In his Christmas message, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, has called on the faithful not to forget Syria, warned against Israeli settlement building, and revealed that Pope Francis will be visiting Israel, Palestine and Jordan next May.
“Christmas leads the eyes of the world to look towards Bethlehem,” the Patriarch said, adding that it is in “the midst of conflict and violence, tearing our Middle East apart,” that the mystery of Christmas “gently rises and spreads” throughout the world.
“At this time, we cannot forget the inhabitants of Syria, and among them the refugees in our neighboring countries, as well as all those around the world,” he continued. He also had a special thought for Filipino migrants in the region whose families have been “deeply affected” by the recent typhoon there.
The patriarch noted that the situation in the Middle East is becoming “more complex and dramatic” and warned that the instability affects everyone. He further highlighted the plight of the people of Gaza, suffering Israeli and Egyptian embargos.
To prevent further conflict, he called for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Syria. The Syrian problem cannot be resolved by the force of arms, he said, and called on all political leaders to assume the responsibility for finding a mutually acceptable political solution that will end “the senseless violence, and uphold respect for the dignity of people.”
Referring to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Latin Patriarch said efforts continued to be “hampered by the continuous building of Israeli settlements.” As long as this problem is not resolved, he said, “the people of our region will suffer.”
He added that the continuing construction of the separation wall as well as the demolition of a house of the Latin Patriarchate in East Jerusalem a few weeks ago, were “signs of a worsening situation” that do not in any way facilitate the peace process. But he pointed out that European Union pledges of “unprecedented” political, economic and security support if the peace process succeeds “is a good reason for hope.”
Patriarch Twal thanked “journalist-friends” for trying to ensure that what happens in the Holy Land is not forgotten. He fondly recalled Pope Francis’ election, saying he “cares about the Holy Land and the Middle East,” and confirmed that the Pontiff will be travelling first to Jordan and then to Israel and Palestine in May.
He said the economic agreement between Israel and the Holy See is “about to be concluded”. But he stressed that although the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Jordan and Israel respected the status quo, including tax exemptions for Churches, Israel now “wants to introduce changes.”
“Paying a little more or a little less is not the core of the issue,” he said, “What is the important thing is not to ‘touch’ East Jerusalem, as it is still on the negotiating table. We do not want these agreements to have a political implication that changes the status of East Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1967.”
Turning to the life of the Church, he thanked the Israeli authorities for their logistical support in helping the end of the Year of Faith celebrations take place. He recalled that Catholics of the Holy Land (with few exceptions) celebrated Easter together with the Orthodox this year. “Unification of the date of Easter is not easy, but it is a first step towards complete unity and this requires efforts from everyone,” he said.
He condemned “all forms of religious fundamentalism”, noting that there has been an increase in acts of vandalism carried out by extremists and some twenty holy places or places of worship have been targeted.
As for priorities in the coming year, Patriarch Twal said they were to build peace and to deal with the extremist currents with a prophetic spirit. And he highlighted the many schools the Church runs in Palestine, Israel and Jordan as well as a housing project run by the patriarchate in Beit Safafa.
As well as the papal visit, the Jordanian-born patriarch looked forward to a visit to “our Christians in the Diaspora in the United States” in July 2014, as well as the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held in Rome from October 5 to 19.
He closed by praying that Christians, Jews and Muslims “may find in their common spiritual heritage, their shared values in order to end injustice, oppression, ignorance and all evil acts that destroy God’s gift to us – the dignity of the human being.”
“May the Infant Jesus give peace to all peoples of the region,” he said. “Have a joyful Christmas.”