Menu JTA Search

O’connor Chides Americans for Stereotyping Arabs

John Cardinal O’Connor ended his tour of Israel by chiding Americans for stereotyping Arabs.

“I feel we have a stereotype in the U.S. for the Arab and Palestinian. If you use either term, Arab or Palestinian, many people see terrorist,” he told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport Monday evening, just before leaving for Rome.

“We are talking about an ancient, noble people with which we have much in common,” he said. “There are very many Arab and Palestinian leaders looking for a peaceful solution” of the Middle East conflict, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York declared.

He added that he “was encouraged to find so much talk of peace in Israel. You don’t hear in the Arab world now things you heard just a few years ago: ‘We’re going to push the Israelis into the sea'”.

SEES GOOD WILL ON BOTH SIDES

O’Connor said he would inform Pope John Paul II in Rome that “I think there’s good will on all sides and that’s what you need. I see a lot of good will here in the Arab world and in Israel toward the Holy See.”

But O’Connor’s visit to Israel was fraught with controversy and strains since he crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan last Thursday. The prelate made it clear that he would have to abide by Vatican guidelines not to meet with Israeli leaders in their official capacity at their offices in Jerusalem because the Vatican does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

He apologized profusely for any offense he might have given Israelis and their leaders and faulted himself for not fully realizing before this trip the constraints put upon him by Vatican policy. Nevertheless the Cardinal met with President Chaim Herzog at the Presidential residence in Jerusalem Sunday evening and breakfasted with Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the latter’s home Monday morning. He called his hour-long conversation with the Irish-born Herzog “fascinating” and averred that he did more listening than talking.

He described Peres as a “friend” and said he was delighted to have been able to return Peres’ visit to his residence in New York last October. It was on that occasion that Peres invited the Cardinal to visit Israel.

INFORMAL AND UNOFFICIAL VISITS

O’Connor emphasized repeatedly in his remarks to reporters that the visits to Herzog and Peres were entirely informal and unofficial. On both occasions he wore plain black clerical garb instead of the crimson robes and decorations of a Cardinal which he displayed elsewhere during his stay in Israel.

He seemed nonplussed when reporters reminded him that the Presidential residence (Beit Hanassi) also serves as Herzog’s office. “If it is not the President’s residence, then there has been a gross mistake, because … it was very clear that it would not be appropriate for me within my guidelines to visit the President officially in his office in Jerusalem,” O’Connor said.

The problem did not arise at Peres’ home, which is not used as an office. Peres himself implied that the nature of the Cardinal’s visit lay in the eyes of the beholder. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and it makes no difference if anybody recognizes that fact or not. And if someone comes to me and says I am coming to you as a private individual–so what? Does that make me a private individual?” Peres asked.

SHOCKED BY CONDITION OF A REFUGEE CAMP

The final even of O’Connor’s tour was a visit Monday to the administered Gaza Strip where he inspected the Shatti refugee camp housing some 40,000 Palestinians. He was obviously overcome by its squalor. “You can’t describe it — no way,” the New York Archbishop said.

Earlier, O’Connor visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem where he kissed the stones, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in West Jerusalem. Near tears, he found it difficult to express in words the horror he felt at viewing the Holocaust exhibits.

The invitation to visit Israel, extended to O’Connor by Peres, stemmed in large measure from concern over the Archbishops’ relationship with the Jewish State. Peres said he invited the Roman Catholic leader to learn the Israeli side of the Middle East conflict.

PRE-CONDITIONS FOR ISRAEL-VATICAN TIES

Last July, during a visit to Lebanon, O’Connor said the Vatican would establish diplomatic relations with Israel only after three preconditions were satisfied: Israel should “assist substantially” in finding “a Palestinian homeland”, it should help achieve peace in Lebanon; and should also aid the security of some eight million Christians living in the Arab world.

On that occasion, the Cardinal made no mention of Syria, the Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Iran or Libya, all of which have contributed to the destabilization of Lebanon and the massacre of Lebanese Christians.

Before leaving Israel, O’Connor seemed to indicate that he thought Vatican-Israel relations could develop in the future. He told reporters, after meeting with Peres Monday, that “I have found, contrary to disappointment I found in New York, I found here that the Foreign Minister is open to an extraordinary number of possibilities.”

He did not elaborate on the “possibilities” but said, “My understanding is that until the Holy See is satisfied that those concerns (regarding the status of Jerusalem and its holy places) can be appropriately resolved, it will maintain its current position.”

NEXT STORY