TORONTO — The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is calling on Foreign Minister John Baird to intervene on behalf of West Bank residents who will be adversely affected by an extension to Israel’s security barrier that will pass through a Christian village.
CCCB president and archbishop of Gatineau Paul-Andre Durocher wrote a letter to Baird on Jan. 28, on the eve of an Israeli Supreme Court hearing to decide whether the Israeli government could go ahead with their proposed plan.
The hearing took place Jan. 29, and a final decision is expected this week.
The letter outlined the fact that if the barrier is extended through the Cremisan Valley – which lies in the West Bank on the Palestinian side of the Green Line adjacent to the towns of Beit Jala and Bethlehem – many of the 58 Christian families who live there will be “cut off from their agricultural land and some 400 impoverished children from their school,” Durocher wrote.
“The barrier will harm those families whose livelihoods depend on these lands, and will cut off other families from their agricultural and recreational lands and water sources. Should the barrier be built as proposed, it will also be virtually impossible for the Salesian Sisters there to fulfil their mission of service to the local community.”
Durocher, who spoke with The CJN last week, explained that he is part of a delegation of bishops from around the world who visit annually with Catholic communities in and around Israel, including the Cremisan Valley community.
“They’ve expressed to us many times how seriously this will impact their livelihood. The sisters who run the school there, the brothers who have a monastery, everything will be completely disrupted. Even they say, ‘Look, we have no trouble with the security wall. We understand that, but it doesn’t have to be built here,’” Durocher said.
“Their feeling is that the security wall, if it was built on Israeli territory, not across what is presently considered occupied territory, it would suffice to guarantee the security of the settlements that are there. The point is to protect the settlements – it doesn’t have to pass through their valley. We find that it’s an unnecessary construction.”
In his letter to Baird, Durocher wrote that his organization is “aware of Israel’s need for security, and we fully support that right. Nevertheless, we believe the wall as planned will only deepen the wounds between Palestinians and Israelis… As it is, the security wall is already perceived by many as an illegal ‘land grab.’”
According to the Catholic Register, at the Israeli Supreme Court hearing last week, retired Israeli Col. Shaul Arieli spoke on behalf of the Israeli Council for Peace and Security and proposed “an alternative route for the barrier that would still be beyond the Israeli border but would not reach into the Cremisan Valley.”
But Israel’s Ministry of Defence released a statement that said it “values the protection of both human life and the environment,” but is “committed first and foremost to maintaining the safety and security of the citizens of Israel… The route was relocated to an area where the impact on the [water] terraces and the view will be most limited.”
Durocher said he hopes the Israeli government will be receptive to his group’s concerns.
“We’re not trying to influence the Supreme Court’s decision. We’re calling on the government of Israel to kind of revisit the whole issue… Do they really need to pass the wall through there in order to guarantee security, or is there another way to do this that would allow these people to have access to their lands?” he said.
“We would definitely like our foreign ministry to raise this issue with Israel and to explain to them that it is a concern. There are also issues of religious freedoms that are involved here and so in that sense, we would like our foreign minister to raise the issue. I think our government is in a good position to raise issues like this with the Israeli government, because of its status as a good friend of Israel.”
Responding to the bishops' letter, a spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development department told The CJN that “Canada recognizes Israel’s right to protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks, including through the restriction of access to its territory, and by building a fence for security purposes.
“The government of Canada is aware of the concerns regarding the routing of the fence through the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem, and we will address them in the appropriate manner.”