Christmastime in Bethlehem does not stand for ”peace on earth” but for intensified jihad against the occupying Jews, as least according to the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate in the Holy Land.
Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has praised jihad, justified suicide bombing, and led marches at the behest of the late Yasser Arafat – leading some to question whose bidding the patriarch is doing.
Sabbah, an Arab and a native of Nazareth, expressed his collaborationist sympathies most forcefully during a visit to a refugee camp near Bethlehem in 1999. During that visit, the patriarch placed a wreath on a memorial to so-called “martyrs.” He then maintained that the right of return is “an existing fact that cannot be given up,” and declared that Israel’s “extracting our rights in all circumstances is a form of jihad” against the Palestinians.
However, he has not always objected to holy war. “Love is power and jihad and does not express weakness,” he told the newspaper Al-Quds.
Sabbah goes further by excusing suicide bombing as a legitimate response to Israeli policy. Sabbah said in a 2002 videotape to Palestinian Christians:
Ours is an occupied country, which explains why people are tired and blow themselves up. The Israelis tell Palestinians: Stop the violence and you will have what you want without violence. But one has seen in the history of the last ten years that the Israelis have moved only when forced by violence. Unfortunately, nothing but violence makes people march. And not only here. Every country has been born in blood.
Sabbah's service to Yasser Arafat’s terrorists extends beyond words. On New Year's Eve 2002, the patriarch led a “peace” march toward one of the Israeli checkpoints. Only about 200 people – most of them Italian pilgrims – joined Sabbah. A Franciscan priest named Father Ibrahim explained to Italian journalist Massimo Toschi from Missioni Oggi (the monthly published by the Xaverian missionaries) why the march attracted so few people. “He says that...the patriarch organized the march at Fatah's request and that this was a mistake,” Toschi wrote, “because the next time the request will come from Hamas and the patriarch won't be able to say no.” The Fatah organization, which Arafat founded in 1959, is dedicated to creating a Palestinian state by destroying Israel. Patriarch Sabbah literally follows their marching orders.
Sabbah has worked with a variety of other Palestinian terrorists, as well. In 2000, Sabbah met with Arafat in Gaza as an act of “Christian solidarity with the Palestinian leadership,” according to a press release from the patriarch's office. The release's author took great pains to mention by name the Christians in Arafat's inner circle – including George Nabash, founder of the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Sabbah’s anti-Semitism is deep and overt, as evidenced by his remarks toward Arafat during Christmas Mass in 1995. In welcoming Arafat, the patriarch “was happy to recall” how Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius tried to persuade Muslim Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab to prohibit Jews from living and worshipping in Jerusalem after conquering it in 636 – eight years after Sophronius instigated a widespread massacre of Jews. “In the end,” Sabbah once said, “we will send them away just as we did to the Crusaders.”
Indeed, he seemed to call for the full-scale demolition of the Jewish state during a proclamation at the 2000 Christmas Mass: “This is our land, to claim our freedom, among our demolished houses and in our besieged towns and villages.”
The patriarch engaged in a worldwide PR effort for terrorists during the seven-week stalemate between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli army at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity in 2002 – although his testimony was contradicted by others in his church. When gunmen invaded the church and began their seven-week occupation on April 1, Sabbah “immediately declared that the entering Palestinians were not armed, were willingly accepted into the Church by the friars, and given asylum,” Sergio Minerbi wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Two days later, Franciscans, who serve as Catholic custodians of holy sites, refuted the patriarch. Spokesman David Jaeger, a Franciscan priest, wrote that the ensuing Israeli siege resulted from “the violent invasion affected by armed men who thereafter barricaded themselves there.” Jaeger also told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that “when the battle started, the doors of the Basilica were closed. Armed Palestinians fired at the locks, entered the Basilica, and barricaded themselves in the compound.”
While diminishing the Israelis' concerns about terrorism, Sabbah accentuates Palestinian victimization. Commenting on the situation at the Church of the Nativity on May 8, 2002, Sabbah stated, “As the cause of all violence is the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian lands, once the occupation is ended, violence will cease.” During Easter Mass that year, he stated “Injustice and oppression have been imposed on only one of the two peoples,” adding that Israeli leaders “must stop talking about terrorism to hide the root evil and to justify and feed the permanence of death and hatred.”
