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Bethlehem standoff exposed weaknesses in Vatican diplomacy


Despite a happy ending on May 11 to the standoff at Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity, the 39-day drama exposed serious divisions in Catholic attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian problem, as well as potential weaknesses in Vatican diplomacy that often relies on informal mediators and backdoor channels of communication.

While the sexual abuse scandal may have dominated headlines in the United States, the crisis in Bethlehem was the dominant religion story in the rest of the world since April 2, when dozens of Palestinians, several of them militiamen wanted by Israel, fled inside the basilica ahead of invading Israeli forces. Israeli troops surrounded the fourth-century site, which according to tradition marks the site where Jesus was born, and demanded the gunmen surrender, but they refused.

Some 200 people were trapped inside, including civilians and the Franciscan, Armenian and Orthodox monks who share the nativity shrine.

The siege ended following intervention by the Vatican, the European Union and United States. Thirteen of the gunmen, allegedly linked to the Hamas and Fatah organizations, were exiled temporarily to Cyprus, 26 others were taken to the Gaza Strip, and the rest were released.

Catholic reaction to the crisis at the Basilica of the Nativity was marked by profound differences.

Church leaders on the ground, especially the Latin Rite Patriarch Michael Sabbah and the Franciscan friars who serve as custodians of the holy sites, tend to identify strongly with the Palestinian cause.

Sabbah, for example, has insisted that the “root cause” of violence is the Israeli occupation. In an article published May 10, he repeated the point: “As long as there is occupation, the cycle of violence will continue,” Sabbah wrote.

Some senior officials in the Vatican back this view. Coverage of the Bethlehem crisis in L’Osservatore Romano, for example, the official Vatican newspaper, tended to be strongly anti-Israeli. An April 2 article denounced Israel’s “aggression that is tantamount to extermination,” asserting that its military was “profaning the holy sites with iron and fire.”

Others in the Vatican, however, were obviously frustrated with what they see as the partisan nature of this response. L’Avvenire, for example, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, took a much more critical stance toward “Palestinian terrorism.”

L’Avvenire is assumed to reflect in a general way the views of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome and an influential figure on the European political scene.

Conservative Catholic journalist Sandro Magister went so far as to suggest in L’Espresso, a mass circulation Italian magazine, that the Franciscans may have exaggerated shortages of food and water inside the basilica in their public comments in order to generate sympathy for the Palestinian occupiers. Magister contrasted dire statements from Franciscan Fr. David Jager, spokesperson for the custodians, about growing hunger with the statements of the first observers to enter the basilica after the crisis ended, who reported seeing large amounts of spilled and half-eaten meals.

The Bethlehem crisis also raised questions about Vatican diplomacy. As the situation dragged on, Pope John Paul II dispatched his trusted troubleshooter, retired French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to the region on May 1. Etchegaray met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, but was rebuffed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a sign that the Israelis were unhappy with the pro-Palestinian tone of much Catholic commentary.

Katsav, in his session with Etchegaray, complained of the “silence of the Christian world in this affair,” especially over “the fact that armed terrorists had taken over the holy place.” He also called on the pope to “act with great determination” against “the dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in the world at large and Europe in particular.”

“We know how this phenomenon starts but we never know where it will lead to,” Katsav said.

Etchegaray returned to Rome May 6, amid media reports that the crisis was about to end with the 13 Palestinian militants heading into exile in Italy. It quickly emerged, however, that no one had bothered to consult Italy, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi balked, insisting that the responsibility had to be shared by other European nations.

The obvious question was where the idea of Italy as a receptacle for the Palestinians had come from in the first place. Many observers suggested Etchegaray had floated the idea, although a senior diplomat close to the negotiations told NCR this was not true.

Etchegaray told NCR May 9 that it would not have been within his authority to make such a proposal. The diplomat said the idea originated with Sabbah, who passed it along to a Turin-based Catholic activist named Ernesto Olivero, who sometimes functions as an informal Vatican emissary. Olivero heads a youth missionary organization called Sermig, whose headquarters in Turin is called the “Arsenal of Peace.” Olivero said he was contacted by local authorities in the Holy Land April 25 about accepting the 13 Palestinians.

Olivero, in turn, relayed the idea to his friend Giulo Andreotti, a former Italian prime minister with good Vatican connections. Andreotti then talked to officials in the Italian government.

A senior diplomat told NCR this was not the only case in which Catholic officials acting in ad-hoc capacities complicated the negotiations. The Franciscans in Bethlehem, he said, had floated the idea of sending a large group of civilians into the basilica for a prayer service, after which everyone would come out together, the militants leaving their arms behind and disappearing into the crowd.

The idea was vetoed both by the Israelis and the Vatican, the diplomat said, because it ran the risk of turning over a large group of potential hostages to the Palestinian gunmen.

In response to the Bethlehem crisis, sources say, Vatican diplomats are reviewing the wisdom of reliance on third-party intermediaries who may have strong biases and lack a certain real-world savvy, but who may also be able to propose creative solutions that would be difficult for official spokespersons to voice.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002