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Israel slams Catholic statement on Mideast, singling out archbishop

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Israeli official: Catholic bishops' conference was "hijacked by an anti-Israel majority"
  • An archbishop said Saturday that Israel is not the Jews' promised land
  • Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon calls the archbishop's remark "libel"
  • Bishops are pushing the U.N. to work for a two-state solution

Jerusalem, Israel (CNN) -- A top Israeli official on Sunday criticized a new statement from Catholic bishops on the Middle East and blasted the remarks of a Catholic archbishop who spearheaded the statement as "libel."

On Saturday, Catholic bishops from the Middle East concluded a two-week conference in Rome, Italy, with a call for the international community, especially the United Nations, to work "to put an end to the occupation" of Palestinian territories.

On Sunday, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon criticized that concluding statement of the conference, called a synod.

"We express our disappointment that this important synod has become a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda," Ayalon said in a statement. "The synod was hijacked by an anti-Israel majority."

Ayalon singled out the remarks of a Catholic archbishop who said at the conference that Israel is not the Jews' promised land.

"We Christians cannot speak of the 'promised land' as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people," Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, who leads the Greek Melkite Church in the U.S., said at the conference's final press conference on Saturday. "This promise was nullified by Christ."

"There is no longer a chosen people -- all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people," Bustros said.

On Sunday, Israel's Ayalon said that "We are especially appalled at the language used by Archbishop Bustros during his press conference."

Bustros led the committee that drafted the synod's concluding statement on Israel and the Palestinians.

"We call on the Vatican to distant themselves from Archbishop Boutros' comments which are a libel against the Jewish People and the State of Israel and should not be construed as the Vatican's official position," Ayalon said in his statement. "These outrageous comments should not cast a shadow over the important relationship between the Vatican, the state of Israel and the Jewish people."

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, praised the synod and echoed Bustros' remarks.

"Israel cannot use the biblical concept of a promised land or chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or Israeli territorial claims," Saeb Erakat, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a chief palestinian negotiator, said in a statement Sunday.

Erakat said the synod sent "a clear a message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city."

"(In) coming weeks we will engage in discussions with the Vatican on ways to further consolidate our fantastic relations," Erakat said. "

The Catholic synod's Saturday statement came at the end of a meeting headed by Pope Benedict XVI.

"The Palestinian people will thus have an independent and sovereign homeland where they can live with dignity and security," the statement said. "The State of Israel will be able to enjoy peace and security within their internationally recognized borders."

"The Holy City of Jerusalem will be able to acquire its proper status, which respects its particular character, its holiness and the religious patrimony of the three religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim," it said. "We hope that the two-state-solution might become a reality and not a dream only."

The pope first publicly endorsed a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis during a visit to the region in May 2009. At the time, he assured Palestinians of the Vatican's support of a sovereign Palestinian homeland. It was a concept that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted.

More recently, the issue of settlement construction has threatened to scuttle the reactivated and now stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.