Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Middle East is like the weather ...

Father John J. Lombardi

The Middle East is like the weather: everyone talks about it but no one can do anything about it. Bring peace, that is. (Although: with the recent spell of heat everyone's talking about it, the weather-sometimes expending hot air and thereby changing the weather by increasing the temperature!)

Now, following are some ruminations on the Middle East since this is such a "hot topic". Though I have no special competence in these matters--history and politics, here is what I've learned recently about the Middle East, the Land of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and what you can do to bring peace there…

First thing: realism. Just as the mind and heart is fragmented by sin in this world, it should be obvious that this sinful disposition becomes externalized and can become a way of being, a behavior-with strife, violence and fragmentation ensuing from individual minds externally to places and countries. This is most evident in the Middle East. Solution: Peace within the heart and mind, a turning to Our Savior Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. After all the Bible says wars and rebellions and strife begin with-in, in the mind and heart. Point: unless individuals-disciples, peacemakers, diplomats, warriors and Jews and Palestinians seek and achieve peace within, then it won't come with-out, in their, or our world.

Now, a brief history of Palestine, the background of this current conflict. The Jewish people were sent by God-Yahweh, under the leadership of Abram from Egypt-exile (Gn.12:1ff) to conquer the Land of Canaan. They do this and occupy what is now Israel-Palestine and, of course, Jerusalem, making it their land. God says to Abram: "To your descendents I will give this land…" (Gn 12: 7); and also: "All the land that you see I will give to you and your descendents forever" (Gn. 12: 14). The land later becomes a Roman province and then under Byzantine rule, and later, in 637 A.D. the Ottoman Empire rules it, for four hundred years until the Sejuk Turks take over (1071-1099). Then Christian Crusaders occupy Palestine for two centuries after which it was ruled by Tartars, Mongols (1244-1260), Marmelukes of Egypt (1260-1517), and Ottoman Turks who in 1453 took over Constantinople and held it and many other lands, including Palestine, until it was mandated by the Allies to Great Britain at the close of World War I. (Source: Rev. Edward Flannery, The Lamp: A Christina Unity, 1969).Important point: Jews were usually a minority population there, with Arabs and then, later, Muslims, the majority.

In 1916 French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. Europeans completed a takeover of the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. In 1894, Theodore Herzl, an Austrian journalist, known as the "Father of Zionism" begins a movement to found a Jewish state for Jews throughout the world to live in.

In 1917 the Balfour Declaration by Great Britain states favor for a Jewish state. Notable points: Palestine was known as a "sleepy backwater" of the Ottoman Empire in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was populated mostly by farmers. However, the local Arab populations were not always consulted fully on the partitions and treaties of the Europeans. In 1948 The United Nations allows Independence of Israel as a state. The Untied States recognizes Israel's sovereignty. Later, in 1967-"The Six Day War" ensues and Israel gains control of Jerusalem, the West Bank and other Arab territories it had not previously occupied officially.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization is formed by Yassar Arafat to found a state for uprooted Palestinians, and later foments violence. 1979 saw the rise of the Islamic Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which presage a rise of Islamic radicalism with violence. (Source: NPR online series:" The Mideast: A Century of Conflict" ).

Recently: Israel cedes forth the Gaza Strip and West Bank to Palestinians and others and refrains from building in other territories. Negotiations between Palestinians and Israel have been on and off, with breakthroughs and breakups, and then ensues Intifadas (uprisings of against Israel), the partially-successful Oslo Peace Accords, the death of Yassar Arafat, and the most recent rise of Hamas, who are currently leaders of the Palestinians. (The Untied States recognizes Hamas as a terrorist organization).

With all this "back-and-forth" history and politicizing of the Land of Palestine, the various reigning cultures and the movements of populations of Jews and Arabs and Muslims, just what is the position of The Catholic Church? Paradoxically, amidst all the complexity, it: is simple as the Vatican has defined: 1-It recognizes the right of Israel as a nation-state to exist (and recognized Israel officially in 1993); 2-it also recognizes the right of Palestinians and Muslims to a state; 3-the Vatican also promotes Jerusalem as a "shared city" of parts, receiving "international status", comprised of Jews, Muslims and Christians, and this later becomes known as an "international statute". The Vatican policy leaves the city of Jerusalem to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians (affirmed in 2002. Source: First Things Feb., 2002).

The Vatican, it should be noted, remained neutral towards the State of Israel, not formally recognizing it, for some forty-five years. Why? Some surmise because it wanted to protect the native Christian populations which might be threatened by local Arab and Islamic populations and not to inflame them.

