A touching testimony full of hope was given earlier this month by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, on the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.
Patriarch Twal was meeting with students and docents of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which covers a very vast territory, includes Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus, and gathers within it “the descendants in direct line of the Christians of the very first Christian community, the Mother Church of Jerusalem,” recalled Patriarch Twal.
A small community, which shortly after evolved into two branches: the Ecclesia ex circumcisione (Judeo-Christians) and the Ecclesia ex gentibus (Romans, Greeks, Aramaeans, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Philistines, Nabataeans, Moabites, Ammonites, etc.). Their universal language was Aramaic but in the cities Greek and Latin were also spoken.
Around the 7th century, when by this time the whole of Palestine was Christianized, the Judeo-Christians disappeared from the Holy Land, the community ex gentibus continued to expand notably, even evangelizing the Bedouins.
Again in the 7th century, with the arrival of Islam, the scene began to change “slowly but radically”: the language and culture became Arabic and Christianity began to withdraw.
Various regimes followed one another in the centuries: Arab, crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman and English, up to the present day, in which native Christians of the Holy Land are “aware, yesterday as today, of the historic-salvific importance of what happened close to their homes and how, in time, this happy proclamation was spread from here.”
“Simple, people,” “lovers of peace” and “hospitable,” the Christians of the Holy Land also have an “extraordinary gift of endurance,” commented Patriarch Twal.
At present, Christians number 450,000, hence less than 2% of the entire population of the Holy Land, while in Jerusalem their number does not reach 12,000.
Despite the connotations of “little flock,” sadly and constantly, moreover, in diminution, the Christians remain “an integral and essential part of their community,” revealing themselves a “pad” between the two “majority presences” Jewish and Muslim.
Hence the Patriarch reflected on the specifics of the most recent problems of his territory, which are added to the historical hardships: beginning with the wall of separation that — more than 700 kilometers long and eight meters high, in addition to isolating the Palestinian population — “limits the freedom of movement, of study, of work, of travelling and of medical care.”
Then there is the phenomenon of the “intifada of knives,” which involves very young kids of 12-13 years age that, thus armed, fight for reasons that have nothing to do with politics.
For their part, the Israeli military have “broken nerves” and, sometimes, open fire with much ease when it would be far more “human” to capture the delinquents and deliver them to the courts, stressed the Patriarch.
In regard to the tragic situation of Gaza, Patriarch Twal lamented the “numberless painful consequences, especially among the youngest population, the profound psychic, relational and existential wounds left by the traumas suffered: following the three conflicts of 2008, 2010 and 2014, for whose reconstruction, the 5 billion dollars allocated were never released, the reason being that peace is the conditio sine qua non.
At this point the Patriarch asked: “Who can really heal an eight-year-old child who has seen his parents die, or his grandmother, who could not come down from the house because she couldn’t walk, or was too deaf to be aware of the danger? Who can make of this child a healthy, normal citizen, who feels affection and respect for all?”
However, a sign of hope for the Holy Land comes from the agreement between the Holy See and Palestine, sealed on June 26, 2015. When the Apostolic Nuncio in Jerusalem, Monsignor Giuseppe Lazzarotto, asked him for his opinion on the matter, Patriarch Twal’s answer was: “In keeping with its conscience and spirit of justice, the Holy See must recognize the State of Palestine now and not wait for the whole of Europe to pronounce its recognition, otherwise it would have no merit. By recognizing the State of Palestine now, it will have the gratitude of the whole Muslim world.”
Turning to the “mad and meaningless” project of the construction of a new section of wall in the Valley of Cremisan, the Patriarch stressed the contrary decision of the Israeli Court of Justice that, a year ago, declared such a wall “not necessary for Israel’s security.”
A decision for which “we cried victory: victory of the Israeli judges that obeyed the military orders, victory of the Saint Yves Legal Society, which took the case in hand, victory of the Christians that prayed every Friday in the field to impede the construction of the wall,” said Patriarch Twal.
The Israeli government is such that, although proclaiming itself “secular and democratic,” in reality is behaving increasingly as a “Jewish confessional military regime,” lamented the Patriarch, referring, among other things, to the school system, in which all pupils, including the non-Jewish, receive only the teaching of the Jewish religion and the Christians thus risk “losing their roots,” while subsidies to Catholic schools have been reduced.
All this notwithstanding the agreement signed with the Holy See in 1993, in which the State of Israel committed itself “to freedom of religion and conscience, to the promotion of mutual understanding between nations, to tolerance between the communities and to respect for life and human dignity.”
Israel, therefore, has put in place a true and proper occupation that, in itself, is “always an odious reality: it harms the occupier who loses the sense of respect and of the dignity of others, as it does to the one occupied, in whom the sense of rejection, of rancour and of rebellion grows.”
A paradoxical aspect of this state of things is that, although with a notable flow of tourists from all over the world (China and Japan included), to come to the Holy City with his community the parish priest of Ramallah must ask for the government’s authorization two months ahead of time and the government itself decides at its discretion if he can go, also leaving at home and allowing to depart members of the same family.
If Israel would like to become a truly “democratic” and not “Zionist” State, the hope should be for the birth of “two States” Israeli and Palestinian, with clear and secure borders, as desired by the International Community and also by the Holy See.
In this tragic scenario, the Christians of the Holy Land continue to live an “ecumenical dimension” of dialogue and to be “living witnesses of the history of salvation.” Moreover, “with their prayer and their love, with their trials and with their faith,” they can impede “the Holy Places themselves from being reduced to being only archaeological sites.”
God’s call to Europe
Responding to a question of ZENIT on the situation of the refugees in the Middle East and in Europe, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem stressed that in Jordan alone, the refugees constitute 20% of the whole population, hence a percentage some twenty times higher than the numbers of the Old Continent.
Therefore, according to Patriarch Twal, Europe should open itself more to the evangelical precept: ”I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). “Our way of welcoming and receiving will be the criterion with which the Lord will judge us,” he stressed, recalling that the last Iraqi refugees in Jordan were “all Christians”: they “lost everything but they never lost the faith. They could have saved themselves by converting to Islam, but they preferred to lose everything.”
“You have everything in Europe, but not the courage to deprive yourselves of something. I was in Austria, where I saw tens of abandoned country houses, which remained empty. If we don’t want the refugees to come to us, the International Community and politics must make peace in their home, and they will gladly stay. If, however, we, out of interest, sell arms and make war in their home, those will be the consequences. We can’t play with the destiny of peoples!” added the Patriarch.