of

May 7, 2009

Jordan will be the first stage of the Pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Amman on Wednesday afternoon, Vicar of the Latin patriarch for Jordan, Bishop Salim Sayegh; the bishop of Petra and Filadelfia of the Greek-Melkites, Mons. Yaser Ayyash’ and the Apostolic Nuncio in Jordan, Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikat, held a news conference. We have a report from Pietro Cocco:

Speaking in the name of the bishops of Jordan, the Latin Vicar Sayech underscored that they are all Jordanian citizens as a token of the entire country’s joyful participation in Pope Benedict’s visit.

Her summarized the importance of the Pope’s visit in three aspects:

First, pastoral. The Pope comes to visit his children, especially the poorest, whom he will meet shortly after the welcome ceremony when he visits the Regina Pacis Center for the rehabilitation of handicapped citizens and their reinstatement in society. He will also meet representatives of Jordanian youth – the hope and future of the Church in Jordan.

The vicar said that the Pope’s Mass at Amman Stadium Sunday morning is a ‘great grace... when the Successor of Peter will pray for us and with us". The pastoral aspect, he said, is very significant for Jordanian Christians as an encouragement to stay here.

The second aspect is pilgrimage, Jordan has been the entry to the Holy Land for the last three Popes. Jordan has the site of Jesus’s Baptism, the memorial to Moses on Mt. Nebo, and even the Shrine of Elijah and Mukawir (?), where St. John the Baptist was beheaded.

Finally, inter-religious dialog. Bishop Sayegh recalled the long tradition of peaceful coexistence among the Muslim majority and the Arab Christians of Jordan. The Pope will visit the Al-Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman where he will meet with Muslim leaders to encourage constructive dialog.

Pietro Cocco also spoke to the Apostolic Nuncio in Jordan, Mons. Francis Assisi Chullikat.

MONS. CHULLIKAT: Of course, this is a most important visit, one that the entire Church in the Holy Land has been awaiting. In fact, since the start of Benedict XVI’s Pontificate. Especially, since Christians in the Holy Land have been going through a difficult time and are anxious for words of hope and encouragement from the Holy Father.

They know that the Pope’s words have great resonance not only in the Holy Land but on the regional level. And as he has said himself, he is coming to pray for peace and unity on this pilgrimage.

As such, it will be very prayerful, intensely so, for the Church in the Holy Land, as well, so that it can continue to give an example of courage and faith such as they have provided for the Church all these centuries, since the beginning of Christianity.

The Church and the Christian community in Jordan enjoy a more tranquil situation than elsewhere in the Middle East. What can they bring to the rest of the region where so many families are afflicted?
Jordan has an important role because the Jordanian government is actively trying to promote peace in the region, particularly between Israel and Palestine. The peacecul coexistence among Muslims and Christians here in Jordan is evident proof and a sign of encouragement for Christians in the rest of the region.

Christians from other parts of the Middle East have no problems coming to Jordan, which is the site of many international meetings sponsored by the Church. Recently, a Council of Christian leaders was formed in order to get formal recognition for the most important Christian chuches represented here. These are examples we hope that the rest of the region will emulate.


- The Catholic Church administers 36 hospitals, clinics, orphanages, nurseries and other charitable institutions in the region.

- Catholics make up nearly 2 percent of the population in the countries that the pope will visit.

- In Jordan, there are 109,000 Catholics among the country's 5.7 million people. Nearly 31,000 children are enrolled in 123 Catholic schools. There are four bishops, 103 priests and seven major seminarians.

- In Israel, there are 130,000 Catholics among the population of 7.2 million Israelis. Nearly 44,000 students are enrolled in 192 Catholic schools, which range from kindergarten to the university level

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/8/2009 11:12 AM]
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