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A Voice Crying in the Holy Land

Region's Catholic patriarch, the first Arab in the post, is viewed by Israeli officials as a politicized Palestinian nationalist. Supporters compare him to Latin America's liberation theologians.


JERUSALEM — Scarcely had he been consecrated as the first Arab head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land when Michel Sabbah began sparring with Israel.

The year was 1988. The Palestinian intifada, or uprising, was in full swing and moving into the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. Sabbah, appointed by Pope John Paul II to the post of Latin patriarch, went on Vatican Radio to make a very public appeal.

"I don't think the [Israeli] authorities listen to the church or ever will," Sabbah said. "But here I am, and I appeal to the Israeli authorities to abandon their repressive measures.

"The violent measures taken by the Israeli authorities . . . will never bring about calm, let alone peace, because violence breeds violence and leads to even stronger resistance."

And so Sabbah set the tone for what would be stormy relations with Israel and sealed his position as, arguably, the most controversial Christian in the land.

As the pope makes his way across the Holy Land this week, he hopes to promote peace and heal the 2,000-year rift between Jews and the Catholic Church. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, however, the historical friction between Jews and Catholics, marked by centuries of anti-Semitism, is further complicated because most Christians are Palestinians.

It is a tension inextricably linked to international politics and the fitful Middle East peace process.

Sabbah has told associates that the animosity Israel displays toward him is not because he's a Christian but because he is an Arab. True or not, he is clearly a lightning rod for criticism and anger.

Israeli officials see Sabbah as nothing short of an ardent, politicized Palestinian nationalist, an "arm of Yasser Arafat's PLO," as one official put it.

His supporters, by contrast, compare Sabbah to the liberation theologians of Latin America, who speak out on behalf of an oppressed people against a dominant ruler. He uses his pulpit and his annual Christmas and Easter messages to denounce what he sees as discrimination and to call for an independent Palestinian state freed of "Israeli occupation."

Born in Nazareth 67 years ago this month, Sabbah studied and worked as a priest in Jordan, Lebanon and France in addition to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He has a doctorate from the Sorbonne and speaks classical Arabic, as well as English and French.

A short man with a round face and balding head, Sabbah was chosen by John Paul to be the first Arab to preside over the Catholic Church in this region. All patriarchs had been Italians since the Catholic Church was restored to the Holy Land in 1847 after its post-Crusades banishment. The pope wanted to send a message of support to indigenous Christians by appointing one of their own to the highest-ranking local church position.

As patriarch, Sabbah is responsible for the welfare of Roman Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian self-ruled territories, Jordan and Cyprus.

Under Sabbah's pen, the church's statements during the intifada repeatedly challenged Israeli sovereignty and complained of abuse. Until those intifada years, in the late 1980s and early '90s, most Christian communities had been able to straddle the fence in their dealings with Israeli authority. But the intifada forced them to take a stand, and invariably they came down on the Palestinian side.

During the uprising, which eventually became a catalyst for breakthrough peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Sabbah ran an underground educational system for Palestinians that taught catechism and other subjects in people's homes when military closures prevented free movement.

In his first Christmas homily as patriarch, Sabbah entered a tense, bleak Bethlehem. He canceled the traditional religious procession in the face of demonstrations and rioting that had claimed many Arab and Israeli lives that year.

"The people, the Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem and the Holy Land, do not have the joy of Christmas in their hearts," he intoned in the ancient Church of the Nativity during a Christmas Eve Mass that is broadcast the world over. "Some had a son or a father killed, others are still in prisons, and all face heavy military repression."

Eleven years later, in last December's Bethlehem Christmas message, Sabbah again touched on the most sensitive points dividing Israelis and Palestinians. He demanded "dignity and rights" for Palestinian refugees and freedom for Palestinian "political prisoners." He said any solution for Jerusalem, a sacred city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians, had to be based on "sharing and equality in sovereignty."

The clearly political message rankled Israeli officials once again. Uri Mor, head of the Christian department in the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, said at the time that Sabbah teetered on incitement of a "religious war."

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