Christians and the Holy Land

Author: ZENIT


Christians and the Holy Land

Part 1Interview With Custos Father Pizzaballa

By Robert Cheaib

ROME, 25 OCT. 2010 (ZENIT)
When speaking of the situation of Christians in the Holy Land, a very careful distinction must be made between Christians living in Israel, and Christians living in the Palestinian Territories, says the Custos of the Holy Land.
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who was in Rome in October to participate in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which concluded Sunday, spoke with ZENIT about the complex reality that Christians face in the region.

In Part 1 of this interview, the Custos gives a panoramic view of the real conditions of Christians who live in Israel, and those who live in the Palestinian Territories.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.

ZENIT: The conditions of Christians in countries of Muslim majority have been presented in more than one venue, but their situation in Israel is little known. What can you tell us of the situation of Christians there, especially with regard to religious liberty, freedom of conscience and political rights?

Father Pizzaballa: When one speaks of the Holy Land there is always some confusion. There are in the Holy Land two political entities: Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which are in conflict, an aspect which makes things even more complicated. Hence the situation of Christians in Israel — where there is a Jewish majority, followed by a Muslim minority, and then by a Christian minority — is one thing, but the situation of Christians within the Palestinian Territories, where there is an enormous Muslim majority, has another dynamic. Hence it would be necessary to distinguish very well between these two environments.
In Israel, a Christian has serious identity problems. It isn't an economic or social problem; they are problems that can be found in all countries, but let's say that from the point of view of the economic and social life Christians don't meet with great problems. The real problem for a Christian is that of being an Israeli citizen but non-Jewish, of being Arab but not Muslim, hence a minority within a minority.

From the point of view of laws there is no discrimination, there are however, in fact, inequalities of treatment, of approach, which particularly strike the Christian minority. I repeat, this is not because the law provides it, but because of the fact that in society a minority is not visible and is often not taken into consideration, and to make "oneself seen," one must be twice as valiant as the rest. Of course, there is also the political problem: What relationship must minorities have with a state that defines itself as Jewish? This is one aspect.

Along with this, there is the influence of the ever difficult relationship between Judaism and Christianity. There is a deep-rooted prejudice that was born and developed in the course of the centuries in Judaism in confrontations with Christianity for reasons that are known and that in Israel become tangible.
The situation of the Palestinian Authority is different, influenced above all by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here there is a Muslim majority who find it increasingly difficult to take notice of Christians because they are always fewer, even in the areas that were traditionally Christian. I'm thinking above all of Bethlehem, where today there is a reduced Christian minority — less than 10% of the population.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also assuming a religious character, unfortunately. Sometimes it isn't like this, but at other times the idea circulates that to be good patriots one must be Muslim. This isn't true because within the Christian community there are persons of prominence, although the number is dwindling. There are forms of fundamentalism, certainly. They are in certain Israeli fringes and also within the Palestinian Authority. Hence, Christians in their small numbers and in their divisions feel somewhat crushed by this situation. It is a rather complex reality, which from the human point of view, many concerns arise.
ZENIT: What will the effect be on non-Jews of the oath of loyalty to the Jewish state proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu?
Father Pizzaballa: First of all, the state of Israel has always described itself from the beginning as a Jewish and democratic state, and the position of minorities at this level was never all together clear. Now, with a test of force, Israel wishes to give life to this law which has caused a great outcry, both within Israel as well as outside, not only between the Muslim and Christian minority but also within the Israeli-Jewish component itself, leading even to very serious accusations of Fascism.

It's an unjust law because in the Middle East, as also in Israel, the separation of state and Church doesn't exist, and then in this very intricate identity complex it creates very strong and also unjust hardships, because it's an injustice to make someone who is not a Jew declare fidelity to Jewish principles.

__________________________________________________________________________Part 2Interview With Custos Father Pizzaballa By Robert Cheaib

ROME, 26 OCT. 2010 (ZENIT)
The uproar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes the life of the Christian community in the Holy Land and its problems pass in silence, yet the Christian presence in those Holy Places is a duty to the past, the present and the future, says the Custos of the Holy Land.
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who was in Rome in October to participate in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which concluded Sunday, spoke with ZENIT about the complex reality that Christians face in the region.

In Part 2 of this interview, the Custos speaks of the importance of a Christian presence in the region.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.

