• OPINION \ Apr 22, 2002
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    The Church of the Nativity and Jewish-Christian Relations
The Church of the Nativity and Jewish-Christian Relations The invasion of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem by armed Palestinians violates the Christian principle that forbids bringing weapons into a sacred place. The repeated declarations by Catholic spokesmen according to which the clergymen in the church "are not hostages" can also be seen as ignoring this principle. Certainly, there is no religious Christian basis for defining a church as a "place of refuge" in this case, as suggested by the remarks of Catholic spokesmen.

The IDF siege on the Church of the Nativity has become a new source of friction between Israel and various Christian churches in the world. Beyond the question of the impact of this confrontation on Israel's image in the eyes of the Christian public, it is clear that the response of the churches reflects their traditional concern for their believers in Arab lands, as well as the fact that many of the priests and Christian clergymen in the Holy Land are of Arab descent.

It seems that anti-Semitic feelings play a secondary role in formulating the Christian reactions, though they have arisen on several occasions. In any case, the events in Bethlehem and the response to these events are liable to disturb the process of rapprochement between Judaism and Christianity that Pope John Paul II is leading.

A look at the range of responses by the various Christian churches toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reveals that the Catholics are found somewhere in the middle. Among the Protestants, most of the fundamentalists - particularly in the United States - stand unequivocably on Israel's side, while many of the Anglicans and Episcopalians support the Palestinians. The Armenians, who together with the Greek Orthodox and Franciscans traditionally serve as the guardians of the Church of the Nativity, try to maintain a neutrality of sorts, though their sympathy for the Palestinians is sometimes palpable.

Hostility toward Israel is again most salient in the World Council of Churches, which does not include the Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists as members. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Episcopalians and nationalist Protestants adopted an extreme position. As part of the Easter celebrations, St. John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh displayed a picture of a crucified Jesus in Mary's arms, with both of them dressed as Palestinians. On one side of the cross stood Roman soldiers and on the other side was an Israeli tank adorned with a Jewish star. The picture was taken down following a wave of protests. An anti-Semitic note was also blatant in a caricature published in the Irish Times, the main newspaper of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. The caricature shows Ariel Sharon holding a picture of Arafat and asking an Israeli soldier: "If we crucify him, will they forget him soon?"

While John Paul II has been friendly to Jews and Israel, remnants of ancient Catholic animosity have appeared in the Vatican's diplomatic service, even before the incident in Bethlehem. The most important sources of information for the Christian churches about the flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the clerical leaders in Israel and the territories. Many of them are of Arab descent, and this is reflected in the content and phrasing used by the three news agencies of the Catholic church, whose tone has become increasingly caustic as the siege of the Church of the Nativity continues. Thus, in late March, the Vatican's news bureau issued a call to "Palestinians, Israelis, Christians, Jews and Muslims to hold a fast day for peace in the Holy Land" and, in early April, the Fides News Service reported that about 200 "armed Palestinians entrenched themselves" in the Church of the Nativity. Several days later, a Vatican spokesman declared that the pope condemns all types of terror, but "he rejects the unjust and humiliating conditions imposed on the Palestinian people and the retaliatory actions and revenge attacks that feed the feelings of frustration and hatred."

Last week, Archbishop Jean-Louis Turan, who is in charge of the Vatican's diplomatic relations, finally expressed harsh criticism about the fact that the Palestinians had holed up in the Church of the Nativity: "The occupation of sacred places by armed men is a violation of an ancient tradition," he said. He added that "We believe that the State of Israel must protect itself from terror. No one can justify terror. The problem is to find the proper response."

The most fervent Christian support for the Israeli government position came from the American evangelists, Protestants who believe that the Jews, as descendants of Abraham and Isaac, hold the rights to the Holy Land, while the Muslims "the descendants of Ishmael, the son of the maid servant," can claim no such rights. Not all the Jews in the United States are enthusiastic about fundamentalist support for Israel.

An unusual coalition in support of Israel has thus been formed in the U.S. between Jews (the great majority of whom hold liberal views), Catholics (who still remember the old alliance between the Jewish public and the Democratic Party), conservatives and hawks (who influence the Republicans in Congress) and the evangelists (who support Israel on biblical grounds.