Like Christians everywhere, we, the Catholic Bishops of Aotearoa/New Zealand hold a special place in our hearts for the Holy Land and its peoples. It is the world of our Scripture, the birthplace of our faith, and the homeland of Christ in whom we hope. Indeed it is a Holy Land for three of the world's great faiths.
And so it is with deepening anguish that we follow the escalation of the conflict in occupied Palestine, the increasing violence, the destruction of life and property, and the violation of the rights of individuals and of peoples.
Attacks on innocent civilian lives, wherever they occur, are to be condemned outright. They violate in the most extreme way the absolute dignity of humanity and of every person. In this light, the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers can only be abhorred.
Yet no less abhorrent are the actions of any state which does not "safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person" 1 but which also takes innocent lives.
We understand the fear which has beset the Israeli people as they have witnessed so many horrible attacks on the innocent among them. Innocent Palestinian people have lived with the same fear for the fifty years in which their lands and villages have been occupied and expropriated by others, while they themselves have been reduced to the status of refugees in their own homeland. Our brother Bishop, Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, throughout his unceasing work for peace and inter-religious dialogue, has repeatedly made clear that it is the occupation of Palestine by Israel - not terrorism - which is the root cause of the problem.2
Israel has in recent months launched the most repressive attacks on the populations and towns of occupied Palestine. These territories have been isolated and cut off from one another. Tanks and bulldozers have destroyed homes and the basic amenities which support the life of the community. Civilian lives have been taken, and extra-judicial killings carried out. Whole populations have been cut off from food, water, and medical treatment. The media has been excluded and humanitarian and human rights workers restricted as they have tried to bring aid and communicate to the world what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The word "terrorist" has become a label, used to justify retaliatory acts of terror. In an occupied land, has the Israeli force over recent weeks, or indeed since 1967, inspired any less terror than the Palestinian suicide bombers whom they seek to destroy?
Across the world, governments, organizations and individuals are calling upon Israel to step back from its path of escalation and destruction. We join with them in calling Israel to a series of actions which may give justice and peace some chance:
- Withdraw immediately from all areas of the West Bank and Gaza;
- Begin to dismantle the settlements established in Palestinian territories in violation of the Oslo Agreement;
- Allow journalists, humanitarian aid agencies and human rights workers free access to the occupied territories;
- Agree to an international peace-keeping force as called for by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Vatican.
- Equally we call upon Palestinians to abandon the targeting of innocent Israeli civilians. These actions are morally indefensible, and only serve to escalate the conflict. They undermine both the legitimate cause of the Palestinian people and any prospect for peace.
No amount of repression, occupation, or military force can dim the desire of a people to live with dignity and freedom in their homeland. In our own region the people of East Timor have provided powerful witness to that desire in their long struggle to determine their own future. We affirm the right of the Palestinian people to find dignity and freedom through the establishment of an independent state, which surely can be denied them no longer. Their freedom will also be freedom for Israel - freedom from fear, and the opportunity to move on from a conflict which has haunted the state of Israel since its birth. Justice will bless both peoples with peace.
In New Zealand we are a long way from the conflict. Distance does not separate us from responsibility for action. As Christians we must stand, as Christ did, beside those who suffer, who are poor, powerless, or oppressed. We urge all Catholics to learn more about the causes of the current situation in the Holy Land, and to reflect upon this knowledge in the light of the Gospel. We ask you to share your knowledge and reflection with other New Zealanders, and to take whatever prayerful action you consider to be needed. We encourage you to make an individual commitment to prayer, and to find ways to join together in prayer in our parishes.
In this Eastertide, as we celebrate the greatest miracle of all, together we must seek a miracle for the peoples of the Holy Land.
Peter J Cullinane Bishop of Palmerston North
Leonard A Boyle
Bishop of Dunedin
Denis G Browne
Bishop of Hamilton
John J Cunneen
Bishop of Christchurch
John A Dew
Auxiliary Bishop of Wellington
Owen J Dolan
Coadjutor Bishop of Palmerston North
Patrick J Dunn
Bishop of Auckland
Max T Mariu SM
Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton
Robin W Leamy SM
Emeritus Bishop of Rarotonga
Cardinal Thomas Williams
Archbishop of Wellington
1 Pacem in Terris, 60.
2 Caritas Internationalis Statement on Palestine, 5 April 2002.