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Ha'aretz, August 9, 1998

Bishop Battle Riles Vatican Ambassador

By Joseph Algazy, Ha'aretz Correspondent

The Vatican ambassador to Israel, Pietro Sambi, lashed out last night at government efforts to alter an official church appointment within Israel, saying last night that "appointing bishops is exclusively church business, and not within the province of the government of Israel, nor the Netanyahu government. We will not allow anyone to intervene in the matter."

An official source in Jerusalem last night confirmed that the government had considered barring Archbishop Butrus Moua'lem, the newly appointed Greek-Catholic bishop to the Galilee, from entering Israel, but decided to back down from such a drastic move.

Government sources have linked Moua'lem to Hilarion Capucci, a Greek-Catholic archbishop who was convicted in the late 1970s of running guns to the PLO and who was subsequently deported to Brazil.

Archbishop Moua'lem is currently serving in Brazil.

In reaction to charges by the Prime Minister's Office that Moua'lem is a security risk, Ambassador Shakour said that "[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's intervention in the appointment of a bishop was out of place and foolish. Even Muslim countries do not intervene in such matters. The last country that tried was China, and they backed down in the end. Better that Netanyahu deal with the really pressing matters for Israel - the negotiations with the Palestinians and the unemployment crisis, than try to interfere in church affairs."

Aviv Bushinsky, the prime minister's spokesman, said last night that the government has no intention of intervening in the appointment of the bishop. Bushinsky confirmed that Netanyahu had tried to get Archimandrite Emile Shoufani to reinstate outgoing Bishop Maximus Salum but that in the face of the Vatican's opposition, backed down.

According to Elias Shakour, a leading Greek-Catholic clergyman who serves as president of the St. Elias College in Ib'ilin where some 3,500 Christian, Moslem and Jewish students go to school, the controversy began a year ago when a church synod met in Lebanon and forced Salum to hand in his resignation because of ill-health.

Salum agreed, but only on condition that Shoufani get the appointment. However, 15 of the 20 synod members, including Shakour, were opposed to that condition. At that point, the Pope stepped in and appointed Moua'lem as the Bishop of Galilee.

According to Shakour, Moua'lem, as an archbishop with a doctorate of theology, is senior to Shoufani in the church hierarchy.

© Copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

Ha'aretz, August 18, 1998

Where obedience is a virtue

By Joseph Algazy

The intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers in the appointment process of the Greek-Catholic church, by trying to force on it a nominee for bishop of the Galilee "who is acceptable to the government of Israel," as they described it, caused serious damage to the relationship between Israel and the Vatican.The Vatican does not tolerate any interference with its right to choose the heads of its own churches. That's the reason for the biting response of the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, who said that the Vatican will not allow the Netanyahu government to intervene in the appointment. Privately, church heads wondered what would happen if, for example, French President Jacques Chirac intervened in the appointment of the Chief Rabbi of France.

On the one hand, the Israeli government showed too much ardor in supporting the nominee the Archimandrite, Emil Shufani, who was found "acceptable," and on the other hand it took too threatening a stance when the information that the church had considered appointing Bishop Butrus Mualem to areas of Israel, leaked.

Both men were born in the village of Eilabun in the Galilee. Shufani has served for several years in the lower levels of the hierarchical church ladder in Nazareth, while Mualem has filled higher positions and serves in Brazil.

In order to make Mualem's appointment fail, government spokesmen claimed there were "security" problems with him, which was supposed to shock us but actually triggered only laughter. They said Mualem is "tied to Syrian intelligence and to hostile Palestinian forces such as Archbishop Hilarion Capucci and Palestinian Foreign Minister Farouk Kedoumi." Knowledgeable people in the church say the security claim has no leg to stand on and is false.

Israel and the territories are, of course, among the most important centers of Christianity. Next year, celebrations will begin to commemorate 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus. Millions of believers will turn their prayers toward Israel the cradle of Christianity, a holy land for them, as well. Millions of others will make a pilgrimage.

For some years, the current pope, John Paul II, has been trying to decide whether or not he should participate in the pilgrimage. Despite the opposition of Jewish religious groups, the Israeli government would really like it, especially when all of Jerusalem is under its control.

Since the creation of Israel the political establishment has made sure - for political and economic reasons - that all church leaders here were people "acceptable" to them - meaning obedient. Sometimes it succeeded and benefited, and in other cases it failed.

In the state's earliest days, the Greek-Catholic church in the Galilee was run by Bishop George Chakim, a member of the ruling Mapai Party. In 1967, Chakim began rising in the church hierarchy and today holds the rank of Patriarch Maximus IV and sits in Latkia, Syria. His heir in the Galilee, Bishop Yosef Raya, who led the fight against the removal of Christian Arabs from Ikrit and Biram, was hated by then Prime Minister Golda Meir, and eventually resigned from his position.

Today, the man favored by Israel's leaders is the head of the Greek-Orthodox church, the Patriarch Diadorus, while even mentioning the name of the Latin-Catholic Patriarch, Michael Sabach, causes paralysis to set in.

Under Diadorus, the Greek-Orthodox church has made several large land deals - to the glee of the Israeli government and the chagrin of shepherds in Israel, the territories and Jordan, who openly threaten to launch an Intifada against Diadorus. About two weeks ago, their secular representatives met in Amman and planned their moves in the struggle against him and other church heads who are of Greek or Caprician heritage. They demand that Arab church heads also be appointed.

Countering Diadorus, the Patriarch Sabach, in cards he sends out during Christian holidays, expresses his identification with the struggle of the shepherds. He enjoys great popularity among them, and as a result is defined by the Israeli establishment as a "Palestinian nationalist."

Like its predecessors, the Netanyahu government is interested in having within its powers church heads who are obedient, the type who don't intervene in political and other matters that have to do with the Palestinians; the type who don't make a lot of noise when fanatic Jews vandalize churches and convents; the type who will continue to sell or lease for long periods the land they manage.

But at this stage, it looks like the government will be forced to go to Canossa and accept the Vatican's appointment.

© Copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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