VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II today named a Palestinian Arab as the new patriarch of Jerusalem for Roman Catholics of the Latin rite, the Vatican announced.
The new patriarch is Msgr. Michel Sabbah, 54, a Palestinian born in Nazareth, Israel. He replaces Italian-born Patriarch Giacomo Giuseppe Beltritti, 77, whose resignation the Pope accepted because of his age.
Vatican sources said it was the first time since the Jerusalem patriarchate was restored in 1847 that an Arab has been appointed to the post, usually held by an Italian prelate. However, two Palestinian Arabs currently hold the posts of auxiliaries to the Jerusalem patriarch.
Political Motive Denied
The appointment came only eight days after the Pope issued a Christmas appeal for an end to the current violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The coming feast of the holy birth deepens our attachment to the land where Jesus was born," the Pope said in his Dec. 20 speech to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, who included Palestinian demonstrators carrying placards saying, "Stop the Genocide of the Palestinian People."
"That land cannot continue to be a theater of violence, opposition and injustice, with suffering for those populations to which I feel particularly close," John Paul said.
But the chief Vatican spokesman firmly denied today that the appointment of Sabbah had any political motive or was linked to the violence in the Holy Land.
"The criterion followed in making this appointment is strictly religious and pastoral and takes account of the local reality," spokesman Joaquin Navarro told reporters.
65% of Priests Are Arabs
Asked whether there was special significance in the appointment being announced at a time of tension in the Holy Land, Navarro said: "No political criterion or question of timeliness, other than that which is religious or pastoral, has been taken into account."
The Vatican spokesman said 85% of the 65,000 faithful in the Latin rite patriarchate and 65% of its 78 priests are Arabs trained in the seminaries of the Jerusalem patriarchate.
The Vatican has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, mainly because of the Vatican's disapproval of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. John Paul has on several occasions called for some form of international status for Jerusalem to guarantee access by followers of the three religions--Christian, Muslim and Jewish--that have holy sites in the city.
The Latin rite patriarchate of Jerusalem was originally established by the Crusaders in the year 1099. Abolished during the long years when Jerusalem was under control of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, it was restored by Pope Pius IX in 1847.
The patriarchate covers territory in Israel, the occupied West Bank, Jordan and in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.