27TH FEBRUARY 2007
Bishop Raymond Field, Chair of the Irish Commission for Justice & Social Affairs, welcome remarks at the media launch of “Palestine/Israel – Principles for a Just Peace”
Buswells Hotel Dublin, 27 February 2007
“Bold gestures are needed to break the cycle of fear and anger engulfing the region” – Bishop Raymond Field
Distinguished guests and members of the media.
It is my pleasure to formally welcome you to this launch of an important position paper from the Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs (a commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference) that is designed both to highlight the profound sufferings of the peoples on all sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and to add another voice from the international community that encourages both the Palestinians and the Israelis, as Pope Benedict XVI states: “to seek responsibly for that negotiated end to the conflict, which alone can ensure the peace to which their people aspire”.
Bishop Kirby and I have just returned from participating in the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences of Europe and North America in Support of the Church of the Holy Land, a group established by the Holy See in 1998, and the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. We have been asked to urge our countries to be advocates for justice and peace in the Holy Land. Bold gestures are needed to break the cycle of fear and anger engulfing the region and the launch today of this document is or considered response. .
During our visit we went to Gaza and met members of the Christian and Muslim community, visited Catholic schools where we were both uplifted and also saddened to see and hear the children sing and express in dance their hope for an end to their suffering and imprisonment.
We also visited a local Mosque and were impressed by the rapport between the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders, as they shared a common hope for an end to the injustices they all experience while living in poverty in Gaza.
In Galilee, the delegation met with members of the Christian communities and heard their stories of joy and suffering. All expressed concern at the departure of the members of Christian communities who had left the Holy Land as a result of the conflict. In Bethlehem alone almost 10% of the Christian population have emigrated in the last five years. Today, it is estimated that there are more Christian Palestinians in North America than there are in the Holy Land.
In the face of an endless cycle of violence and human rights abuses that scar the Holy Land we cannot remain silent. It is this reality that prompts us today to call on Mr Dermot Ahern, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs, to ensure that the Irish voice for peace in the Middle East is heard loud and clear. In this regard, we welcome the speech made by Minister Ahern to the 61st Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2006 where he stated that:
“The single greatest challenge to international peace and security is the situation in the Middle East. The dreadful events of recent months have again brought before the eyes of the world the continuing suffering being borne by the peoples of the region. Frustration at the long agony of the Palestinian people creates and sharpens wider divisions across the world. A comprehensive settlement to the inter-related problems of the region is more urgently required than at any time in the past 60 years.”
We join with Minister Ahern in welcoming the recent announcement of an accord between Fatah and Hamas on the formation of a national unity government and we welcome the Minister’s assessment upon his return from his recent visit to the Middle East that there is now a window of opportunity to revive the peace process. These factors give an added sense of urgency to our demand that the Irish voice is added to those that call for an end to this cruel and senseless conflict.
We cannot pretend to be innocent bystanders in this conflict. We need little reminding of the strong sporting and cultural links that exist between Ireland and Israel. Much more important are the relations between Ireland and Israel that flow from the EU-Israel Association agreement. This agreement greatly facilitates Israel’s access to EU markets for industrial goods and services and gives Israel preferential treatment in a wide range of areas including research, innovation, education and culture.
After this press conference, Bishop John Kirby, Fr Eoin Cassidy and I will meet with Minister Dermot Ahern and raise with him this issue of the EU-Israel Association agreement. While we welcome cooperation between the EU and its neighbouring countries, nevertheless such cooperation should not be at the expense of a large segment of the indigenous population – in this case the Palestinians. Where there is evidence of systematic abuse of human rights on a large scale as in the Occupied Territories there are questions that must be asked concerning the appropriateness of maintaining close business, cultural and commercial links with Israel.
At the very least, the Irish Government has a duty to work at EU level to ensure that the existing close commercial and cultural relations with Israel are carried out in a manner that gives priority to promoting the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.
We also intend to raise with the Minister, the issue of the restriction of movement in the Occupied Territories. We are calling for an end to restrictions on family reunification, and an end to humiliating treatment of people at checkpoints. The Palestinian people need freedom of movement to work, visit family, obtain medical treatment and be educated. At present it is extremely difficult for Palestinian Christians from East Jerusalem to pray at the Church of the Nativity or for Christians in Bethlehem to attend Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. At this time, no Bethlehem resident is allowed to visit Jerusalem without special permission from the Israeli army. In effect, the communities of Bethlehem and East Jerusalem are forced to live divided by a 25 foot wall that surrounds Bethlehem on three sides.
Although the restrictions are in part designed to provide security for the Israeli population of Jerusalem they nevertheless are in clear breach of Article 12 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which obliges Israel to ensure access to Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy places that are under its control. Their rights must be guaranteed through recognition of equality, improved security along with the religious rights enshrined in law.
Finally, we intend to raise with Minister Ahern the intolerable situation that is the daily lot of the Palestinians who live in Gaza, a territory just 6 miles wide and 25 miles long and home to 1.3 million Palestinians. As things presently stand Gaza is little more than a large prison. Israel retains control of its land borders, airspace and territorial waters and imposes severe restrictions on the rights of Palestinians in Gaza to either enter or leave the territory. This injustice is exacerbated by the restrictions that are placed on Palestinians engaged in a commercial activity such as fishing – a key source of income in a territory such as Gaza with a relatively long coastline.
This is a no doubting the seriousness of the situation which exists in Palestine / Israel. We are deeply aware of the importance of actively promoting a peace process based on justice and respect for human rights. In the light of the urgency of the situation we join with humanitarian agencies from every corner of the globe – and in particular with our sister organisation Pax Christi International – in calling on the UN to make a long term and active commitment to peace in the Middle East. It is high time that the UN implemented its resolutions pertaining to the Middle East conflict.
The position paper that you have before you is premised on the belief that a lasting peace in the Middle East will never be achieved unless both Palestinians and Israelis endeavour to hear the others voice. And as in all conflicts there are two very different voices. The meeting last week of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the presence of the US Secretary of State Ms Condoleezza Rice offers some hope that the importance of this insight has not been forgotten.
I wish to acknowledge the assistance of my colleague and chair of Trócaire, Bishop John Kirby, along the Director of Trócaire, Mr Justin Kilcullen, and especially Fr Eoin Cassidy in the research, preparation and production of this position paper.
May I conclude by briefly introducing the Reverend Dr Eoin Cassidy who, in his capacity as chair of the International sub-committee of the ICJSA, will formally launch today’s publication.
The ICJSA was founded to promote the social dimension of the Gospel with a view to contributing towards the building of a civilization of love. It is to be hoped that this thought provoking position paper will contribute to an understanding of the nature of the conflict and engender in us a sense of the urgency of working for peace.
Bishop Raymond Field
Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin
Chair of the Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs
27 February 2007