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 Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 15:17 GMT
Patriarch chides Mid-East leaders
Michel Sabbah talks to Israeli police
Sabbah is a prominent advocate of Palestinian rights
The most senior Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land has called on both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to step aside if they fail to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Our Christmas message is 'Put an end to the occupation and stop bloodshed on both sides'

Michel Sabbah

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, also appealed for an end to the bloodshed and for the Israelis to end the siege of Palestinian areas.

"If the present leaders do not succeed in making peace, there is only one solution: open the way to other leaders. Perhaps they will succeed better where the present ones have failed," he said.

He urged Israel to work towards ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And he called on Christians to "turn checkpoints into places of worship" if Israel does not ease travel restrictions on Palestinians over the Christmas period.

Correspondents say this is the most openly political message the patriarch - who is Palestinian by birth - has made to date.

'Olive branch'

Previously, Patriarch Michel has been seen as a supporter of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and a stern critic of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but his annual Christmas message revealed a new impatience towards Mr Arafat.

Franciscan priest Ibrahim Fartas blesses Palestinian child at St Catherine's church in Bethlehem
Christian Palestinians face a difficult Christmas
When asked if he included Mr Arafat in his call for leadership change, he said: "I am calling on all those who are unable to make peace to step down, first the Israeli authorities, because this is in their hands...

"If Arafat is unable to make peace, of course, let him give the place to another one."

The patriarch also backed away from his previous defence of the armed uprising, or intifada, that the Palestinians have been waging against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"If Palestinians had resisted Israeli tanks with an olive branch, they would have neutralised Sharon's military machine," the cleric told journalists after his public address.

Travel ban

In his address, Patriarch Michel stressed his view that it was occupation that was the root cause of violence in the Middle East, and that the bloodshed would end if Israel pulled out of the occupied territories.

Israeli soldier with two Palestinians at a checkpoint
Sabbah: Checkpoints are "places of humiliation, hatred and death"

"Those being oppressed are the Palestinians. Israelis have to ask themselves why Palestinians are behaving this way instead of just saying it's terrorism," he said.

He also criticised Israel's decision to ban Mr Arafat from travelling to Bethlehem to attend Christmas celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

As for restrictions on the general population, he urged Israel "to take away once and for all, the checkpoints around the Palestinian towns and villages".

If Israel does not ease travel bans on Palestinians in the West Bank on Christmas Eve, he said, the faithful should pray at army checkpoints.

"From places of humiliation, hatred and death, as they are now, transform them into places of worship. Call for prayer gatherings there, may God inspire intentions of justice and peace to those who ordered to establish them," he said.


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18 Dec 02 | Middle East
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