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Top American Catholic Asks Israel to End Closure of the Territories

The United States’ highest-ranking Catholic authority has written to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres asking him to end the current closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In a June 10 letter, Archbishop William Keeler, president of the United States Catholic Conference, wrote to Peres of the “great concern” he has about the territories’ closing.

“We are very troubled by the imposition of collective sanctions on the people of the Territories. We are alarmed, moreover, at the rise in death and woundings there, particularly among young people, as a result of (Israel Defense Force) action,” the letter said.

Keeler wrote that he has “special concern” about the closings creating “impediments for worship for Christians and Muslims who have been accustomed to visit the Holy City for prayer.

“Restriction of access to hospitals, grave reductions in employment, lack of access to educational and social services imposes an unjustifiable burden on a large population for the offenses of a few,” he wrote.

“We urge the Government of Israel promptly to implement alternative measures to prevent violence without imposing such unjust burdens on all the people of the Territories.”

Peres has not yet responded to Keeler’s letter.

Avi Granot, the Israeli Embassy’s Washington-based counselor for church affairs, said he hopes — Keeler “realizes that the purpose of the closure is to prevent tremendous influx of terrorist activity and violence, and has proven to do exactly that, so life has been better for everyone in the area.”

LETTER REFLECTS ‘FRIENDSHIP’ WITH PERES

Granot said Israel’s Civil Administration in the territories considers every request by residents of the territories for permission to attend religious services in Jerusalem.

“Buses have been arranged and permits have been issued,” he said, “to make life easier for people in the territories.”

Granot said that Keeler’s frank letter is a reflection of the friendly relationship he has with Peres.

“There is a sense of chemistry and friendship, a rapport” between them, Granot said.

Before being elected president of the Catholic Conference last November, Keeler headed Catholic-Jewish relations for the conference’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Cardinal John O’Connor of New York succeeded him in that post.

In a related letter, also dated June 10, the chairman of the conference’s Committee on International Policy, Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul/Minneapolis, wrote to the Rev. Michel Sabbah, the Roman Catholic Church’s patriarch of Jerusalem.

Copies of both letters were made available to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Roach wrote that the Catholics’ interest in lifting the territories’ closure is being pursued with the Israeli Embassy, with the U.S. government and with members of the American Jewish community.

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