Pope John Paul II has condemned both Palestinians and Israelis for “disfiguring” the Holy Land with extremist violence.
The pope spoke at a meeting at the Vatican of Catholic religious leaders from the Middle East. He called the meeting to discuss the future of Christians in the Holy Land.
“Unfortunately, we are meeting at a moment that I do not hesitate to define as dramatic, both for the people who live in those dear regions as well as for our brothers in the faith,” he said. “They, in fact, seem to be being crushed by two different extremisms, which, independent of the reasons that fuel them, are disfiguring the face of the Holy Land.”
The pope, who made a historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last year, reiterated that he had called the meeting because of his worry over the deteriorating situation as well as to express spiritual closeness to Christians in the region.
People in the Holy Land, he said, “have for a long time been sorely tried by acts of violence and by discrimination.”
The pope is known to be concerned both about the physical safety of Christians caught in the conflict and their waning influence in a region that is sacred to them but where Christians have become a small minority.
The pope expressed regret that the hopes for peace he expressed during last year’s Catholic Holy Year, which marked the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, did not materialize.
“How we would have liked this message to be readily heard and realized!” he said. “How we would have liked not to have to repeat it!
“How we would have liked to see our Jewish and Muslim brothers walk side by side with us in a united pact of love that would give back to the Holy Land its true face of being a crossroads of peace and a land of peace,” he said.
In his own address to the meeting, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said the Holy See would continue “to work tirelessly on the behalf of peace in a land that is so dear to the church and to all humanity.”
But he told the gathering that the main focus would be the situation of Christians in the region, most of whom are Palestinians.
According to Vatican figures, as of Jan. 1, 2000 there were 117,000 Catholics out of a total population of 6,100,000 in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Sodano said. Including Greek Orthodox and other Christian communities, Christians made up at most 3 percent of the population.
Observers said that one likely focus of the meeting will be a conflict between Catholics, Muslims and the Israeli government over construction of a mosque next to the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Basilica is revered by Christians as the place where Mary received word that she would give birth to Jesus.
Two weeks ago, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, warned that sectarian strife could erupt if construction goes ahead.
“There are some who want to inflame sectarianism,” he told a news conference at the basilica. “My message to each and every Muslim and Christian is to be aware of such sectarianism and of the embers beneath the ashes.”
Last month, 13 representatives of Christian churches in Jerusalem also issued a protest, saying construction of the mosque “may have incalculable consequences on many levels.”
Israel halted work on the mosque last month because the builders did not have the proper permits.
Controversy over the Mosque has simmered for more than two years.
There were street clashes between Christians and Muslims over the issue at Easter 1999. When Muslims unveiled the mosque cornerstone in November 1999, Christian churches throughout the Holy Land closed their doors in protest, and the Vatican accused Israel of fomenting tensions between Christians and Muslims by authorizing the construction.
The spot is revered by Muslims as well, and Israeli authorities feared accusations of discrimination if they prevented Muslims from building there.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.