The multiple crises in the Middle East show the need for continued peacemaking and humanitarian efforts, the U.S. Catholic bishops have told foreign policy leaders in the Obama administration.
“As Pope Francis has said on a number of occasions, we need to build bridges, not walls. I pray that the United States will help build a bridge to peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces said to National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice in a Jan. 20 letter.
Bishop Cantu chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. In this role he recently wrote two letters to Obama administration leaders concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Syrian conflict, and the humanitarian crisis.
“The path ahead will be arduous, but the time is long past for the international community to pursue diplomacy and peace in Syria and the region,” Bishop Cantu told Secretary of State John Kerry in another Jan. 20 letter. “In the final analysis only peace will end the refugee crisis, preserve the Christian presence, and allow inclusive societies to be built that respect the human rights of all.”
Bishop Cantu said humanitarian assistance is critical for refugees and displaced persons as well as for the countries hosting them.
“The needs are simply outstripping the available resources,” he said, noting funding shortfalls for the United Nations’ World Food Program and other aid programs.
“Jordan and Lebanon have been remarkably generous to the call to welcome the stranger, and at great cost to their social systems,” the bishop continued.
He added that Catholic Relief Services and its Caritas agency partners have been assisting both host populations and refugees.
United Nations-led talks seeking peace for the Syrian conflict are scheduled to begin in Geneva on Friday.
Bishop Cantu told Kerry that if peace talks are successful, the U.S. and the international community will need to provide “robust assistance” to help rebuild Syria and repair the social fabric so that refugees can return.
“Post-war desperation will only fuel renewed conflict and extremism. It is particularly important that Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the opportunity to return to their country so as to restore the delicate demographic balance necessary for stability in Lebanon.”
The need to secure peace and isolate extremists in Iraq and Syria are difficult, but not impossible, the bishop said. He said it is critical to promote an inclusive government for all ethnic and religious groups.
Bishop Cantu recently traveled to the region.
“Church leaders with whom we met are particularly concerned to preserve the Christian presence in the region, the birthplace of Christianity,” he explained. “This presence is not only important for the Church, but also for stability in the region.”
The Christian presence helps encourage tolerance and respect for pluralism, he said.
The bishop had met with Christian refugees who spoke of persecution by the Islamic State group. He said it is clear that the Islamic State wants to expel Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, as well as Muslims who reject their “narrow, distorted and extremist ideology.”
Bishop Cantu welcomed the nuclear agreement with Iran, saying this achievement can be a basis for peace in Syria and for strengthening stability in Lebanon.
He asked that the U.S. encourage the election of a president in Lebanon. The presidency has been vacant since May 2014 due to both internal and international tensions, particularly the Syrian crisis.
“This paralysis must end in order for Lebanon to weather better the crises sweeping the region.”
Bishop Cantu stressed the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid the several crises in the Middle East. His letter to Rice said the status quo is “unsustainable” and “dangerous” for both Israelis and Palestinians.
The bishop included a statement from the bishops of the Holy Land Coordination, “You Are Not Forgotten.” That statement recognized Israel’s right to live in security, while warning of the effects of Israeli occupation in Palestine.
Bishop Cantu called for “renewed efforts to achieve a peace agreement that provides security and recognition for Israel and a viable and independent state for Palestinians.”
He said the Holy See’s recent recognition of Israel must be followed by concrete action. The situation in Gaza is “dire” and the population there suffers from isolation and desperation.
“I would again highlight the injustice being perpetrated in the Cremisan Valley. Bulldozers have begun to uproot ancient olive groves belonging to Christian Palestinians in the West Bank near Bethlehem,” Bishop Cantu commented.
The bishop said Israel’s security barrier route should not effectively confiscate Palestinian land and compromise the ministry of Christian institutions and the rights of Christian landowners.
“It if is to be built, it should be on internationally recognized Israeli land,” he said.