Archbishop risks row with Israel after lobbying Hague over Christians ‘displaced by security barrier’
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has risked a row with the Israeli government after it emerged he lobbied William Hague over the plight of Christians in the West Bank.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols urged the Foreign Secretary to address the “tragic situation” facing of Palestinians displaced by the building of the Israeli security barrier in Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian town a little over a mile from the Church of the Nativity.
He said the “expropriation” of land by Israel had a “catastrophic impact” on the village and risked furthering the conflict. Much of the land has been owned by religious orders and Catholic families dating back 200 years.
The letter is one of the strongest indications yet of the Archbishop’s views on the Middle East conflict. Pope Benedict XVI has described the barrier as “tragic”.
But Israeli diplomats said they were “taken aback” by the correspondence and insisted the allegations were “unfounded”.
The Archbishop of Westminster told Mr Hague he had made an eight-day pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian territories, including two days in Bethlehem.
“While we were there, we visited the parish of the Annunciation in Beit Jala. There we learned of the crisis that has engulfed the parish, due to a recent announcement of annexations of land for the building of a further section of the ‘separation/security wall’ by the Israeli authorities,” he wrote.
“It is my understanding that in the past few weeks, expropriation orders have been handed to 57 families in Beit Jala, removing from them their land, their means of livelihood and, in many cases, their family homes.”
He went on: “This step is a continuation of a long process of expropriation of land by Israel, going far beyond the 1967 border and damaging the very viability of the two-state solution.
“I will be raising this matter directly with the Israeli ambassador but I do hope that you might be able to consider using British influence to try and persuade the Israeli authorities to reverse their declared decision in this regard. It is precisely this kind of case that will provide a basis for either a just peace or continued conflict.”
The Archbishop said the fertile land concerned is essential for Bethlehem’s economy and that he had learnt the Palestinian authority was in control of less than 14 per cent of the Bethlehem district.
He later asked his congregants to pray for the villagers in his Christmas Midnight Mass.
“The Israeli Embassy were taken aback by the Archbishop’s remarks,” an Israeli embassy spokesman said.
“After repeated approaches to his office asking for the basis of these unfounded allegations, we were eventually provided with a press briefing from a Norwegian organisation, which made no reference to any families losing their homes.
“In constructing the security barrier, no land has been annexed, no houses have been demolished, and no-one has been required to leave their home. The routing of the barrier is determined through consultation with the local population and any Palestinian or Israeli affected has full rights of appeal.”
He went on: “The Embassy has expressed its concern with the Archbishop’s office that the reason for the construction of the barrier – repeated Palestinian sniper attacks on the civilian population of Gilo which the barrier has been effective in preventing – was totally absent from his comments.”
But a spokesman for the Archbishop insisted he had personally met families and their lawyers whose land and livelihood were “directly threatened by the proposals for the routing of the security wall”.
The letter, sent in November and released under the Freedom of Information Act, also praised Mr Hague’s leadership as Foreign Secretary through the Arab Spring.
Mr Hague responded that he continued to make representations to the Israeli government to “argue for a just outcome for all the people affected by illegal settlement construction and the confiscation of land due to the separation barrier”.
The situation in Beit Jala, which is home to a number of Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and seminaries, is complicated by the fact that some of the land through which the barrier runs is owned by religious orders. There is a “lack of clarity” as to which side of the wall they wish to be on, Mr Hague said.
He added the Department for International Development and the British Consulate General are helping Palestinian legal teams seeking a rerouting of the barrier away from the village.
A Foreign Office spokesman declined to comment, saying Mr Hague’s letter spoke for itself.
(Source, The Telegraph)