JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Catholic Church officials expressed surprise at the overwhelming victory of Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon and said they hoped he would be committed to the peace process.
Father Majdi al-Siryani, legal director of the Latin-rite Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said it was ``alarming'' that Sharon garnered 60 percent of the vote to defeat Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak Feb. 6.
``I wasn't shocked that Sharon was elected, but by the percentage with which he was elected,'' said Father al-Siryani.
``I'm not unhappy with his election. I don't think we will suffer any more. We are suffering a lot now. But at least the international community will be dealing with someone whose past they know more about,'' said Father al-Siryani.
He added that while Barak and Sharon were military men, perhaps Sharon's extensive experience in the political arena would allow him to approach the peace negotiations in a more pragmatic way.
Barak was accused of zigzagging his way through the negotiations without giving a clear indication of where he was headed.
``Unlike Barak, who was fresh out of the military, maybe Sharon will understand the rules of the game, that it doesn't take another war for peace,'' the priest said. ``I am perplexed, but maybe he has more of a chance. But does he have the drive to make peace? I'm not sure.''
Father al-Siryani, who also serves as parish priest of Beit Sahour, said many of his young parishioners are expressing fear that a war is imminent.
Sharon is well known for his role in the 1982 Lebanon war and is held indirectly responsible for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
Only 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the Feb. 6 elections; it was the lowest turnout in Israel's history. Normally more than 70 percent of voters cast ballots.
Many Jewish voters said they cast their ballots more to indicate displeasure with what they saw as too many concessions from Barak, especially on the issue of the status of Jerusalem, rather than as a sign of approval for Sharon.
Less than 20 percent of Israeli Arab voters, who had vowed to boycott the elections, turned out to vote.
Commenting on the low Israeli Arab turnout, Father Elias Chacour, principal of Mar Elias College in the village of Iblin, said: ``For once, the Arabs here said they would not be ignored. They are sending a message that they have had enough of empty promises about narrowing the gaps and greater equality. We are no longer going to be sheep blindly following the shepherds.''
He said he personally chose to vote because he felt it was important to exercise his right to vote.
``It all depends on the steps the new prime minister will take,'' he said. ``Now we hope and pray he will surprise everyone with a realistic peace plan.''
Catholic political activist Nadia Hilou of Jaffa also went to the polls, but she said she cast a blank ballot. She said she wanted her vote to be felt and to show that she was not stepping out of the democratic circle, but that neither of the two candidates were acceptable to her. She was the only one of her family and friends to vote, she said.
``We are at a very important crossroads now,'' she said. ``It shows a break between the Arab sector and the Israeli authorities. It doesn't matter which government is in control. The frustration felt was not created in one day, it comes from a long series of events.''
Wadie Abunasser, a Catholic political analyst, said it was highly unlikely that Sharon would be able to build a stable parliamentary coalition, given the fact that the parliamentary makeup remains the same as before the elections.
He said most Christian and Muslim leaders he has spoken with are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see what sort of government Sharon forms. Sharon has 45 days to form a coalition and present it to the president. In the meantime, Barak continues in his role as prime minister.