Embroiled in controversy over a Christmas sermon denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs, Bishop John Baycroft of Ottawa met Israeli Ambassador David Sultan recently in an atmosphere of cordiality underscored with tension.
Bishop Baycroft denounced anti-semitism during a midnight mass at Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral, but he also branded Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza a matter of “profound sorrow.”
As later reported in the Ottawa Citizen, he noted seeing, during a trip in November 1997, “the evil, the oppression, the cruelty, the wickedness which is permitted to continue in the Holy Land today.”
The bishop’s sermon, together with an interview with Citizen reporter Nathan Vardi, touched off a furor as some letter writers, one member of the Israeli embassy staff and the Ottawa Jewish community denounced Baycroft.
But in the months following his sermon support has poured in, said Bishop Baycroft. “I’ve had letters and calls of support, including many from Jewish people. We must not forget there is a peace movement in Israel and among Jews in Canada.”
The bishop has also received strong support from Palestinians, both in Canada and from abroad, who were pleased to hear a church leader voice support for their cause.
Religious leaders in Canada have frequently spoken out for Palestinian human rights, without much publicity, the bishop said. He’s happy the story, which hit the front page of the Citizen two days running, and went on the wire to other newspapers, gained so much attention.
He believes in the right of Israel to exist, but that doesn’t mean the rights of Palestinians should not also receive attention. He thought the ambassador might want to distance himself from criticism of the Christmas sermon, but during the meeting he found Mr. Sultan wasn’t backing down.
The ambassador told the Journal he doesn’t want to be drawn into conflict with Bishop Baycroft. “We had a dialogue and expressed our opinions,” he said. “I’m not going to argue publicly with Bishop Baycroft.”
Any criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians has to take account that the conflict, and human rights issues in Israel and the newly autonomous Palestinian territories, are not “black and white,” he said.
Everyone wants to raise the standard of living for Palestinians, said Mr. Sultan. Israel is trying to do its part by providing 80,000 jobs for Palestinians working in such fields as agriculture and health care.
One of the most poignant stories told by the bishop was of Palestinian Christians in Gaza who said they hadn’t held communion since last Easter because the Israeli authorities won’t let Arab Christian priests cross in and out of the territory.
Ambassador Sultan said he could not understand why the Palestinians made this claim, since the borders are open to clergy of all backgrounds. He pledged himself to investigate if Bishop Baycroft can provide him with particulars.