National Catholic Reporter
January 14, 2008
"Jesuit priest corresponds with Hamas"
By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy,
Fr. Raymond Helmick is a copious correspondent. For the past three years, the Jesuit priest has written nearly 20 letters to Khalid Mishal, founder and political leader of the Palestinian movement Hamas, urging him to abandon militancy, unify with Fatah, Hamas' political rival, and organize the Palestinians in a disciplined campaign of nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation.
"Your military weapons are too puny to stand against Israeli weapons, but that mobilized power of a people denying, without violence, any cooperation with its occupiers is something
The missives to Mishal are the latest chapter in Helmick's extraordinary engagement with the major power brokers in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, an engagement conducted primarily through letters and, on rare occasions, meetings. Over the past two and a half decades, the priest has written to Palestinian political leaders and state officials from a series of
The letters and reports, which fill three volumes, provide one of the texts for a course on the Middle East that Helmick, a theology professor, teaches at
"Conflict resolution is a process of interpretation," Helmick said. "I'm always very anxious to analyze, interpret, and see what options people have and to talk to them about it. … Once there is an alternative to violence, violence is no longer a legitimate course. Arafat understood that. The Israelis understand that. Hamas understands that. Of course, they have to believe that other options are real, and that can take a lot of exploration."
The 77-year-old priest has a long history of unofficially monitoring and mediating conflicts. He worked with warring factions in
But it is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has consumed much of Helmick's attention. He became involved with the conflict through his Jewish friend Richard Hauser, a sociologist, and Hauser's wife, Hephzibah Menuhin, concert pianist and sister of famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The priest and couple founded
Helmick later met with the Palestinian leader several times in 1986, two years before the U.S. government officially recognized the PLO, and for the next two decades continued corresponding with him, weighing in on the options for peace amid negotiations over the
In his book Negotiating Outside the Law: Why
Within a week of Hamas' electoral win in 2006, Helmick sent Rev. Jackson his assessment of the election and proposed meeting with Mishal, who lives in exile in
"What do you want of the Israelis?" the Catholic priest asked. "Do you want them to remain in this hateful quest for vengeance or do you want to elicit from them compassion and justice? We are all responsible for our enemies, for their souls, and must seek to bring them to righteousness and repentance. That will only happen if you act with a higher morality than theirs in emulation of the compassion and righteousness of God."
Despite the F-16 attack and subsequent bombing, Palestinians were contemplating a unilateral cease-fire with
"I advocated to them that they just leave the border out of the document and declare their cease-fire on the basis of compassion of Islam. That is eventually what they did, and, in fact, over the next four years, Hamas showed itself responsible in its restraint," the priest said. In 2004, the Israelis assassinated Yassin.
Jackson and Helmick finally did meet Mishal in 2006.
1967 borders," wrote the priest in his summary of the session.
But according to Helmick, when urged to explicitly recognize the legitimacy of
Helmick attributes Hamas' refusal to several factors including concern for a disparity in the
Amid the numerous proposals explored in Helmick's correspondence, common themes emerge. To the Palestinians, he consistently argues for disciplined nonviolent resistance to the occupation as the only viable option. To the Americans and Israelis, he pleads for adhering to the rule of law.
Responses to the letters have varied. There have been perfunctory acknowledgements and a few specific replies. A 2002 epistle to Ariel
More often than not, the dialogue has been one-way. The silence does not bother Helmick, who said he knows political leaders cannot articulate policy in letters to private individuals. For Mishal, who has survived one assassination attempt by the Israelis, merely acknowledging correspondence could be hazardous.
Helmick believes the need to engage with Hamas is more necessary than ever. "
So the priest continues to write. In the past two months, he has sent a dozen communiqués to all the major players, including letters to president-elect Barack Obama and Mishal.
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy lives in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs