Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Meeting with the Apostolic Delegate

The formal business of our Australian delegation to Israel/Palestine kicked off today, although two of our people were detained in Jordan because their luggage had been misplaced and they were required to stay in Amman until it was located.

After a briefing from Yusef Daher (executive secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-church Center, which is coordinating our itinerary), and Kjell Jonasson (who works with the Middle East Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches), we met with the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr Antonio Franco, at our hotel. An Apostolic Delegate, also called a Nuncio, is a diplomatic representative of the Holy See (the Vatican) to a state, such as Israel. He has the rank of ambassador, and the status of archbishop.

His Excellency spoke with us for 90 minutes. I found him to be warm, enthusiastic for peace, and cautiously optimistic. He was obviously encouraged that we had come from Australia to express solidarity with our Middle Eastern counterparts and listen to the needs of Palestinian Christians. He has been in Jerusalem only since April 2006. He emphasised that unity begins with understanding and love; that the alternative to dialogue is confrontation; and that it was important for Christians "to see the two faces of the problem" of Israel/Palestine rather than adopt a partisan position. He agreed with Pope Benedict’s insistence on reciprocity in dialogue and peace initiatives.

He noted that emigration of Christians from the Middle East was a reality, and that it weakened the continuing Christian witness. Christians left because of lack of opportunity, and a desire to offer their families a better quality of life than was available to them in Israel and Palestine. “If they could, many more [Christians] would move,” he said. But some were also returning out of love for family, for the land, and for the sake of history.

Asked about ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, His Excellency said it was important for Christians in the region to foster interpersonal relationships and to speak with one voice. He described tensions between Christians as “not really Christian.” He acknowledged that building “a new mentality, a relationship of accepting each other,” was not easy. On this subject see my earlier blog (click here). He also observed that those interreligious dialogues that succeed were informal, and focused on shared celebration and fostering knowledge and understanding at a personal level.

Asked about the status of Hamas in Palestine, His Excellency said it was important to combat terrorism but also to combat the source of terrorism. He noted that corruption within the Palestinian Authority [chiefly, in my opinion, by Fatah] had led to popular support for Hamas. This had embarrassed the West.

Asked about the possibility that the Annapolis talks (held in November) may increase support for a Jewish state exclusively for Jews, His Excellency replied, “If only for the Jewish, draw your conclusions.” He did not want to see a new series of tensions and wars. An ethnically pure state would not only be bad for Christian Palestinians but for Muslims too.

Asked how Australian Christians could best support peace initiatives in Israel/Palestine, His Excellency suggested that we should “portray the reality of the Holy Land and encourage Australian Christian communities to grow more spiritually close to Christians in the Holy Land." He advocated the mutual benefits of prayer, pilgrimage and partnerships (such as twin cities or congregations).

Pictured above (L-R): Mr Lyndsay Farrell, Archbishop Frank Carroll, Rev Kjell Jonasson, His Excellency Msgr Antonio Franco, Rev Gregor Henderson, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, Rev Rod Benson, Mr Ken Bray. Absent from photo: Rev Merrill Kitchen, Rev John Henderson, Rev Terrence Corkin.

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