Sobhy Makhoul, secretary of the exarchy and member of the Central Committee of the Synod of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, is visiting Spain to talk about the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and to present the Works of the Faith Association.
The association aims to find means of subsistence for Christians in the Holy Land, who live primarily from tourism. The intifada and continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence has all but dried up their sources of income.
A Palestinian Arab, Makhoul, 46, was born in Akko, in the region of Galilee. A Maronite-rite Catholic, he is married and father of two. An expert in theology and biblical sciences, he has lived in Jerusalem for many years, where he has been a professor at the Notre Dame Center.
In Makhoul's opinion, Christians in the Holy Land are called to play a decisive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by fostering initiatives for forgiveness and peace.
Q: What is the purpose of this war?
Makhoul: It is a conflict over land. Both peoples claim to have title to the land, which for some is the "promised land" and for others, the land where Mohammed sojourned. A just solution must be found.
Q: What do you think could be the contribution of Christians of the Holy Land in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Makhoul: The Church in the Holy Land can represent a bridge between Jews and Muslims for a simple reason: The Christian, more than the Jew or Muslim, believes in forgiveness, in gratitude for the forgiveness he has known in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not a question of piety, but of having a position that creates a new mentality.
The Christian's role is to give witness with his life to the value of forgiveness, in order to create an ambience of tolerance. To achieve peace, justice is necessary; to achieve justice, forgiveness is necessary. Those who can give witness to this are, precisely, the Christians of the Holy Land.
Q: What is the key to reconciliation?
Makhoul: To accept others as they are. It is a duty of both sides to accept one another mutually. The Jews should accept that there is a Palestinian people with its history and tradition, with the right to live in a state.
No biblical or nationalist justification or reasons of safety can deny Palestinians this right. While there is a Palestinian child alive, there will always be someone claiming this right.
However, Palestinians do not have the right to deny the existence of the state of Israel. The Jews also have a right to a homeland after many centuries of Diaspora.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most urgent task to attain peace?
Makhoul: The principal task is education. The children of both sides who grow up in a climate of violence, in this as in any other war, learn that that is the only way to address reality. This vicious circle must be broken.
The educational role of Christians is important. There are many Muslims in many of our private Catholic schools. And the task is to educate in peace. Those who direct these schools must be conscious of this. And the task of Christians is to assume this responsibility there, where they live.
Before being liberated from the occupation we must be liberated from within by the One who has liberated us from slavery with his resurrection. It is necessary to change one's mentality.
Q: Do you think peace is possible?
Makhoul: I have come these days to Spain to talk about the situation in the Holy Land, to talk about our hope in a lasting and just peace between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Peace is a daily process of education, the free choice of every man of good will.
Personally, I think peace is possible, but not due to our merits. It is something that must be prayed for with faith. I am sure that when it comes it will be a miracle, but I believe in miracles. How and when it will be, only God knows.
Q: What is the situation of Christians in Bethlehem?
Makhoul: The greater part of Christians in the province of Bethlehem worked in tourism and the organization of pilgrimages which are the spinal cord of this land's economy.
Since the current intifada started in the year 2000, the presence of pilgrims has decreased by 95%, which means that many [Christians] have been left without work, and that there is no one who buys the products of Christian artisans.
Q: What does the Association of Works of Faith hope to do?
Makhoul: The experience of the past has helped us to understand ourselves and to look at our difficulties in a different way.
The way aid has been given in the past has been an educational curse for many people: to receive money and material without having to give anything in exchange has accustomed the people to welfarism, has produced moral corruption and it is a method that harms the recipient because it makes him dependent and takes away his freedom. It is not the fault of the one who gives, but a lack in the one who receives.
With this initiative, we wish to educate ourselves in respect for human labor, human dignity, friendship, cooperation and gratitude. Our people want to change, they want to live as men worthy of their humanity and determined defenders of their religious affiliation. They want to be liberated from the taboo of being a minority.
Works of Faith has succeeded in finding work for 250 families, so that they have a means of subsistence.
Q: How can Catholics of the rest of the world help?
Makhoul: First of all, by prayer, and then: buy, buy, buy Nativity scenes.
* * *
For more information on Works of the Faith, contact:
25 Maronite Convent St., Jaffa Gate, P.O. Box 14219, 91141 Jerusalem
Telephone: 972-2-6277933; fax: 972-2-6277941