An adviser to the Vatican on the Middle East has urged Israelis and Palestinians to surrender any claims to territory based on religious grounds and to entrust their futures to decisions taken by the international community.
Egyptian Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir told Newsmax that theology cannot be used to support territorial claims because it rules out any reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I can understand it if someone says: 'Here our fathers lived for the past thousand or two thousand years and so we have a right to live here,'” he said. “But if someone says: 'It’s mine because God gave it to me,' I cannot agree with this person.”
Samir believes that although the Jews conquered the land of Israel in 11 B.C., they cannot now legitimately return 20 centuries later by claiming their sacred texts commanded them to do so. Israel, he stressed, has “a full right to exist” as specified by the United Nations, and so it should agree to borders set by international approved agreements.
Samir was responding to controversial comments made by Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros of Newton, Mass., who told a Vatican press conference Oct. 24 that the biblical ideas of the “chosen people” and the “promised land” could not be used to justify “the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians."
“There is no longer a chosen people,” Bustros said. “All men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”
Although some believe his comments were more directed at Christian evangelicals who believe the full return of Jews to Israel will usher in the Apocalypse, his comments angered both the Israeli government and Jewish leaders.
Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee said the archbishop’s comments contradicted Nostra Aetate, a Catholic Church declaration drawn up in the 1960s. The document, he said, “affirmed the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish People, which is inextricably bound up with the Land of Israel.”
But like Bustros, Samir Khalil Samir takes the traditional Catholic Church perspective which views holy scripture as more spiritual and allegorical when it comes to the biblical lands. “Jerusalem is a land where everyone says they are born and it’s interpreted as the celestial Jerusalem, in the liturgy and in the Apocalypse,” said Rev. Samir. “But this is the spiritual Jerusalem and the geographical reality of Jerusalem only has symbolic meaning.”
“To use any theology to say 'this land is mine' is mixing a particular religious approach to justify a political end, and this is unacceptable,” he said, adding: “What does this mean for a Chinese person or an unbeliever?” He agreed that it’s possible to argue an historical case for the state of Israel to exist, and “understands the religious approach of the Jews” but believes such an approach “can never be an argument” and that “every honest person can see the difference.”
He also believes the same error is made by Palestinians who, because they lived in Israel and Palestine for over 13 centuries, claim they have every right to the land. Muslims also believe the territory was given to them by God. If this argument is used elsewhere, the Jesuit scholar added, then Arabs could claim parts of Spain on the grounds that they ruled the Iberian peninsula from 8th-15th century.
Samir, who is a former student of professor Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, argued there’s no way of achieving peace in the Holy Land without justice and concessions. “Everyone has to renounce something from his own project if peace is to be achieved with justice, and it must be done according to international agreements, even if certain nations are influenced by different pressures,” he said. “It’s not the perfect situation but it’s the only one.”
At a recent Vatican synod on the church in the Middle East, attended by hundreds of region’s bishops, participants unanimously agreed that a political solution cannot be reached on the basis of religion.
Samir, who also took part in the meeting, said the Israeli government and Hamas are pursuing “their” own visions of peace “which are certainly against peace.” They mean “war if you don’t accept my conditions,” he said.
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