Such rhetoric has won the Palestinian patriarch a number of leftist admirers in the United States. Since 1999, Sabbah has been president of Pax Christi International, a Roman Catholic organization that advocates radical pacifism. Though Sabbah's views might seem to disqualify him from leading such an organization, they fit Pax Christi's underlying philosophy of excusing Palestinian murder. Sabbah's told the Pax Christi USA's 2003 national assembly:
With the start of the second intifada or Palestinian resistance, under the guise of dismantling the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism, Israeli forces have systematically destroyed almost every political and civil Palestinian institution over the last twelve months. Not only have President Arafat's government and security services been decimated, banks and businesses, schools and research centers, town halls, media outlets, the land registry and the courts have been violated or destroyed. A peaceful future cannot be shaped in this way.
It is the civilian population, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and as well as in Israel, that is the victim of this never-ending spiral of violence, of unjust military occupation and of the current political and economic crisis.
Sabbah regularly exploits his Christmas messages for his political purposes. In 2001, when Israeli authorities prohibited Arafat from attending Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, Sabbah's pro-Arafat propaganda became effusive during his sermon: “The dignity of President Arafat is the dignity of all of us. The occupation situation is unfair to the Palestinians and they have to have their freedom. This is the meaning of Christmas (emphasis added).” So much for Baby Jesus.
In 2002, when the Israelis again kept Arafat from going to Bethlehem, Sabbah used his Christmas sermon to address the Israeli people more melodramatically: “Blood has been flowing in your cities and streets, but the key to solving this conflict is in your [Israeli] hands. By your actions so far, you have crushed the Palestinian people, but you still have not achieved peace.” The patriarch also praised the absent Arafat: “We wish you were with us tonight, and we call on God to give you the wisdom and the power under this siege to continue your mission toward peace and justice.”
In his Christmas 2003 sermon, Sabbah criticized the security fence that helps separate Bethlehem from the rest of the West Bank, and called Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip the conflict's “basic evil.”
“The sacrifices of these years will not be for nothing if those responsible conclude the true results, rather than concluding that building the wall is the true solution,” the patriarch said. “The true results are that war destroys people and places and does not silence a people that demands its freedom.”
Last year, Sabbah reiterated that theme. “Bethlehem should be a free city,” he said on December 21. “The Israeli authorities resumed the work to complete the wall, which makes Bethlehem a big prison. Ending the oppression and the humiliation of the Palestinians would at the same time put an end to the fear and insecurity of the Israelis.”
That same day, Sabbah declared that Palestinians have “adopted plans for peace” and that “Israeli leaders are invited to do likewise by putting an end to their military interventions and by stopping construction of the wall, as well as the hunt for the wanted.”
Those comments echo ones made that day by Mahmood Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), who replaced Arafat as the Palestine Liberation Organization's chairman: “We are standing here today to reiterate to the world that we are committed to the choice of just peace, to achieve the rights of our people.” Israelis, however, remember that their troubles have never stemmed from an unwillingness to negotiate.
Sabbah's activism overshadows his pastoral responsibilities and destroyed his credibility with Palestinian Christians. “It's surprising that Bethlehem’s Catholics are not behind the patriarch,” Toschi wrote in describing the New Year's Eve 2002 peace march. “There's talk about the divisions present even between the Catholic churches and there's consensus on the idea of the necessity of the Latin patriarch being more autonomous with respect to political positions.” Italian journalist Sandro Magister, who has covered the Vatican for more than 25 years, wrote in L'Espresso that Sabbah is “isolated ... even within the Palestinian Catholic community. Isolated because he is partisan; excessively aligned with the extremist currents that throw their weight around in Bethlehem and the territories.”
In 2003, Pope John Paul II delivered a subtle vote of no confidence in Sabbah's pastoral stewardship by appointing Jean-Baptiste Courion – a convert from Judaism – as auxiliary bishop responsible for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. But as the worldwide clerical sex-abuse crisis demonstrates, this pope feels reluctant to discipline malfeasant bishops more forcefully.
Moreover, subtlety might be lost on an activist prelate who has made collaboration with genocidal totalitarians a way of life.