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U.S. bishops’ official urges Tillerson to back two-state solution in Mideast

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government should continue to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoid actions that would undermine results, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

Drawing on his observations from a January trip to the Holy Land, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, committee chairman, wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and urged him to continue to work for a peace agreement “that respects the human dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians and advances justice and peace for all.”

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson that Israeli settlements were an obstacle to peace.

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” he said.

The bishop spoke of his Jan. 14-19 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with bishops from Canada and Europe. In a statement at the end of the visit, the bishops said Christians have a responsibility to oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, because “this de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians … but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace.”

In his Feb. 1 letter, Bishop Cantu reminded Tillerson that 2017 marked 50 years of “a crippling occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, crippling for both peoples.”

He also spoke of problems created by the Israeli security barrier, a series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads snaking across part of the West Bank. If completed as planned, the separation wall would stretch nearly 400 miles and restrict the movements of 38 percent of residents of the West Bank.

“The Cremisan Valley is home to a Salesian monastery, convent and school, and the agricultural lands of 58 Christian families who live in nearby Palestinian towns,” Bishop Cantu said in his letter. “The building of the wall constricts residents’ movement, impairs access to their lands, separates Christian institutions from those they serve, and encourages Christian emigration.

“The Cremisan Valley is emblematic of the alarming number of Palestinians who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Settlement expansion, confiscation of lands and the building of the separation wall on Palestinian lands violate international law and undermine a diplomatic solution,” he said.

Bishop Cantu also mentioned President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would erode the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and is a threat to pursuing peace and ending conflict. Its impact would incite and destabilize the area, compromising U.S. security,” Bishop Cantu said.

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act authorized funding for the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem by 1999. However, the act contained a provision to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv if it was in the best interests of U.S. national security. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pledged to move the embassy, then kept it in Jerusalem so as not to inflame tensions.

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said Jan. 23 that the administration is studying the situation.

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would continue to engage the State Department on international issues, but that getting a peace agreement for Israel and Palestine would “require arduous work.”

“It has been 50 years of tumult and turbulence, of egregious injustices and random acts of violence. However, the United States has always provided leadership and support to the peace process,” Bishop Cantu said.

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Vatican policy promotes access to Jerusalem, self-determination for all

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s hopes for a peace-filled world and its defense of the right to religious freedom have supported its consistent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 70 years.

The key concern of the Holy See, and of the Catholic Church as a whole, since the Middle Ages has been for the Christian holy sites and Christian communities present in the Holy Land from the time of Jesus. The vast majority of Christians in the region are Palestinians.

Family and friends of an Israeli soldier who was killed by a Palestinian truck driver mourn during her Jan. 9 funeral in Jerusalem. The Vatican's hopes for a peace-filled world and its defense of the right to religious freedom have supported its consistent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 70 years. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

Family and friends of an Israeli soldier who was killed by a Palestinian truck driver mourn during her Jan. 9 funeral in Jerusalem. The Vatican’s hopes for a peace-filled world and its defense of the right to religious freedom have supported its consistent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 70 years. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

More recently, it has supported the “two-state solution” with independence, recognition and secure borders for both Israel and Palestine.

While support for the two-state system evolved over time, the Vatican consistently has called for a special status for Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, in order to protect and guarantee access to the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

As Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, told the U.N. General Assembly in November: “The Holy See views the holy city of Jerusalem as the spiritual patrimony of the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Since the early 1990s, the Vatican has seen as separate issues the need for a special status for the city and questions over the political sovereignty or control of Jerusalem. The political question, it has insisted, must be the result of negotiation.

The internationally unsettled status of Jerusalem and its central importance to Jews, Muslims and Christians explains why, while recognizing the state of Israel, no nation has its embassy in the holy city.

Before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump said he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said the same thing during their campaigns for election, although once in office, they did not carry through with the move, citing its potential negative impact on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Some observers think Trump is more serious about having the embassy in Jerusalem.

“At this point we are in a wait-and-see pattern,” said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who was in Jerusalem in mid-January together with 12 other bishops from North America and Europe.

Bishop Cantu, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, told Catholic News Service that Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem poses a “serious problem” to any possible two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We are hoping that other, clearer minds will convince the president-elect to change his mind,” he said, promising the U.S. bishops would engage with the new administration in “as friendly a way as possible.”

“We will share with him our concerns based on the dignity of every human person and also based on the rights of the Palestinians to exist as a free and sovereign state living in peace next to a free and sovereign Israel,” Bishop Cantu said.

One of the Vatican’s earliest mentions of the Palestinians’ right to a homeland came in a communique issued by the Vatican press office when St. John Paul II held his first meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1982.

The statement said the pope had expressed his hope to Arafat that “a just and lasting solution to the Middle East conflict would be reached as quickly as possible, a solution which, by excluding recourse to arms and violence, in any form, and especially that of terrorism and reprisal, would lead to the recognition of the right of all peoples, and in particular the Palestinian people, to possess a land of their own, and that of the Israeli people to ensure their own security.”