ZENIT: In the second press conference you said: "The times of the synod are not the times of journalists." But shouldn't the synod be a "walking together" toward planned objectives?
Father Pizzaballa: It's true that the times of the Church should be faster. But they are not the times of social life, because in society there are much more rapid changes which the Church labors to direct. That there are problems also within the dynamics of the life of the Church, there is no doubt. That there is also a certain distance between the territory and the authority of the Church, is also true. However, we must not all throw ourselves too far down, have too critical a view or even be too withdrawn into ourselves.

Despite our problems, we must also look at the good that the Church succeeds in doing through her institutions, through the schools, through so many works, but above all through the many pastors, so many lay people who commit themselves, getting to work without waiting for indications from I don't know whom, but with passion, with love, dedicate themselves to the territory and to the people who are in the territory. These persons don't make noise, but they are those who make the Church.

The Pope used a very beautiful expression at the beginning of the synod: it is "the faith of the simple" that makes the Church strong and great. It's true that in certain realms of authority of the Church there are too many careful examinations, too many discussions, and then it is hard to move to implementation also because the structure of the Church is rather complex, but it is necessary also to look at the territory and what emerges, what is born, and then put oneself also in a perspective of faith: It will not be our programs that save the Church, but first of all the work of God that passes through prayer, the life and passion of so many persons.
ZENIT: One of the most urgent questions for Christians of the Middle East is that of pilgrimages, which hits Arab Christians primarily. In the speeches given to the press it doesn't seem that there was talk of this topic during the synod. Wouldn't it be opportune, however, for the bishops of the Middle East to unite their voices to launch an appeal to the governments of the region?
Father Pizzaballa: There was no direct talk of pilgrimages to the Holy Places by Arab countries. It was spoken about indirectly in the invitation to do everything possible to attain peace in the Middle East. This is also a prospect, surely. It's said that with Israel the Holy Places have enjoyed an irreprehensible liberty, but it's also true that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as Israel's conflict with Arab countries has in fact closed what traditionally was open to the whole Christian community of the Middle East, who regarded the Holy Land as a spiritual source. This is a deep wound that remains and for which we must work as Church — even if perhaps we don't have so much power — and insist with the international community so that this aspect is kept in mind and so that these boundaries will fall as soon as possible, these barriers that are also psychological on both sides.
ZENIT: Christianity is not an abstract event. It came about at a specific time and the martyred Holy Land is it's specific sacred space. Because of this you rightly affirmed in your intervention that "to inhabit that space is our vocation." How can the universal Church help Christians in the Holy Land to dwell there and what change/improvement do you foresee after this synod?
Father Pizzaballa: To inhabit the Holy Places is a duty, even before it is a right of each and every Christian, but in different ways. The universal Church should inhabit those places with pilgrimages coming to the Holy Land; the Christian community, living in those places, remembering the places where Jesus was born, died and rose, living and praying, baptizing their children, getting married, burying their dead. And it isn't fetishism, it's not just about being in the places with sophisticated devotion, but about living in those places with vitality, inhabiting the city, inhabiting the spaces, making their own contributions as Christians.

Hence, our vocation as Christians is precisely that of raising our gaze. We do not want to be witnesses of the empty sepulcher of Christ: "ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum" (behold the place where they laid him); to say this means also to raise one's gaze. The Christian message is not a devotional withdrawal over the Holy Sepulcher, but a leap of hope because Christ is risen and this must be our contribution.

There are problems, there are conflicts, there are misunderstandings, there is oppression, but we don't withdraw, we look ahead, because Christ has called the world and we are witnesses of this.
ZENIT: The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land was made official with the General Chapter of 1217, and is considered "the pearl of all the provinces." What is the significance of your presence in the region, how has this changed in the current circumstances?
Father Pizzaballa: The mission of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land is always this: to take care of the Holy Places — the stones of the memory — and the living stones — the Christian community. To be in the places isn't popular today, because there is much talk of community, of assembly, whereas to mark the territory has an importance that, above all in the Middle East, is capital. Hence our role is to be in these places even if no one goes there, even if they are isolated, even if it isn't gratifying, simply to be there and to celebrate the memory with prayer, first of all.

And then there is the aspect of staying with the Christian community — with the living stones — because the society is changing. Young people are changing. They have new expectations, new needs. Also, there is a strong trend toward secularism in the Middle East, and added to this is economic growth, which results in people not being as close to the Church because there is less of a need for social assistance. But, on the other hand, there are always requests for cultural assistance, and spiritual, and a very strong presence. Our mission will change in this sense, but it will always essentially remain the same.
[Translation by ZENIT]

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