Interview with Jerusalem Patriarch Pizzaballa: Christians face coexistence problems, not persecution

Patriarch_Pierbattista_Pizzaballa_in_Oct_2020_Credit_Cristian_Gennari_OESSH.jpg Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, pictured before his appointment as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Credit: Cristian Gennari/OESSH.

Cardinal-elect Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, recently spoke with ACI Mena, CNA’s news partner agency in the Middle East, about increasing attacks on Christians by Israeli extremists, his hope for Christians in the Holy Land, and his surprise at being named a cardinal by Pope Francis.

Your Beatitude, how widespread are the recent attacks against Christians in Israel?

The attacks are concentrated, essentially, in two parts of the country. Most are in the Old City in Jerusalem, in the sacred quarter of Jerusalem, where there is a high concentration of holy sites, and [the others are] in the North in Haifa, at the Shrine of St. Elijah, also called Stella Maris [Monastery]. They are two completely different phenomena.

Starting with Haifa: It’s a phenomenon tied to an extremist Jewish movement connected with Rabbi [Eliezer] Berland, who wrongly holds that the tomb of the Prophet Elijah is in the church of the [Discalced] Carmelite fathers. Something that doesn’t exist. This is why they want to enter the church: to pray, and so, to occupy it.

It’s a phenomenon, however, that is part of a sectarian movement also inside the Jewish world itself. Now it’s a little more under control. The police are trying to speak with these people to keep them away.

In Jerusalem, [the violence] concerns the whole Christian community a bit, especially those who find themselves close to the holy sites: the Armenian quarter, the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the third station of the Via Dolorosa, the Armenian Church, and so on. And even those near the Holy City. This is connected to a somewhat sectarian phenomenon: some ultra-Orthodox Jews. They are becoming more present in the Old City, in this area, while before they were much fewer. They see pagan symbols in the presence of Christians and Christian symbols.

And then, as is known, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the past was not simple, so there is a bit of all of this together. The phenomenon is also very widespread lately, maybe because they feel, how can I say it, a little protected by some Israeli political movements that right now are in the government. And this has drawn a lot of attention.

It should be said that attention to violence is a little bit at a general level in the country. The violence we are experiencing is not unique. There is also violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the State of Israel. Even within Israeli society, there is violence and so forth.

So, right now we are in contact with the police and with religious movements to try to calm the situation. But it needs time.

You said these movements feel protected by part of the government or by political movements. Do you think that after your meeting with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog at the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa the Israeli government will now work harder to protect the Christian population at the holy sites?

I should say, first of all, that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population, more than 90%, has nothing to do with all of this. We are speaking of elements that are not central in the life of the country, which, however, are concentrated in some areas and so have a large visibility. And most of the Israeli population not only has nothing to do with it but is also against all of this. And the president of Israel expressed this in a very good way.

We have had some meetings with the government, we have also had meetings with the police. There is more awareness of the problem now, without a doubt. While before the existence of the problem was denied a bit, now there is a greater awareness of the problem. I think [on] the part of the government perhaps greater incisiveness will be necessary.

In your opinion, can we speak of these attacks as Christian persecution on the part of these movements?

No, no, you cannot use the word “persecution.” I connect the word persecution with what happened in Syria with Daesh or in Iraq, or with what is happening in Pakistan or in Nigeria, and other countries. That is a real and true persecution. We are experiencing problems. They are coexistence problems that sometimes have serious, severe moments, like this. But persecution, no. Christians here can express their religion freely, so we are not persecuted. I think that one should work a lot to avoid spreading this idea, without a doubt.

What other challenges is the Christian community experiencing today in the Holy Land? For example, a Christian who lives in the Palestinian territory has difficulty traveling, working, and doing business. What can the Israeli government and Palestinian authorities do to ease the lives of Christians?

The problem is above all a political problem. That is, the Christians are not a population apart. The Palestinian Christians experience the same situation as any other Palestinian. The limitations that there are for Palestinians are not for Palestinian Christians but for every Palestinian. So, the solution to resolve the problem of Christians needs to resolve the political problem for the Christians that are in the [Palestinian] territories. And I don’t see an easy solution, nor is the solution on the horizon. Therefore, this situation of occupation that continues with all of its consequences, I think will continue to influence for a long time our Christian community, which, however, has a strong spirit of resilience.

