Cardinal Pizzaballa: For Christians in Gaza Strip, temptation is to look for future elsewhere

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Oct. 20, 2023. | Credit: Gianfranco Pinto Ostuni

Editor’s note: Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, released a video message Oct. 25 titled “To my dear ones in Gaza,” in which he encouraged the people of war-torn Gaza to “not lose courage and hope.” 

The following interview with the patriarch originally appeared in the Croatian Catholic weekly newspaper Glas Koncila on Oct. 16. A translated version is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

Hamas’ attack on Israel and the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict caught the highest representative of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in Italy. 

However, he managed to return to Jerusalem on Oct. 9, where he had left at the end of August from what was still a relatively peaceful environment to attend a consistory in the Vatican, where he was created a cardinal Sept. 30. He returned to the war-torn region — a far from simple journey — with the assistance of Israeli and Jordanian civilian and military authorities. 

Speaking to the Croatian Catholic weekly newspaper Glas Koncila two days after his return to Jerusalem, he stated that he feels it is his duty to be in the headquarters of his patriarchate, even though he cannot do much, but he emphasized the importance of his presence itself.

Glas Koncila newspaper: How has life in Jerusalem and Israel changed since the beginning of the war? What was the situation like when you returned from Italy?

Cardinal Pizzaballa: We are currently in a state of war; it has been officially declared. Consequently, the situation is highly tense. Most activities have been either suspended or reduced. For example, schools, among many other activities, have been affected, and only essential things continue. Tension is palpable everywhere — in the stores, in the streets, in cities where Israelis and Palestinians are mixed and interact for work and other reasons. Now, everyone is trying to remain cautious. It is a very complex and difficult situation, with high levels of tension, and unfortunately, mistrust and animosity are prevailing emotions.

So, is the division even stronger now than before?

Yes, the barbaric incidents that we have seen in South Israel, particularly in the kibbutzim and other affected areas, have undeniably left a profound mark on the public consciousness. The feelings of hatred, mistrust, and anger have grown significantly stronger. Moreover, the interpretations and reactions to these events differ markedly between the two sides, leading to a stark contrast in perspectives.

In such an environment, what is the position of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land?

The Catholic Church tries to remain close to every person. We cannot accept such behavior, as it contradicts our values. It is essential to provide the Palestinian people with a hopeful perspective for their future. Until the Palestinian issue is dealt with properly, the ongoing situation of instability will persist. However, it’s crucial to emphasize that the actions we have seen are not the way to achieve this goal.

News about attacks and wartime strategy is coming in minute by minute; the situation is constantly changing. Do your faithful feel fear?

Of course, the fear is entirely legitimate, particularly among the Christian community living in the Gaza Strip, enduring the constant threat of airstrikes. They are scared; they are scared for the everyday life, for their children. Unfortunately, it is a great temptation to look for a better future elsewhere. Almost all have sought refuge within the confines of the church compound to find solace and support among one another. Nonetheless, the fear of an uncertain future and the potential escalation of events looms large and is a very legitimate concern.

They are there without their parish priest who happened to be in Bethlehem.

Another priest, Father Iusuf Asad, is currently present, along with the sisters. Unfortunately, the parish priest is absent, which is regrettable. However, this is a circumstance beyond our control. 

How do Christians in the Holy Land perceive and experience the war, given that Christians in the Holy Land are predominantly Palestinians? What is the prevailing opinion among your priests and faithful?

A wide range of reactions has been evident, with a common rejection of violence prevailing among all. However, emotions sometimes run high, particularly among Palestinians living in Palestine, where their anger is deeply felt. Nevertheless, we are unified in our collective rejection of these methods and in our call for a more serious approach to addressing the Palestinian issue.

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It has been known that the Holy See has always considered the resolution of the Palestinian issue to be important. Is it even conceivable to have any kind of relationship now, while bombs and explosions are echoing? Is there any hope at this moment to find a key to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

As I’ve mentioned before, finding a solution is imperative, but it’s not a task for the present moment. We have to wait for the current situation to conclude before resuming discussions, and when we do, it should be approached with increased seriousness and commitment. The aim should be to provide the Palestinian people with a hopeful perspective for the future.

And these recent events only deepen the victimhood role experienced by both the Israeli and Palestinian people. In such a situation, how can one find a way out and shift away from that narrative?

It is indeed a challenging situation. Each side perceives itself as a victim and focuses on its own pain, often without recognizing the suffering of the other. This is a fundamental issue that we must address. The approach should involve working with those who comprehend the problem and share a vision of changing this narrative. To start, there is a need for a period of stability. We can begin by introducing a different narrative, primarily in schools and with the involvement of local leadership. Our efforts, such as those in Christian schools, can serve as a way to promote dialogue and unity among people.

In addition to the division between the conflicting parties, there has been a noticeable strong division in the media, in societies, and in the political life worldwide between those who have taken a pro-Israel stance and those who support Palestine. How should a believer in Croatia, for example, approach the current situation? Because lives are being lost on both sides; everyone is at a loss...

A partial approach, where everyone adheres to their individual ideas and filters information based on their preexisting opinions, is inherently problematic. It limits the ability to see the complete and intricate picture, which, in this case, is exceptionally complex. We must avoid the temptation to oversimplify a complex situation. Instead, approach should be one of respect and understanding, refraining from premature judgments and offering support to those who wish to condemn past violence while striving to create a more positive context. 

As a Catholic bishop, how do you foresee the situation developing in the Holy Land?

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It is too early to fully comprehend the situation; we need time. Right now, it’s a period of pain, sorrow, and anger. We have to wait until these emotions subside before we can begin to reflect on the situation. Nevertheless, we must approach this reflection with a focus on the facts and reality. The reality is that Israelis and Palestinians will remain here; they will not disappear. Therefore, we have to find a way to engage with one another differently, moving away from the current state of affairs.

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