Menaced holy land Christians

Robert Novak

2/16/2006 12:05:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., is taking an increased interest in the desperate plight of Christians in the Holy Land -- to the point of politely and privately asking for help from George W. Bush. Immediately at stake is the West Bank village of Aboud, whose Christian roots go back two millennia, and which now is threatened by Israel's security barrier.

Aboud is the current object of Israeli policy that has contributed to heavy migration of Christian Arabs, promising further reduction in their present 1.7 percent share of Israel's population. Following previous security barrier construction that effectively expelled villagers from olive groves, Israel in October 2005 ordered new land confiscation to extend the barrier. Aboud's 2,300 residents, about half Christian and half Muslim, are being deprived of their water supply by the new construction.

"I am afraid that what is happening in the Holy Land is that we're losing the presence of the Christian community," Cardinal McCarrick told me. As leader of his faith in the nation's capital, he seeks friends on both sides of any political divide. Accordingly, the Cardinal told me the West Bank's Christians are endangered by Palestinians (particularly since Hamas's election victory). But there is no question for the Holy Land Christian Society, seeking to save their co-religionists, that water-hungry Jewish settlers benefit from the security wall.

Catholic sources divulged to me that McCarrick, who recently had been called into the White House to discuss foreign trade, brought up the condition of the West Bank Christians with President Bush. Acting as though he had heard this for the first time, the president turned to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and asked him to look into the problem.

Jordan's Muslim King Abdullah earlier this month met with members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to discuss the plight of the Christians. The Vatican has indicated intensified interest. But so far, there is no sign that Hadley or anybody else in the Bush administration has engaged this problem. A Catholic contact with the White House talked to Elliott Abrams, the presidential aide handling the Middle East. Abrams responded that the barrier is required for Israeli security. Abrams gave the impression that he is not concerned with Christian Arabs.

But U.S. intervention may be needed to save the village of Aboud, which according to local tradition received the Christian faith from Jesus himself. Christ is said to have preached at the place in Aboud where the ruins of the Messiah Church stand. Jesus and the Holy Family would have traveled the Roman Road, near Aboud, on the route between Jerusalem and Galilee. The village's Orthodox church was built in the 4th Century under the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine.

Religious tradition, however, does not deter Israeli policy. The new barrier will confiscate 39 percent of the village's olive fields and take over the aquifer that supplies one-fifth of the West Bank's total water supply. In October, construction uprooted 500 grapevines in Aboud. Twelve kilometers of the barrier will be built on Aboud's land, and the villages of Al-Lubban and Rantis also will lose more territory.

All this is justified as protection against terrorists, but the Holy Land Christian Society rejects that. "It is clear that the security barrier is not about security but the annexation of land for the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Israeli control over the water supply," argues a society paper. Israeli settlements Beit Arye and Ofarim were built on land taken from residents of Aboud.

The problems of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Aboud do not resonate in American politics. The evangelicals have signed a blank check to Israel in the interests of security in the Middle East. Of the many Roman Catholic members of Congress, only the venerable Rep. Henry Hyde (in the last year of his long career) has shown much interest in the subject.

That is why Cardinal McCarrick's involvement is encouraging for the champions of Holy Land Christians. He will visit the West Bank next month and may meet with Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for Public Diplomacy, for the sake of a few Christians in an ancient city.