WASHINGTON -- There is hardly a more resolute supporter of Israel in Congress than Rep. Henry Hyde, the venerable chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
That is why his March 25 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell is so important. It is a plea to deflect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's wall around the Holy Land from its planned position blocking the Scriptural pathway of Jesus Christ.
"I fear that important religious sites will become museums for commercial purposes and will no longer be maintained as places of spiritual worship shared by billions across the world," Hyde, a prominent Roman Catholic layman, told Powell.
As Holy Week approached, he asked the secretary's help to "ensure that the Stations of the Cross are not cut off from each other, preventing the normal celebrations of Easter and the commemoration of the last days of Christ."
That raises the question of whether the Bush administration will confront Israel on this issue. Sharon's government last year abruptly cut off negotiations with the Vatican.
Catholic clergy and laity from the U.S., inspecting the deplorable conditions for Christians in the Holy Land, have found the attitude of the Israeli military and bureaucracy ranges from uncooperative to hostile.
When worried Catholics first visited Hyde last year to tell him of the havoc wrought by Sharon's wall, he told them to come back with proof. A delegation headed by the Rev. Donald Rooney of Fredericksburg, Va., and the Rev. John J. Podsiadlo of Baltimore did just that in March. They returned to Hyde bearing photographs, taken despite the objections of Israeli soldiers.
"If we do not turn the tide of events," Fathers Rooney and Podsiadlo wrote after they returned, "Christian charity, sacred sites and the living Christian community in the Holy Land will be destroyed." The wall, the priests said, "could forever change the Holy Land and the people who live in and visit this cherished historic land."
With corroborating evidence supplied by his own staffer sent to investigate, Hyde was convinced. In his letter to Powell, he laid out the problems created by the Sharon wall.
An 8-meter high concrete wall will completely enclose the last passage from Bethany to the Mount of Olives, restricting the Palm Sunday procession from Bethpage into Jerusalem.
Access will be blocked to the Sisters of Emmanuel Monastery north of Bethlehem. A proposed route of the wall will separate the convent and school of the Rosary Sisters. The process also is certain to accelerate the continuing Israeli expropriation of West Bank land still held by the dwindling Christian community there.
Henry Hyde is no Israeli-basher. "I would never criticize Israel for building that fence," he told me. He said he is just trying to set in motion "some negotiations" to protect the Christian holy places.
The problem is that the Sharon government won't negotiate. The Vatican charges that Israel has violated the 1993 agreement between Rome and Israel guaranteeing West Bank land owned by the Catholic Church. Sharon has refused to enforce the concordat.
The Rev. David Jaeger, representing the Holy See, is a native-born Israeli citizen who has been working on this problem for 27 years but has run into the Sharon wall. The Israeli government pulled out of negotiations with Father Jaeger on August 28. The response to me from an Israeli embassy spokesman in Washington was "no comment."
This state of affairs did not appear on screens of Bush administration policymakers until it was called to Hyde's attention and the congressman wrote his letter.
Colin Powell, who clearly has not been enthusiastic about the wall, can be counted on to carefully study the problem in the Holy Land.
But a dilemma faces Powell, Hyde and all official U.S. supporters of Israel. The wall manifests Sharon's policy of blood and iron, with severe collateral damage.
While soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) overrun church properties, the U.S. taxpayer is paying for much of the $8 billion wall.
The Christian pilgrim, stopped at IDF checkpoints, sees this graffiti at many places on the barrier: "The USA is paying for this wall." That underscores U.S. responsibility for what is happening in the Holy Land.