By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Retired Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, back from a recent trip to Jordan, said four essential elements to any long-range peace deal in the Middle East are human rights, religious freedom, an agreement on the Holy Land and forging a “path to peace.”
“The whole question of peace, the whole question of religious liberty, is so important,” Cardinal McCarrick said Sept. 9 at a conference, “Religious Freedom & Human Rights: Path to Peace in the Holy Land — That All May Be Free,” at The Catholic University of America.
The university co-sponsored the conference along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.
Cardinal McCarrick said that during his trip to Jordan in early September, he visited the Jordan-Syria border. “You can see the tremendous difficulty” of those fleeing Syria, he said, in light of an ongoing civil war and the specter of a U.S. attack on Syria over reported government use of chemical weapons there.
He recalled King Abdullah of Jordan telling him: “I have 120,000 refugees from Syria. I think I can take 150 (thousand). But if we get any more, our economy’s going to be damaged.”
“That was two years ago” when the Jordanian king issued that utterance, Cardinal McCarrick said. “And right now they have half a million” refugees.
“To see the children (in refugee camps) it breaks your heart more than anything else. They are so frustrated, and they don’t know why,” he added. “Some of them have fled a second time,” with the first flight being from Iraq.
Cardinal McCarrick said one youth told him, “I don’t know where home is anymore.”
The shrinking Christian numbers in the Middle East are a cause for concern, he said. Iraq, before the 2003 U.S.-led war, was home to about 950,000 Christians; today, according to Cardinal McCarrick, that figure is down to 250,000.
“Where did they go?” he asked aloud. Some went to Syria, others to Kurdistan, “where things have been not so bad,” he answered. But, he noted, “some of them went to heaven.”
On the four essentials for lasting peace, Cardinal McCarrick opened with human rights.
“We all think we know what they are,” he said. Among them is “the right to leave your country in order to find opportunities for yourself and your children,” he added, but it also includes “the right to stay where you were born. People forget that. That’s a human right, too. The situation should not become that impossible.”
On religious freedom, “we’re not just talking about having a church or doing what it is you want to do in a church,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “but to live your faith, to proclaim your own message, to proclaim who you are.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “were being interpreted very strictly,” he added. “We may already have a martyr” as a result of those laws, he said.
The Holy Land is unique, according to Cardinal McCarrick. “There’s no strategic location there, but it (Jerusalem) is one of the most important cities in the world,” he said, because of conflicting and competing claims by leaders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. “It’s been part of our problem, but it should be part of our solution.”
As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, “we know” that leaders in virtually all major faiths agree a two-state solution is necessary, Cardinal McCarrick said. “What we don’t know is how many people will lose their lives before this happens.”
On finding a path to peace, Cardinal McCarrick said it is easy to believe that human rights and religious freedom are needed to bring peace to the region. But he turned the proposition around: “If you don’t have human rights, if you don’t have freedom of religion, then you have a path to war and strife and instability.”
He singled out the continued construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. While a new intifada by the Palestinians against the Israelis would be “one of the greatest blows to peace and freedom in the Holy Land,” Cardinal McCarrick called settlement-building a factor “that provokes violence. We know how dangerous the multiplication of settlements is.”