As we noted at the beginning of this reflection, sin and strife are all around us and Jews and Muslims seem to be perennially at war. With the recent rise of Islamic terrorism (most recently in Great Britain where Islamic terrorists were routed out planning to bomb trans-Atlantic planes headed for the United States) it seems that this form of violence is both universal and unique. Islamic terrorism is now spread thru the Philippines to Indonesia and New York City, India and Spain and North and S America. This Islamofascism is unique in that some Muslims terrorists both kill their own peoples and others in the name of "jihad" with no mercy or discretion whatsoever in large numbers. Jews and Christians do not do this nor has any other population in world history. Is this form of killing and "holy war" precipitated by the Middle East or Jewish persons or "American imperialist policy," as some suggest? History gives evidence: during the prophet Muhammad's time (610 A.D. ff), there were already "jihads' against "infidels (non-Muslims). During the Ottoman Empire violence ensued as well and Muslim were at the gates of Vienna in the 1500's, and also in Moorish Spain. And, also, Islamic terrorism also increased apart from the "Israel issue" in Iran (1979) with the infamous year-long taking of the American hostages, and similar violence continues today in Mogadishu, Nigeria and the Sudan. And: many Islamic terrorists portray by video and other means beheadings, tortures and violence upon innocent victims in sinister ways. Who else does this? Point: Islamic violence may both be related to Israel (and the United States support of it) and also it seems unrelated to this. I.e., Just why is the terrorism and "jihad" so unique, universal and so pervasively evident throughout the history of Islam? This realization is all important in today's world where some say, rightly or naively, that Islam has been "hijacked" by a minority of radicals, and that Islam is a religion of peace. Archbishop Pell of Australia noted recently that there should be serious discussion and deliberation of this, of the Koran-Islam's "holy book," and Islam's history, as the evil grows around us. This is not easy but it is necessary. Obviously, we should stress that not all Muslims participate in any form of jihad, there are many reformers amidst clerics, and many Muslims are in fact peaceful persons. Important point: each particular Muslim should be taken as an individual with dignity, and also they may help promote, as their unique and necessary duty in today's' Islamicist-influenced world, the promotion of peace and renunciation of violence.

As Catholics we recall that Palestine is uniquely the Land of God, of Jesus Christ. As the Vatican once refrained from recognizing Israel as a state possibly for the safety and occupation of Catholics and Christians there, shouldn't we today want populations securely there--of Catholics and Christians to safeguard the Land of Jesus? Perhaps many of us here in the "secure" West have grown complacent about the "rights" of Catholics there-they've somehow gotten "lost in the stewing sauce" of dramatic Palestinian-Jewish relations, politics and international accords. Have we forgotten our own?! Short of a kind of "restorationism"--by which some evangelicals promote (to rebuild the Temple destroyed by Romans, and thereby await the "Messiah's return" and kinda' form a theocracy), shouldn't Christians and Catholics desire the Land of Jesus to be in Jewish influence and also at the same time secure rights for Palestinians? Is it convincing that the "mandate from God" to the Jews (to Abraham and Isaac) to secure the land meaningful to people today-as a kind of "stepping stone" for peace, for the inheritance of the Jewish promise to us Catholics and Christians? Upshot: does all the necessary political posturing and complicated diplomatic maneuvers negate the religious promises of our Faith and unconsciously divorce us from the Land of Jesus? Unfortunately it seems so today.

We must never forget thru this: there are Catholics and Christians in Israel which have a right to co-existence with all others. I just met a group of nuns from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As we visited I thought of their lives and how they are so peaceful in themselves, yet how they must dwell in their land filled with so much strife and, oppositely, how we here can so easily forget them amidst our busy lives. We must support the Church of Jesus Christ in Palestine made up such beautiful, peaceful and faithful souls!

Regarding the current conflict between Israel, Lebanon and Hamas, we Israel's defense/reprisals must be just and propionate, and conscious of civilians, even though the evil began with Hamas in Lebanon. Clarifying this the Vatican stated: "As in the past, the Holy See also condemns both the terrorist attacks on the one side and the military reprisals on the other. Indeed, a State's right to self-defense does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards the protection of civilian populations. In particular, the Holy See deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation, and gives assurances of its closeness to those people who have suffered so much in the defense of their own independence"

What to do?

  1. Pray and fast for peace-make penances for the leaders and all participants in the Middle East.
  2. Make peace yourself: stop arguing and being contentious. If you yourself cannot have peace within yourself or your family, nor can the world, precisely because you are part of the world. Peace begins in your heart and mind.
  3. Pray for the conversion of all soul-- to the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. We may forget this in today's relativistic world where we are wrongly encouraged to believe Jesus is not the Answer. Everyone needs Jesus to be saved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph #674 that Jesus will not come back (The Second Coming) until all Israel is converted. So pray for the conversion of Israel-everyone in it.
  4. Pray for our religious leaders to make and promote peace, especially in and thru Jesus Christ: Not enough of us say and promote this. We should not be reticent to witness Him, the Lord of Life, He Who lived right there In Palestine, to be the Main Peacemaker.
  5. Encourage peacemaking groups-esp. in Palestine, between Muslims and Jews-to dialogue with one another. In the "Palestine-Israel Journal " (05/06) a special feature on "People to People" encourages many examples of this and, though it may seem naVve and "small," remember that's how the Kingdom grows like a mustard seed.

Though there can be political solutions to the strife in Israel we need the deeply rooted in the peace of the Savior Jesus Christ

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi