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Letter for Lent 

from Michel Sabbah, 
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, 
March 1, 2001


 
 
"Destroy our churches but spare the homes of our faithful."

"As regards the houses which continually undergo the Israeli bombardments, we say to the Israelis: Destroy our churches but spare the homes of our faithful. If you must impose, at any price, collective punishment and if there needs be a ransom in order to procure the tranquillity of innocent children and families, we offer our churches: Destroy them; we will find other places in which to pray and we will continue to pray for ourselves and for you." 

Brothers and Sisters, 

1. The peace of Christ be with you. We begin our fast on Ash Wednesday, remembering the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His death and His glorious Resurrection. He is our model: just as he prayed and fasted for forty days in the desert of Jericho, we also fast for the forty days that precede Easter. Jesus began his preaching, saying: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand” (cf. Mk 1,15). The Kingdom of God is God’s presence in us, for He created us in His own image and likeness. The Kingdom of God is God who accompanies us in our present trials through which, today, he constructs our history. 

2. Over the past few days I have visited some parishes in Palestine and I listened to the faithful. I also listened to the civil authorities. Their language is that of all the parishes, their concerns are the concerns of all of you. The first concern, which comprises all the others, is the difficult political situation these days: the closed roads, the blockade imposed on the towns and villages, the lack of work, the continual Israeli bombardment, the destruction of houses, and in addition, the difficulties within Palestinian society, and finally, the idea of emigration. Nonetheless, I saw, despite the trials, the anxieties and the idea of emigration, the basic will to stand firm and to patiently wait until our liberty is returned to us and until the image of God in us and also in those who oppress us is manifested. 

3. Concerning emigration, we add our voice to the voice of all those who are patient, and we say to you: Brothers and sisters, do not leave your land. Be patient. It is here that God wants you, as believers in Him and witnesses of Jesus Christ in His land. Stand firm around the Holy Places. In this land, you are a part of the mystery of God in it. Try to reflect on this so that you might be able to see God and neighbour and understand the meaning of our presence here. You have been called to a difficult life: do you have the courage to accept the difficult life to which God is calling you? Some say: “The future is not clear”. The future depends on what you do today and on what you fear to do. Why leave to others the making of your future? This is a time when the believers say, with the freedom of children of God, what they want to express and thus contribute effectively towards the construction of their future, founded on the solid bases of peace, justice and love. 

4. Furthermore, know that our help comes from one another and from our love for each other. If someone is in need, let them search out those in greater need than they are. Let them then bring the necessary help from the little or the lot that they possess. To all those who are hungry, we say that we want to share your hunger and share our bread with you. We invite the faithful in all our parishes and the religious to share their bread with those who are in need, either by inviting them to their tables or by covering the costs of daily food through contributions to Caritas or to some other philanthropic organisation. We are living through a war which has been imposed on us. We must adapt ourselves and our way of living to privations and to generosity with regard to all our brothers and sisters in need. 

5. As regards the houses which continually undergo the Israeli bombardments, we say to the Israelis: Destroy our churches but spare the homes of our faithful. If you must impose, at any price, collective punishment and if there needs be a ransom in order to procure the tranquillity of innocent children and families, we offer our churches: Destroy them; we will find other places in which to pray and we will continue to pray for ourselves and for you. And to the Palestinian militants who think that it is necessary to direct their fire against the Israelis from populated houses, even when the orders are clear: Do not transform peaceful homes into a line of fire – to them too we say: Obey the orders, preserve the cohesion of Palestinian society, and spare the homes of the innocent. We agree to offer our churches as ransom for any house that they want to demolish. However, we cannot agree to the demolition of the homes of our children so that they be forced to abandon their land. 

6. During these days, we pray and we walk the way of repentance in order to go to meet God. We say to every Palestinian and to every Israeli who loves peace and asks for security: Try to see God with us. To the Israelis we say: In the sight of God, try to see that the Christian or Muslim Palestinian is not the image that you have decided to see: they are neither terrorists nor people who want to hate and kill. Try to see that your occupation of their land since 1967, the privation of their liberty, and, today, the blockade of the towns and villages with all the suffering that results, leads to that which you call terrorism. In fact, this is the cry of the poor and the oppressed who are demanding their liberty and their dignity. Remember this and be just today. That which you call security measures is simply an invitation to more violence. Give back the land to its owners, give them back their liberty, listen to the voice of the oppressed and the poor for it is lifted up to God and God will listen one day and answer this cry. 

7. To all those who suffer among our children, we say: Be patient. We remind you of the difficult commandment, love your enemies. “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, in order to become children of your Father who is in heaven, for He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:44-45). Love is not a weakness nor an escape. It is the vision of the face of God in every person, both Palestinian and Israeli. The Israeli who withholds our liberty remains a carrier of the image of God. With this vision I purify my heart of all anger and I ask the Israeli, with the force of the spirit and the truth, to put an end to the oppression, to end the occupation of the land and the privation of liberty. 

We ask for justice and peace because God is justice and peace. For this we pray and we fast during these days in order to purify ourselves of our sins and in order to co-operate with God in the construction of our new history. Here, in our land, God was revealed and He manifested His love for all humanity. Let us ask God to introduce us into the depths of His mystery so that we might see Him and love Him: thus we will be able, all of us together, to see Him in all of His creatures and to love Him in all of His children, in justice, equity and mercy. 

I ask God to give you the power of the Spirit and of love so that you will all be ready to welcome the glory of the Resurrection. Amen. 

+ Michel Sabbah, Patriarch

Jerusalem, 1 March, 2001


Also see |  If Only I Could Do Something: Praying for Peace in the Holy Land by Fr. Guido Gockel | "Love is the only medicine for this disease" a priest in Gaza | Pontifical Mission in the Holy Land | Catholic Near East Welfare Association | Struggling on the Gaza Strip | Caught in the Middle: the Matar family in Beit Jala | One City, Two Peoples, Two Standards: George Martin reports on life in Jerusalem | Religion, Politics and Jerusalem by Msgr. Stern | Rebuilding Lives in Palestine |
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(c) 2001 Don Schwager