Archbishop Keeler urges Israeli-Christian dialogue

February 16, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Baltimore's Roman Catholic archbishop urged Israel yesterday to work on improved dialogue with Palestinian Christians, who he said feel "under siege" in Israel and the occupied territories.

Archbishop William H. Keeler raised the issue in a wide-ranging meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The Middle East peace process, Islamic fundamentalism, improved Israeli-Vatican relations and efforts to combat anti-Semitism in Poland also were discussed.

The 50-minute meeting, which the archbishop described as "very cordial," reflected improved relations between Israel and the Catholic Church.

Mr. Peres is visiting Washington as the Clinton administration prepares to launch a new effort to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who will meet with Mr. Peres today, leaves tomorrow on a nine-day trip to Arab capitals, Jerusalem, Geneva and Brussels, Belgium, his first foreign mission.

The Baltimore cleric met Mr. Peres in his capacity as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Avi Granot, Israel's minister of church affairs, who also attended, said it marked the first time an Israeli official of Mr. Peres's level had met with the leader of American Catholics.

In the meeting and in a separate speech to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, Archbishop Keeler drew attention in particular to the Palestinian Latin Rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who he said "has a uniquely difficult job in providing pastoral leadership to Palestinian Christians who are experiencing many injustices in their day-to-day living."

"When he speaks out on their behalf, many have criticized him for his simply doing what he sees to be his duty as a bishop caring for a suffering people," the archbishop said.

The 110,000 Christians in Israel and 60,000 in the Israeli occupied territories "feel they are under siege," he said in his speech.

Mr. Peres avoided responding directly about the patriarch, Mr. Granot said later. The minister said that the concern for the rights of religious minorities is "shared by everyone."

But, giving the general Israeli government view, Mr. Granot said that the patriarch is considered "too politically inclined," has delivered "harsh messages justifying violence" and is "very often viciously critical of Israel."

Mr. Peres spoke in some detail about the threat to the peace process of Islamic fundamentalism, reflecting Israel's concern about lack of U.S. understanding of the reasons why more than 400 Palestinians linked to radical Islamic groups were deported in December.

Mr. Granot said the foreign minister also complained that Palestinians have failed to respond positively to confidence-building measures offered by Israel in peace talks, including a halt in building new settlements in the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians had failed to take advantage of the opportunity to move forward toward elections leading to autonomy, but want to "jump over the interim period" called for in the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations.

The archbishop commended Israel for allowing Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution, to reopen and for providing government subsidies to Catholic schools.

In a discussion on combating anti-Semitism in Poland, Archbishop Keeler urged growing communication on the part of Jewish and Catholic scholars on the Holocaust.

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