Christian leaders dismayed by anti-gentile attitudes

Peres to church heads: We know you are each facing problems...We want people of all faiths to feel welcome here.

Church leaders in Israel and other parts of the Holy Land are concerned about racist attitudes demonstrated in recent weeks in anti-Arab and anti-gentile proclamations on the part of Jewish extremists.
On Wednesday, around 250 Christian leaders representing the Catholic, Eastern and Protestant churches attended the annual reception at Beit Hanassi for heads of Christian churches, communities and institutions. Dismay could be heard in snatches of conversation overheard among Christians of varying denominations, with some attributing the apparent surge in xenophobia to an increase in missionary activity in Israel – which, though illegal, often gets past watchdog barriers.
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Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, speaking on behalf of all church leaders, said in his address: “We are cautious about the rising negative sentiments fueled by extremists and appeal for the fact that we consider all humans as equal to one another – a perception sustained in the monotheistic faiths and upheld by the many decent citizens who also feel threatened by the moral decline witnessed today.”
Speaking ahead of Theophilos at the gathering – which included rabbis and other religiously observant Jews, primarily from the Religious Services Ministry and the Christian Department of the Interior Ministry – President Shimon Peres declared from the outset of his address that Israel wanted all people of every faith to feel free in this country.
“We know you are each facing problems,” he said, and offered whatever help was needed in overcoming these difficulties.
“All of us have a commitment to pray to the Lord, who represents peace, understanding and respect for every human being,” said Peres.
“All of us, of all religions, have a duty – just like politicians – to come together to make peace. None of us, Jews, Arabs or Christians, have an alternative.”
He entreated his guests not to allow hatred to triumph.
Although he refrained from making remarks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Peres noted that the world was seeing a shift from wars between armies to dangers or potential threats such as terrorism, missiles and nuclear weapons. “We have to unite against this phenomenon,” he said.
Peres also spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his unwavering belief that peace was feasible.
“We can and should bring an end to the conflict,” he said.
“We believe in a two-state solution with an Arab state called Palestine and a Jewish state called Israel – and you have a role to play,” he told the Christian leaders. “We shouldn’t let pessimism or cynicism bring us back to a state of unnecessary conflict.”
Theophilos said that events like Wednesday’s gathering were of great significance, “both for celebrating the common bonds of our humanity and for reminding ourselves of those fundamental moral values that are essential to our common life.
Humanity today is confronted and confused on every side with dark forces of disrespect and even humiliation, and unfortunately much of this is done in the pretense of religious allegiance and in the name of Almighty God.”
Underscoring that the presence of people from so many different religious streams was “a clear expression and manifestation of interreligious and intercultural understanding,” Theophilos said that any form of polarization – political, social or ideological – posed a serious challenge to the efforts and sincere intentions of those who were on the side of peace, respect and understanding.
In the past there has been friction between the churches and the Israeli authorities over access for pilgrims.
Theophilos expressed appreciation to the authorities for facilitating greater access to Christian holy sites for pilgrims and worshipers from around the world. However, the churches are still at odds with the authorities over issues such as tax exemption for and ownership of church properties.
The Christian community accounts for approximately 2 percent of Israel’s population.
Among the other spiritual leaders present at Beit Hanassi were Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Franco, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Tual, deputy head of the Armenian Church Archbishop Nourhan Manougiam, Custodian of the Holy Land Pier Battista Pizzaballa, and Elias Shakur, metropolitan of Acre, Haifa and Nazareth.