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Analysis: Dividing the Church in the Holy Land

Dividing the Church in the Holy Land

By Israel Rafalovich

Washington/Jerusalem - Proposals have been made lately in Jerusalem to divide the Latin Partriarch at of Jerusalem and to establish alongside it a church jurisdiction for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel.

This new jurisdiction would be directly dependent on the Vatican and independent of the local Latin(Roman Catholic) patriarch.

Like many issues in the Middle East, this one is also a complicated mix of ecclesiastical and secular politics, both local and international.

Most remarkable is the anomaly of the Israeli government advocating a Hebrew-speaking church in the Jewish state.

The Church of Jerusalem traces itself back to James, "the brother of the Lord." Today the Work of Saint James is an association of Catholics, within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, committed to strengthening ties between Christians and Jews.

According to its statutes, the Work of Saint James " will combat anti-Semitisim in all its forms and work to develop mutual understanding, sympathy and friendly relations between the Catholic world and Israel."

The members of the Work of Saint James call their community Kehilla (Hebrew for community). It is popularly known as "the Hebrew speaking community," because since the founding in 1956, the community has celebrated the Eucharist in Hebrew.

In fact only a handful of its members speak fluent Hebrew, and few were Israeli citizens.

The work of Saint James has always been a small community. Today it probably consists of no more than 250 persons, both lay and religious.

The two year Palestinian Intifada has brought to a head tensions in the Church between the community and the Palestinian majority in the Patriarchate.

This strains reached a peak over the last months in proposals to establish a special ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel.

Support for the proposal came from three sources. First, some members of the Work of Saint James advanced the idea in alliance with sympathetic elements in the French Church. But the community itself was not united.

Other members see the proposal as a painful source of division in a poor, humble church. These members believe that as a small minority in a Jewish and Islamic environment, the Holy Land's Catholics badly need cohesion and charity toward one another and especially toward their Palestinian co-religionists.

Second, the proposal had support from personalities in the Vatican with close ties to the Jerusalem church. This second group, which claims primary authorship of the idea, is motivated by pastoral concerns for the growing numbers of non-Arab Catholics among Israel's immigrants and guest workers.

A third party backing the idea was the government of Israel.

It is Ironic that Israeli officials support the establishment of a church, as a Vatican source describes it, within the Jewish state.

Israel's interest, however, is overtly political. The Israeli support for the proposal is one more attempt to undercut the standing of the Palestinian Christians, and especially of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, as intermediaries between their fellow Palestinians and Christians in the West.

It is counter intuitive to think that Arab Catholics in Israel would feel that their interests would be better represented by someone other than the Partriarch, who is, after all, a native of Nazareth. Nor, as Arabic speakers, would they readily welcome a Hebrew-language ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

For the Israeli government, the effort to set- up a special ecclesiastical status for the Hebrew-speaking community, however it is defined, was not intended to assist in meeting a pastoral need. Rather, it was aimed at de-legitimating Michel Sabbha, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1988, as part of a broader effort to discredit the Palestinian cause.

Michel Sabbah is the first Palestinian to be named patriarch, and has spoken out for Palestinian rights and national aspirations and against the Israeli occupation and human rights violations.

As the leading Catholic churchman in Israel, his views are taken seriously throughout the Catholic world.

And so, the Israeli government has regarded him as a public relations problem.

In the case of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, the political intent of the Israelis appears to be once again to undermine the standing of the Latin Patriarch by using the proposed Hebrew-speaking jurisdiction to divide the church in the Holy Land.

The motives of the Israeli government became clear during a meeting in January this year with a delegation from the American Conference of Catholic Bishops headed by the vice president Bishop William Skylstad.

High ranking at the Israeli Foreign Ministry declared during the meeting that the establishment of "a Catholic Church in Israel" would make it clear that Michel Sabbah is "Islamic patriarch."

From the perspective of the Israeli government, therefore, promotion of a special status for Hebrew-speaking Catholics appears to be an effort to assert that the Hebrew-speaking community would be the Church in Israel, so that the patriarch could be dismissed as head solely of a Palestinian church.

This policy comes from higher ups in the Israeli government.

It is troubling that for this purpose the Israeli government has attempted to set the church against itself.

Patriarch Sabbah is not an anti-Semitic rabble-rouser. He has taken seriously the church's engagement with Judaism and has paid a price for it.

In Jerusalem secular Palestinian academics with Muslim backgrounds have avoided the Partriarch because he had met with Israel's chief Rabbis.

What troubles some in the Works of Saint James, the Israeli government and philo-Judaic Christians abroad, is the Patriarch's defense of Palestinian rights. Many appear to have difficulty distinguishing between criticism and anti-Semitism.

Patriarch Sabbah has condemned terrorism and even visited Sheikh Yasin, the spiritual head of Hamas, to plead, unsuccessfully, for an end to suicide bombings. But that is not good enough.

Sabbah insists, as a condition for resolving the problem between Israelis and Palestinians that the occupation is an underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Partriarch Sabbah is also perceived as a threat because he has helped unite the historically divided churches of the Holy Land, giving them a common voice on public issues. He persists in being a souce of Christian unity.

The proposal to create a special jurisdiction, whether for the community of the Work of Saint James or for the broader non-Arab Catholic population of Israel, is said to be stalled, prudently frozen until a more opportune time.

It must be sustained, however, in conjunction with the whole church in the Holy Land, united with the Partriarch, and in a dialogue that comprehends the depth of Palestinian, as well as Jewish suffering.


- Israel Rafalovich if a freelance European writer based in Washington D.C. He can be contacted at

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