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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1997, pgs. 26, 54

Special Report

Antiochian Orthodox Archbishop Assails Clinton, Gingrich Middle East Stands

by Pat McDonnell Twair

"Yasser Arafat never should have signed the Oslo agreement. In my opinion, Oslo is dead." So said Archbishop Philip Saliba, the spiritual leader of 800,000 Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America. While in Los Angeles from his New Jersey headquarters, he agreed to discuss Christian concerns for Jerusalem and peace in the Middle East with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

"The Arabs could have done themselves a big favor if they had listened to [Syria's] President [Hafez] Al-Assad, who insisted separate peace agreements should not be signed with Israelthat a peace treaty should only be concluded with all the Arab states together," the archbishop said. "For that matter, what happened to the Madrid formula: land for peace? Madrid was convened by President George Bush and Secretary [of State James] Baker on the basis of land for peace."

Obviously disturbed by mounting tensions and broken agreements since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office in June 1996, the archbishop continued: "This is a dangerous time, a dark cloud is hanging over the Middle East. People in the area are overwhelmed by a feeling of uncertainty. The only government that can revive the dying peace process is the U.S., but it seems Washington is unwilling to take an active role."

When asked if he, as the leader of 800,000 Antiochian Christians, had taken his concerns to President Bill Clinton, he replied: "Of course. We approached President Clinton a few years ago. But Clinton is Clinton. He speaks nice words and says he will do something. I've been hearing such nice words from U.S. presidents ever since Eisenhower. I've met with every president since Ike and I'm disappointed with the [Middle East] policy of the United States. It is not even-handed, to say the least. "

Turning to the flight of Christians from Jerusalem, we asked if he believes Jerusalem will be devoid of a Christian population in the next centuryless than three years hence.

"It looks that way," he answered. "Before 1948 there were 30,000 Orthodox Arab Christians living in Jerusalem. Now at most there are 2,000. It is the same story for the rest of the Christians: the Latins, Melkites, Armenians and so on. The city is going through a process of Judaization contrary to U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and contrary to the stated position of the U.S. government. The key to a just solution to the problem of the Middle East is the U.S. government. Yet it is evident Washington is not even-handed because of Jewish pressure on this administration and earlier ones. In the long run, this won't serve the best interests of the U.S. in the region."

Noting that neither the American people nor the U.S. media seem cognizant of the history of the region, the archbishop said he is not pessimistic about the future of the Arab nation. "If the Arabs are divided today and don't possess the most modern technology, it doesn't mean the situation will be the same 100 years from now. History is not static. It is a dynamic force, and those 250 million Arabs from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean with so many natural resources and so many strategic areas will not be divided forever. One historical example is the Crusaders who occupied Jerusalem and much of the Middle East for 200 years. Then Saladin was successful in uniting Egypt and Greater Syria, and by so doing, he defeated the Crusaders at the battle of Hitteen," the archbishop said.

"The Arabs may be enduring a difficult time today, but tomorrow might bring a new reality."

We asked Archbishop Saliba what will happen to the Christian monuments of the Holy Land, and if the Israelis look to them as a new source of revenue from tourism once the Christians are gone.

"As Arab Christians and Muslims, we're not so concerned about archeological sites," he replied. "Of course we place high importance on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa, but we are concerned about the people, the living stones.

"Israel claims Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city. That is utter nonsense," he continued. "Jerusalem existed 3,000 years before Abraham came to Palestine. When Abraham arrived in Palestine, the Book of Genesis says he didn't own anything. As a matter of fact, when his wife Sarah died, he asked the Palestinians to sell him a piece of land in which to bury Sarah. If I may paraphrase, the Palestinians told him, 'you are a prince among us and we'll give the land to you.' He said no, and paid the Palestinians for the plot of land."

At this point, we brought up a current letter-writing campaign by Jewish residents of San Antonio, TX, stating that claims by Express-News columnist Maury Maverick's that Christians are being forced out of Jerusalem and occupied Palestine are untrue, that Jews have never persecuted Christians, and that Maverick is inciting anti-Jewish sentiments in Texas (see p. 35).

A rueful smile crossed the face of the archbishop, who has lived in the U.S. for 42 years. Shaking his head negatively, he responded: "Anyone in the state of Israel who is not a Jew is a second- or third-class citizen. Christians and Muslims are not leaving Jerusalem and the occupied territories because they've been treated kindly and gently by the Israeli occupying forces. The Geneva Convention of 1949 states clearly that an occupier has no right to change the topography or the demography of the territory it occupies. So the 180 Jewish settlements the Israelis have built on Palestinian land are a flagrant violation of the principles of the Geneva Convention, let alone U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. When anyone claims Arab Christians and Muslims aren't persecuted by Israelisit is nonsense. Actions speak louder than words."

"Again," he said, "AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] pressure groups are playing a tremendous role in pushing through legislation that is contrary to the best interests of the U.S. I call this sheer immorality."

Only two days earlier House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) had proposed that Congress cut off all funds to the Palestinian National Authority because of Israeli assertions that the PNA had issued the death penalty for any Palestinian who sells Arab land to Israelis. When we asked the archbishop what would be the effect of withholding the few million dollars Congress had grudgingly committed to the Palestinians as opposed to the more than $5 billion Congress provides Israel each year, he commented:

"I cannot comprehend how the speaker of the House can issue statements contrary to all moral principles. Either he doesn't know betterand this is not an excuseor perhaps he has sold his soul to the Devil. I say the same thing for all these totally pro-Israel policymakers in the U.S. government. They are not contributing to peace in the Middle East."

The Lebanon-born cleric's sense of humor returned as he sighed over the fate of PNA President Yasser Arafat. "Arafat lives like a prisoner. He can't even fly in his little helicopter from Gaza to Jericho without permission from the Israelis. It's as if he's living in a jail cell and the Israelis tell him when he can have the water or electricity turned on."

As for the immediate future, "Anything could happen. Netanyahu might take advantage of the problems Clinton is facing domestically—and who created these scandals to divert the president?"

"Don't be depressed about the state of Palestinian affairs," the religious leader said in parting. "History is cyclical, the situation cannot remain the same."