The Christian population in the Holy Land is declining at the demographic level; do you find signs of hope that the situation will change? And what is the best way to encourage the Christian community to stay in the Holy Land and to be resilient, as you said?

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The number of Christians in the Holy Land — that is, in Israel and Palestine, Galilee in the north, and the Palestinian authorities — live in very different situations from each other. We say that the number of Christians is somewhat stable. It is declining a little in the area of Bethlehem, in Palestine, but not a lot. So, what should you do? The first thing is unity, the unity of Christians. In a situation of great difficulty, difficulties that will continue because we know that they will not end soon, it is very important that there is, among all of the Christian communities, not only Catholics but all Christians, a sense of mutual, communal belonging. So that we can sustain each other, help each other. This is the first thing.

Then, hope is the daughter of faith. It is very important to work a lot on Christian belonging, on the faith, which has a very important role. And then, it’s clear, a good Christian is also a good citizen, and thus needs to participate in the civil and social life of his people. So, I think that it is important to work first on unity and common belonging. Only together can we resist these difficult situations.

The Christians of the Arab countries who don’t have normalization or peace treaties with Israel cannot today go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Will these Christians ever be able to visit the holy places where Jesus lived and have a bigger sense of their life in the Middle East?”

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land changes one’s life. I often see and meet pilgrims and I see how their encounters with the holy sites become also an encounter with Jesus, whom we all need and who changes our lives. It’s sad that people can come from all over the world, but our neighbors cannot. So, the first thing is to pray so that this situation ends soon, that they can find solutions because there are [solutions]. Now they have even created agreements, but also in the past, when there were no agreements, Muslims could go to Mecca. So, maybe they can find special agreements — but I don’t know, it’s a little complicated — so that Christians can come to the Holy Land. But they can make virtual pilgrimages. With technology, there are ways one can visit, encounter, the holy sites and the communities that live at the holy sites. More work is needed on this... We all have communities in the diaspora, thus, the diaspora can do something, can mediate, can help in this.

You were named a cardinal by Pope Francis. How did you receive the news of your nomination? And what effect has this news had on Christians in the Holy Land?

It was a great surprise for me — I didn’t know anything. I am grateful to Pope Francis for having thought, not so much of me, but of the holy city of Jerusalem. So for me, it was a great surprise and also, now, a task and a responsibility. In Jerusalem, [the news] was welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm by everyone, not only Catholics and all Christians but also by Jews and Muslims, as a recognition that the Church, the Catholic Church, the Holy See, recognizes a particular role for the holy city of Jerusalem, which everyone loves. [The news] was received with a demonstration of friendship and affection and congratulations from all, without distinction.

You are a Franciscan and you were custos of the Holy Land before becoming patriarch. From the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate, the number of bishops and cardinals coming from the Franciscan orders has grown. How can, in your opinion, the Franciscan spirituality and Franciscan bishops and cardinals help today’s Church to overcome its challenges, such as the decline in the number of Catholics, sexual and financial scandals, and more?

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I believe that one should live with a lot of simplicity. The kingdom of God is entrusted to us, it is not ours. We are servants, so our task should not be to worry so much about the weeds in the middle of the field, but [to occupy ourselves] with growing the grain. So take in the beauty there is, never stop announcing that Jesus is the marvelous treasure worth spending all of one’s life for, and leave the rest. This should be our one concern. With a lot of simplicity, to stand in the midst of the people, listening, wishing them well, being present, testifying to all of this with one’s very life. Then the rest will come on its own.

In October, you will be at the Vatican’s general assembly for the Synod of Bishops on a synodal Church. What are your expectations for this synod? What would you like to hear discussed, for example, and to see in the final document after the second session in 2024?

It’s too soon now to think about a final document. I think that it is important, above all, to understand the discussion and to listen to different perspectives. The synods are very interesting because they bring perspectives from all over the world. We in the Middle East think in a certain way, in Australia in a different way, in Africa in another way still. So, to put this all together, to create a summary, will not be easy. I think that will be the principal challenge.

I think that is what I get from the synod: not concrete directions. Because the universal synod cannot give concrete directions to the Churches, which are very different from each other, but it gives clear guides. Clear pastoral guides in the life of the Church, connected, especially, to the kind of participation of the laity in the life of the Church. Which is a subject that has been discussed for a long time, but always remains a little vague.

This interview was translated from the Italian by Hanna Brockhaus. It has been edited for brevity.

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