Hopes and prayers for peace and an encouragement for dialogue to resolve the ongoing dispute have been a centerpiece of papal pronouncements about the Holy Land for more than half a century.

Almost every Christmas and Easter, popes have renewed their pleas for Israelis and Palestinians, with the support of the international community, to commit themselves to dialogue for their sake and the sake of peace throughout the region.

Pope Francis has followed in his predecessors’ footsteps. In his 2016 Christmas address, he prayed, “May Israelis and Palestinians have the courage and determination to write a new page of history, where hate and revenge give way to the will to build together a future of mutual understanding and harmony.”

 

Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.

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Vatican signs agreement with Palestine, calls for two-state solution

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Holy See and Palestine have signed a historic agreement that supports a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, based on the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.

The two parties signed the “Comprehensive Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine” at the Vatican June 26. The accord, which includes a preamble and 32 articles, focuses mostly on the status and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine. It assures the church “juridical recognition” and “guarantees” for its work and institutions in Palestine. Read more »

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East Jerusalem tour heightens U.S. bishops’ awareness of complexities

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — U.S. bishops visiting the Holy Land said a tour and briefing about the situation in East Jerusalem heightened their awareness of the settlement issue in the divided city.

“The expansion of settlements is quickly driving (the possibility of a two-state solution) off the drawing board,” said Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “The continuing expansion of the Jewish communities and its implication for a two-state solution has been a concern of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East.”

U.S. Bishops John O. Barres of Allentown, Pa., and Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Ind., listen as Israeli attorney Daniel Seidemann gives an explanation of land use at an overlook on Mt. Scopus in East Jerusalem Sept. 12. Eighteen bishops are on a nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

U.S. Bishops John O. Barres of Allentown, Pa., and Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Ind., listen as Israeli attorney Daniel Seidemann gives an explanation of land use at an overlook on Mt. Scopus in East Jerusalem Sept. 12. Eighteen bishops are on a nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

On a two-hour tour, Israeli attorney and activist Daniel Seidemann shared his concerns for the increasingly shrinking window of opportunity to push forward the concept of the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The group visited the sites of small Jewish enclaves being built in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which abuts the 1967 border with West Jerusalem.

The bishops also viewed the desert corridor northeast of Jerusalem. The corridor, known as E1, has been designated by Israel for a Jewish settlement that would connect the largest settlement in the West Bank, the 30,000-resident city of Ma’aleh Adumim, with Jerusalem. That would, in effect, cut off that area of the Palestinian West Bank from any connection to Jerusalem, contributing to a further cantonization of the West Bank and destroying the possibility of creating a contiguous Palestinian state, said Seidemann.

The tour included a visit to the Israeli separation wall that divides the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, running across the road that, traditionally since Biblical times, has led to Jericho.

In an envisioned peace agreement, most of the 200,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem would be permitted to remain in exchange for land of equal quality and size elsewhere in the West Bank, noted Seidemann. He said while the Israeli enclaves embedded in East Jerusalem remain small, with at most 2,500 Israeli Jews living there, it is still possible to withdraw them, but that if the settlements continue to expand the situation will become more complicated.

The next two to three years are critical if a peace agreement is to be reached, he told the bishops.

“Seven years ago in order to get to where the border needs to be (to reach an agreement), we would need to relocate 100,000 settlers. Today, we will need to relocate 150,000. If it continues to grow, at some point it will not be feasible for the national leaders to relocate hundreds of thousands of settlers. It will be so Balkanized it won’t be possible,” said Seidemann.

Bishop Pates said the bishops’ visit was intended to support the peace process.

“The importance of Jerusalem (in the negotiations) has been heightened as well as the necessity to maintain ourselves open to all religious communities (here), particularly the Jews, Christians and Muslims,” he said. “This visit enables us to focus on this reality and to coalesce behind the Vatican initiative to insist on international guarantees of this religious expression in Jerusalem.”

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York, said the bishops would need to listen to other narratives before they can come up with some recommendations about what needs to be done on both sides. Nevertheless, he said, Seidemann’s briefing had captured very well “the frustration the people living in East Jerusalem are experiencing, especially with the settlements.”

“It is suddenly clear that if this is not addressed aggressively and immediately, a two-state solution will no longer be viable,” he said.

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, noted the importance of learning more about the intricacies of the situation although he has been aware of the churches’ support for the two-state solution.

The possibility of losing the window of opportunity to reach a viable solution is “alarming,” he said, and increases the need for religious leaders to pray for peace and to encourage political leaders to work towards a just solution.

“This story has been a long time in the making. It is not only political but also a religious and human one. Coming here has certainly cemented for us the human lives which are affected by this situation — Muslim, Christian and Jewish,” Bishop Cantu said.

The group of 18 bishops from the United States began their nine-day pilgrimage Sept. 11 and celebrated Mass with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem following the Sept. 12 tour.

Later in the day they were to meet with Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, and participate in an interfaith Sabbath eve prayer at a local Jewish synagogue.

More interfaith and ecumenical prayers were scheduled during the visit. The bishops were also to visit Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem and Galilee, as well as meet with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.

 

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