Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beit Jala: Email from the Archbishop of Westminster

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, has replied to an email that I sent him about his Midnight Mass Homily. Both emails are below. In the homily (currently on the Archbishop's homepage at, the Archbishop said:

"That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight."

I responded by sending the Archbishop this email (in which I repeatedly mis-spelt Beit Jala as Beit Jalal, but never mind):

Dear Archbishop

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I have just read your Christmas 2011 Midnight Mass Homily, including the passage about Beit Jalal.

I have three thoughts to share with you.

One is that I am deeply hurt and disappointed by your failure to mention, alongside the plight of the Palestinians, the terrorist threat to Israelis.

Your criticisms of the route of the security barrier are well-reasoned, but surely, in making such criticisms, one should always include a line to acknowledge that the Israelis give, as their reason for building the barrier, the need to save the lives of innocent civilians?

To condemn only the barrier, without also condemning the murderous violence that arguably prompted the barrier's construction in the first place, is deeply upsetting and wrong.

Secondly, I am shocked and saddened that you would mention Beit Jalal as an instance of Christian suffering without also mentioning other instances of such suffering in the world today. Is one to infer from your only mentioning this one instance that the others are of no importance? I believe that such an inference must be mistaken, but you can presumably see how it might be drawn?

Might one not have included a line noting that, across the Middle East and the wider world, Christians face persecution and even murder on a scale that dwarfs the very serious situation of Beit Jalal?

If I was in your shoes and had been told that I had time to mention only one instance of Christian suffering today, I might have chosen the recent mass killings of Copts in Egypt, the shocking murders of Roman Catholics by the Boko Haram in Nigeria or the fearful situation faced by Christians in Syria, as they face the prospect of what might become a sectarian civil war. At least in Beit Jalal nobody is being killed.

However serious the situation is in Beit Jalal, does it really deserve to be singled out in such a way as to be the ONLY instance of Christian suffering to merit a mention, with other such suffering not mentioned at all?

Lastly, your homily says that a "shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight". Yet the BBC ( today says: "Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world have converged on Bethlehem for Christmas."

The BBC also today says: "About 120,000 visitors are in the Palestinian West Bank town, 30% up on last year, officials said." Is that a sign of a very heavy shadow? I rejoice at the fact that Christians in Bethlehem (and in Israel) enjoy a freedom of worship that is denied to them elsewhere in the Middle East.

Patriarch Twal, in his Midnight Mass Homily in Bethlehem itself, urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa" - rightly focusing on the whole region, and not only on Beit Jalal.

Indeed, he said: "O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future."

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the points that I have raised.


Matthew Harris

To which I today received the following reply, and I assume that the Archbishop will not object to my reproducing it in full:

Dear Mr Harris,

Thank you for your email, sent on Christmas Day.

As you know my reference to Beit Jala was very brief and factual. I did not criticise the State of Israel, but simply stated that a court action was beginning, that very day, in which families were trying the defend the laqnd that they have farmed, some for 700 years. It was not a lengthy statement, simply a request for prayers.

I chose to mention that single event not only because is directly affects the district of Bethlehem but also because the court case was beginning on that day. That makes it a unique moment.

There are, of course, threats and actions against Christians in many parts of the world, and threats and actions against the State of Israel.

You will know that the position of the Holy See, and hence of the Catholic Church, is that of recognising the State of Israel and seeking a solution of two viable states. It is the pursuit of this which is most important.

Thank you for writing to me,

With good wishes,

+Vincent Nichols


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