Closing Remarks from USCCB's Path to Peace in the Holy Land Conference

Closing Reflections on 
“Religious Freedom & Human Rights: 
Path to Peace in the Holy Land – That All May Be Free”
Catholic University of America
September 9, 2013
by Stephen M. Colecchi
Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace
for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
We did not do a comprehensive examination of “Religious Freedom and Human Rights in the Holy Land,” but we did cover a lot of ground.
We explored how “Religious Freedom & Human Rights” are a “Path to Peace in the Holy Land.”  As Cardinal McCarrick reminded us, they are not “the” path, but without them peace cannot come.  Today we focused on where threats to religious freedom and human rights impede peace, and how their promotion can promote peace.
Let me begin summing up our day with a quotation from Pope Francis taken from his homily on Saturday’s Day of Fasting and Prayer for Peace.  It articulates a beautiful vision of peace that underlies all we discussed today:
“[H]umanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family… the other person is a brother or sister to love…. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other. …[E]ach of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts?” (September 7, 2013, No. 1)
The Catholic Church believes that religious freedom is a path to peace, as Pope Benedict XVI declared in his World Day of Peace Message in 2011. Likewise the Church teaches that respect for human rights is a key to peace.  Pope John Paul II taught in his 1999 World Day of Peace Message: “Peace flourishes when these rights are fully respected, but when they are violated what comes is war.” (No. 1)
We have heard today that Jews, Christians and Muslims have strong religious ties to the Holy Land.  We have been reminded that the status of religious freedom and human rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is different.  
Tragically all three faith communities have also experienced threats to religious freedom in the Holy Land, threats that deny the religious freedom and human rights of the other, threats that foster conflict and undermine peace.
There are those who deny the Jewish religious connection to the land and even deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, seeking its destruction.
Synagogues, mosques and churches have all been defaced in ugly attacks. Christians and Muslims in the West Bank are often denied access to their Holy Places in the Old City. The Christian community in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has declined, weakening the Christian presence, as a result of the ongoing conflict.   Families are separated by East Jerusalem residency requirements; lands are lost to the building of the security barrier; economic opportunities are lacking in the Occupied Territories.  The failure to respect the religious freedom and human rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims impinges on the ability to achieve two states living in peace.  One set of violations seeks the destruction of the State of Israel; the other undermines the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, and the building of human and economic capacity for a future state.  
Security measures compromise human rights and religious freedom.  Violence leads to more security measures.  The two contribute to a vicious cycle of violence and lost opportunities for peace.
As the 2010 Synod of Bishops on the Middle East reflected:  “We have taken account of the impact … on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees. We have reflected on the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live. We have meditated on the situation of the holy city of Jerusalem. ... With all this in mind, we see that a just and lasting peace is the only salvation for everyone and for the good of the region and its peoples.” (#3.2)
In 2009, during a visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict said:  The Catholic Church promotes a vision in which “both peoples [Israelis and Palestinians] may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders.” (May 11, 2009)
A just and lasting peace agreement is the single most significant factor in creating an environment conducive to religious freedom for all three faiths.  A secure and recognized Israel will enhance the wellbeing and religious freedom of Jews to live in the Land of the Promise.  A viable and independent Palestinian state living in peace with Israel should help stabilize the emigration of Christians, and allow free and equal access to each tradition’s holy sites both in the Old City and throughout Israel and Palestine.
But promotion of religious freedom is also a “path to peace,” it is not simply the result of peace.  Respect for religious freedom will mean acknowledging “the other.”  Respect for religious freedom will mean less hate speech and more dialogue and negotiation.  Respect for religious freedom will mean less violence and more tolerance.  I am convinced that the Christian community, the smallest and most vulnerable of the three religious communities in the Holy Land, has a unique role to play as a bridge to peace.  The mission of Bethlehem University is an excellent example of this role.
Tragically, there is a reciprocal cycle of violence and denial of human rights that impedes peace in the Holy Land.  But promotion of “Religious Freedom & Human Rights” is a “Path to Peace in the Holy Land.”  And it is through respect for religious freedom and human rights “That All Will Be Free.”