Middle East bishops had a right to speak up for Palestinians at the Synod
A story widely reported last week posed in acute form a dilemma for Catholics not only over how we should regard the state of Israel, but also over how we should respond to what really does sometimes seem a condition approaching paranoia determining the way in which Israelis regard us.
In a typically rumbustious editorial comment, the Jerusalem Post summed up its reaction to the Synod of Catholic Bishops from the Middle East which has just ended in the Vatican. The paper began by describing the “devastating persecution” suffered by Christians in the Middle East. “From the Gaza Strip and Egypt to Iraq to Turkey, Christians have been murdered, had their churches burned to the ground and their holy books destroyed, and have been demoted to second-class citizens, exposed to libels and exploitation by Muslim neighbors.” Despite all this, the Post complained, they were still, incomprehensibly, not on the side of Israel against the Palestinians:
“Ostensibly with the purpose of addressing these injustices and stemming the tide of a dwindling Christian population in the Mideast, Pope Benedict XVI convened a special Vatican Synod in Rome, composed of about 200 bishops mostly from Muslim countries. Yet these bishops hijacked the Synod and issued a statement Saturday that all but ignored the plight of Catholics living in Muslim lands while singling out Israel’s ‘occupation’ for special castigation.”
The word “ostensibly” (with its implication of a hidden agenda), and the quotation marks around the word “occupation”, tell you everything you need to know about where the Jerusalem Post is coming from. The paper goes on to home in on remarks made by the Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, remarks which, claimed the paper,
“reiterated anti-Semitic theological positions that contradicted official Catholic positions as stated in Nostra aetate, a groundbreaking interfaith document drafted in October 1965 during the Second Vatican Council that radically revamped the Church’s previous negative views of the Jewish people.” The paper then called on the Vatican to issue a clear repudiation of Archbishop Bustros’s “outrageous and regressive comments”.
But what were these outrageous and regressive comments? The offending words (spoken in French) seem to have been these:
“As Christians, we cannot talk about a ‘promised land’ for the Jews. We talk about a ‘promised land’ which is the Kingdom of God. That’s the promised land, which encompasses the entire earth with a message of peace and justice and equality for all the children of God. There is no preferred or privileged people. All men and women from every country have become the ‘chosen people’. This is clear for us. We cannot just refer to the ‘promised land’ to justify the return of the Jews in Israel, and [ignore] the Palestinians who were kicked out of their land.”
The Israeli government, on the strength of these remarks, said that the Synod had turned into “a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda”. The Anti-Defamation League in the United States claimed that Bustros had essentially said that “Judaism should no longer exist”, and called his remarks “the worst kind of anti-Judaism, bordering on anti-Semitism”.
But they were nothing of the sort, surely: as John Allen put it, the point being made is that “Christians should not support Israel at the expense of the Palestinians… what Bustros wanted to voice was not so much a revisionist interpretation of Christian theology, but rather a cri de coeur about Palestinian suffering. However imbalanced or badly expressed, that’s a different kettle of fish.” Archbishop Bustros didn’t say that Judaism should no longer exist: he and other Middle East bishops did say that Palestinians have been treated with injustice by the Israelis.
How can that seriously be contested? Let me be clear. I support the continued existence of the state of Israel. I support, very strongly indeed, the right of Israelis to a secure life, free from the continual threat of terrorist attacks. But how can they realistically ever expect that when Palestinians on the West Bank and in Jerusalem itself are still, even now, being forcibly dispossessed of their land and their homes, and when the Israeli goverment continues to allow settlements on the West Bank to be built and extended?
Israelis have a right to expect the support of the international community for their aspiration to a just and secure peace. But however indefensible Palestinian terrorism undoubtedly is, they cannot expect justice when they continue to refuse it to others. And shouting “anti-Semitism” when none is intended is becoming increasingly counter-productive. Archbishop Bustros’s remarks were probably unwise. But they hardly represent Vatican policy, let alone a repudiation of Nostra Aetate; the Vatican won’t repudiate the archbishop, because that would give him an importance he just doesn’t have. The Vatican’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, has made clear that we should look to the Synod document, rather than to any individual, as the voice of the Synod. There, surely, the matter should be left.