Exclusive: Top Vatican Official Speaks on Bethlehem Crisis

VATICAN, Apr 10, 02 (CWNews.com) - Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran is the top foreign-policy official at the Vatican. Technically he is the Undersecretary of State, also known as the Secretary for Relations with States. In that position, his duties include briefing the Pope on world affairs, including situations like the current crisis in Bethlehem.

Archbishop Tauran has been in constant contact with the papal nuncio in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, about developments in the Holy Land.

On Wednesday, Archbishop Tauran agreed to answer questions from the Roman news agency I Media. The text of the interview follows:

I MEDIA: In the 9th day of the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, what is the situation?

ARCHBISHOP TAURAN: The problem at the basilica is a serious one, especially from a humanitarian perspective, because there are nearly 250 people-- of whom the majority are armed Palestinians, along with 30 Franciscan friars, four Franciscan nuns, five Greek Orthodox monks, and nine Armenian monks-- enclosed in the Franciscan monastery. The apostolic nuncio in Israel is devoting his attention to this situation.

There has been some talk about a plan for the Holy See to solve the crisis. I would prefer to speak in terms of prompt humanitarian actions.

I MEDIA: What solution can you propose to the situation in Bethlehem?

TAURAN: The Holy See has not proposed technical solutions. But we can share some ideas.

For example, we could think about setting up a joint commission, composed of both Israeli and Palestinian representatives, whose sole purpose would be to negotiate the withdrawal of the people who are inside the basilica. Eventually, if the two sides requested, the Holy See could assist here, insofar as it has a certain credibility. The moral authority of John Paul II is certainly noteworthy.

I MEDIA: The Franciscans seem to have taken a position in favor of the Palestinians, by remaining in the monastery after the armed Palestinians arrived, out of fear that the Israeli army would kill these militants. What is the position of the Holy See?

TAURAN: The Franciscans are insisting that they are not hostages, and that they are staying in their monastery because they want to be faithful to their vocation. For centuries, popes have relied on them to safeguard the holy places.

Generally speaking, all of the holy places of the three monotheistic religions must be regarded as inviolable. But with the Catholic sanctuaries, in particular, the tradition is reinforced by recent specific agreements, codified in international law. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have entered into bilateral agreements [with the Holy See] in which they undertake to maintain and respect the status quo regarding the Christian holy places and the rights of Christian communities. To explain the gravity of the current situation, let me begin with the fact that the occupation of the holy places by armed men is a violation of a long tradition of law that dates back to the Ottoman era. Never before have they been occupied-- for such a lengthy time-- by armed men.

Today we have arrived at a tragic situation in which both sides continue to insist that they are right.

It has become a practical necessity to find a solution. Certainly we can understand that the Israeli state must defend itself against terrorism. No one can justify the terrorism in any form. The problem is to find the right response. Too many times, it is the people who must pay the price. There must be a legitimate, measured response. It is a question of proportion-- between the evil and the means that are used against it.

The international community has repeated, many times, its desire to see these two states coexist. This is, without question, the only imaginable solution for this conflict. There is no other solution that could ensure peace between the two peoples of the region.

I MEDIA: Can you imagine the imposition of a peacekeeping force?

ARCHBISHOP TAURAN: More and more, it seems necessary to have a third party involved, to help everyone concerned put aside the language of warfare, take a new look at themselves, regain confidence in each other, and sit down around a table. As for the eventual form and structure of a solution, it is best to leave that to the advocates, because it isn't easy to find off-the-shelf solutions in this region!

What is important is to have an impartial, friendly presence. I have the impression that more and more people are becoming convinced of the wisdom of that suggestion-- which was put forward by the Holy See in November 2000.

I MEDIA: How is Pope John Paul II reacting to this situation?

ARCHBISHOP TAURAN: The apostolic nunciature in Israel, and the Secretariat of State, are keeping the Pope informed, day by day, about developments. The problems that we are discussing here have been the subjects of his constant prayer. He has, on several occasions, spelled out his position: mutual respect of both parties' legitimate aspirations; the application of international agreements; withdrawal from the occupied territories; and an international statute ensuring access for all parties to the holy places of Jerusalem.

These are the indispensable conditions for reaching a peaceful solution, and breaking the infernal cycle of hatred and revenge. Quite rightly, the Pope himself told the diplomatic corps, at the beginning of the year: "Both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, are losing through war; both sides can gain through peace!"

It is also important to keep in mind that for the Holy See, diplomacy is not an end in itself. It is a means we employ so that justice and spiritual principles prevail in international law. I would also certainly add that we as Christians always have a duty to pray for everyone involved, and never to lose sight of our respect for life and human dignity.

I MEDIA: The Christians in that region are caught in a crossfire, and tempted to leave their country.

ARCHBISHOP TAURAN: I think we have to be realistic. When you are living in a wartime situation, you can't ask everyone to be a hero. It is clear that there is a great temptation to leave, at least for those who are able to do so.

But it is the role of the bishops and priests to tell Christians that they have a vocation to remain. I think it would be terrible to have a Holy Land without the Christian presence which has been there over the centuries.

In order to avoid that outcome, we have to create livable conditions, to give them confidence in the future: a durable peace, decent housing, acceptable work. And I would also add the necessity of living in ecclesial communion, because the Christian community, united around the Pope and the bishops, is the best antidote to despair.

[Interview by Antoine Soubrier. Translation by CWN.]

Catholic World News Feature
10. april 2002