Witness to Peace in Gaza

Reprinted from The Common Good, no 48, Lent 2009

Wellington Vicar General charged

The vicar general of the Archdiocese of Wellington, Fr Gerard Burns, recently took his opposition to the Israeli war in the Gaza onto the streets of our capital city. He took the opportunity, 6 January 2009, at the height of the war on Gaza, to pour a mixture of his blood and red paint over the memorial in central Wellington to the Nobel Prize winning former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. It was a very public action and intended to draw attention to the murderous policies of the Israeli state in its war on Palestinians, where by that stage more than 1000 had died as a result of the bombings inside Gaza.

Fr Burns was later charged with causing intentional damage. He has been remanded to appear in court in March.

‘Hatred is not our natural state, but there are particular actions which are basic to a just peace in Palestine and will require decisive action. Ending the occupation of the Palestinian Territories is one such action. Even the current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that.’

In an interview with NZ Catholic (January 25), Fr Burns said that ‘I do believe there can be peace in Palestine. People have lived together in peace in Palestine before and it can happen again. I believe human beings have a deep desire and capacity to be reconciled. In the case of the Israel/Palestinian question, the onus is greatest on Israel. It is the already existing state, it is militarily powerful, it has the backing of the US as a superpower and it has ignored international law to expand its positions. The Palestinian community also has a responsibility to respect the human rights of Israelis, but it is in the weaker position. Palestinians suffer the constant loss of the little territory remaining to them. Hatred is not our natural state, but there are particular actions which are basic to a just peace in Palestine and will require decisive action. Ending the occupation of the Palestinian Territories is one such action. Even the current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that.’ Fr Burns also said that he sees what is happening now as part of the 60 years of oppression that Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Israel. ‘Until the injustice perpetrated on the Palestinians in 1948 and continued in various forms until now are resolved, then real peace will be delayed.’

However, he was at pains to point out that he was not anti-Jewish in any way but was simply opposed to the war policies of the Israeli state and its Zionist ideology in relation to its treatment of Palestinians.

His action was a symbolic gesture aimed at driving home to the Israeli Government his strong opposition to their latest war in Gaza. He realized that it could well be misunderstood and misinterpreted. However, he was at pains to point out that he was not anti-Jewish in any way but was simply opposed to the war policies of the Israeli state and its Zionist ideology in relation to its treatment of Palestinians.

His action brought a guarded response initially from Archbishop John Dew, who sought to distance the Church from it. However, he later explained that the Church wanted to see a swift end to the war in Gaza and the establishment of a sustainable and lasting peace. He saw the action as an effort to bring the attention of the world to the plight of Palestinians caught up in the war, ‘who were being killed in their hundreds. Any priest has the right to speak out on such issues and should do so in the cause of peace and justice. I have confidence in Fr Burns continuing in the roles which he has been appointed to in the archdiocese.’ These include his appointment as vicar general, parish priest of Te Ngakau Tapu, a member of both the college of consultors and priest’s councils and his chairmanship of Caritas Aotearoa.

Fr Burn’s action, a non-violent, symbolic response to the violence and carnage of the war, enfleshed the call of Pope Benedict XVI to make every effort to broker a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The Vatican’s representative at the UN blamed the failed efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East on a lack of political will to succeed. There has been a failure to bring about long term solutions because of ‘insufficiently courageous and coherent political will for establishing peace, from every side, and ultimately an unwillingness to come together to forge a just and lasting peace.’ And Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, was even more outspoken. ‘We are seeing a continual massacre in the Holy Land where the overwhelming majority has nothing to do with the conflict, but is paying for the hatred of the few with their lives. Defenceless populations are always the ones to pay. Look at the conditions in Gaza: more and more it resembles a big concentration camp.’

Fr Burns has a lifelong commitment to the social justice movement, to the rights of indigenous peoples and involvement with actions for peace. He worked as a priest for some years among the poor in Peru where he saw at first hand the effects of institutionalised violence through the lack of health care, education and employment opportunities on the poor every day. Here he learnt structural analysis and recognized its centrality for any meaningful proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. More latterly, he was an official observer at the first free elections to be held in East Timor after the withdrawal of Indonesia.

Many Christians throughout the country have welcomed his stance. Like Jesus, he clearly has ‘a heart for justice’ and his example in this instance is a beacon to others to show that non-violent direct action is always an option when talkfests and traditional methods of resolution have failed.

Many Christians throughout the country have welcomed his stance. Like Jesus, he clearly has ‘a heart for justice’ and his example in this instance is a beacon to others to show that non-violent direct action is always an option when talkfests and traditional methods of resolution have failed. Where there is ‘insufficiently courageous and coherent political will for establishing peace’ as the UN Vatican delegate highlighted, what options do we have?

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