JERUSALEM — A high-level delegation of Roman Catholic bishops criticized Israeli polices in Arab sectors of Jerusalem on Thursday and called for more contacts between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
The group of eight bishops from North America and Europe said violence, insecurity, the route of Israel's West Bank separation barrier, home demolitions and other policies threaten peace prospects and endanger the dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land.
The issue of Jerusalem – home to holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims – remains the most flammable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians claim the city's eastern sector as the capital of their future state. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, insists the city will never be divided.
In a statement issued at the end of their annual visit, the bishops called for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"For us, this is not merely about politics; it is an issue of basic human rights," the statement said.
During their visit, the bishops visited Christian institutions in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, talked with Palestinians about their lives and listened to presentations from Israeli and Palestinian experts. It was unclear if they met with ordinary Jewish Israelis.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev disputed the group's criticisms of Israel's east Jerusalem policies.
"Only since reuniting Jerusalem in 1967 have the holy places of all faiths been protected under law and freedom of religion has prevailed," he said.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the bishops spoke of watching Palestinian children cross Israeli checkpoints to return from school and the humiliation Palestinians say they feel at such places. Israel says the crossings are necessary to prevent attacks.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the human rights situation for Palestinians in the Holy Land has gotten worse during the 20 years that he has been visiting the region.
Kicanas, also the bishop of Tucson, Arizona, said Israeli and Palestinian youth lack opportunities to meet each other.
"Unless they find a way to engage one another, to meet one another as ordinary human beings, the situation will remain grave," he said.