In a conversation with a peace delegation from the United States, the Vatican's representative in Jerusalem warned that there could be starvation within a month in Palestinian villages isolated by the fresh outbreak of violence.

While most attention focuses on the political struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, Father Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Delegate for the Vatican in the Holy Land, said that the economic battle has become very serious. Unemployment is rampant and "five people depend on each salary," he said. The destruction of crops means that "starvation will begin soon."

Like many church leaders who met with the delegation, Sambi is worried about the future of the Christian presence in and around Jerusalem. "As Christians we have some common problems," he said, many of them related to issues of identity. "We are here to keep alive the faith."

"There is also a sense of solitude and loneliness for Christians, without a strong sense of solidarity." It was clear to him that Christians would either survive together-or disappear together.

While Muslims in the Middle East have the support of Muslims all over the world, that is not really true of Christians in the Holy Land, he contended. "The lack of solidarity, however, is felt more at the level of church leaders than at the grassroots," he added. Christians need "the support of disciples of Jesus around the world for survival."

As a minority, Christians "lack strength and courage" unless they have a clear and strong identity. "What is the motivation for Christian children to remain?" he asked. "What's the identity of a Christian living in a Muslin culture, or in a Jewish culture?"

Changing images
When asked about the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of violence, "We were expecting peace every day-until the new intifada erupted on September 28," Sambi said. Until then, Palestinians were doing quite well in their image before the world. "At the beginning Palestinians gave a better image of themselves and they got world sympathy," he said, pointing to the shooting of the young boy in Gaza while his father tried to protect him.

Then the crowd of young Palestinians murdered the Israeli soldiers and tossed their bodies out of the window of a police station in Ramallah and the pendulum was suddenly swinging the other direction. The big difference between the present intifada and the first intifada, which began in 1987, was that the previous uprising was fought with stones but now the clashes include the use of guns.

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While Israel's military superiority is absolute, according to Sambi, Israelis believe that certain Muslim Palestinian fighters intentionally provoke an Israeli military response against Christian villages in order to gain international support for the Palestinian cause.

Addressing the allegation that the Palestinians are using their children to fuel the violence, Sambi said "there is no place for children other than the streets." And they often use their older brothers as models. "This is a war of children and boys and it doesn't stop," he said. "It will be a war of and for the future."

When asked about the status of Jerusalem, Sambi said that "internationalization" of the city is not the Vatican position but rather the position of the United Nations, which says the city shouldn't belong to either side.

The Vatican, according to Sambi, has said that it is "incompetent" on the political issues of the city's status, stating that those aspects must be solved by politicians. Whoever exercises jurisdiction over Jerusalem should guarantee open access to the religious sites. "History shows us that whoever exercises jurisdiction favors their own," he said. No one should have absolute power but observe "an equality of rights."

It won't be possible to solve the future status of Jerusalem without making it an open city with dual administration, controlled by a special statute-and with an international power in case the two sides don't agree, Sambi says.

Rally in Bethlehem
Members of the NCC peace delegation traveled to Bethlehem Sunday night to join hundreds of people on a candlelight march to Manger Square under the theme,"Justice for the Land of Peace; the Light of Right not the Fire of Might."

Beginning at the Lutheran Christmas Church where they were addressed by religious leaders from Christian and Muslim traditions, the diverse crowd flowed down the hill, stopping at four stations to read portions of scripture and join in song. Arriving at the square, they moved to a stage for a series of speeches and greetings from religious leaders.

Bringing greetings on behalf of the American delegation, John McCullough of Church World Service, the relief agency of the National Council of Churches, said, "We have come to light a light of peace and to hold it high. We know that God's promise will be established in this land."

Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, said, "Today the world celebrates international human rights day. We, the U.S. churches celebrate it with you. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, just as it did 2000 years ago, so it does tonight. It bends toward Bethlehem."

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Copyright © 2000 Episcopal News Service

Related Elsewhere

Recent media coverage of conflict in Palestine includes:

Commission meets with Israeli, Palestinian leaders—CNN (Dec. 12, 2000)

UN says Israel blocks aid—City Press (Dec. 11, 2000)

Hard look at slayings of Palestinian youths—The Boston Globe (Dec. 11, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today stories about conflict in Israel and Palestine include:

Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)

Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)

Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)

Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)

How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)