Israel's identity as a Jewish state discriminates against non-Jews, the Holy Land's top Roman Catholic clergyman said in an address on Wednesday.
"If there's a state of one religion, other religions are naturally discriminated against," Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told reporters at the annual press conference he holds in Jerusalem before the Christian holiday.
In his address, which he read in Arabic and English, Sabbah said Israel should abandon its Jewish character in favor of a "political, normal state for Christians, Muslims and Jews."
"This land cannot be exclusive for anyone," he said.
With his statements Wednesday, Sabbah, a longtime advocate of the Palestinian cause, waded into a debate that has marred the fledgling peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel has defined itself as the homeland of the Jewish people since it was established in 1948. The Palestinians, however, refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying that would mean Palestinian refugees who lost their homes after Israel's creation would not have the right to return.
Israel opposes any return of refugees, for fear they would eventually outnumber the Jewish majority. Israeli leaders recently demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel's Jewish character as part of peace talks that got under way last week, but the Palestinians have rejected the call.
Aryeh Mekel, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, had no immediate comment.
Sabbah, who has been the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1987, is the first Palestinian to hold the post and is frequently critical of Israel.
He also lashed out at Israel for visa restrictions he said were unfair to Christian clergy. "A state in this land must...be open to welcoming to all believers of other religions," he said.
According to the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, there are an estimated 170,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
According to Jewish law, Jews during exile are not permitted to have a sovereign state. But a state that has no Jewish character or pro-Jewish laws, and has a non-Jewish majority, would not be considered a Jewish state. Therefore Torah Jews must welcome the idea of replacing the State of Israel with a state with equal rights for all its inhabitants, and the right of return for all its former inhabitants. Still, we stress that Jews should not be the ones to determine the character of the new state.
Furthermore, Jews should see the Latin Patriarch's words as a wake-up call, showing them how Zionism's insistence on a Jewish state has antagonized not only Muslims but Christians as well. Sabbah is a Palestinian, but given his position he represents not only Catholic Palestinians but also Catholics worldwide.