Pierbattista Pizzaballa has already spent more than three decades of his life in the Holy Land. In 2016, the Franciscan was made Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In an interview with Daniele Piccini, while visiting ACN Germany, the archbishop recently explained why current international political decisions exacerbate the conflict in the Holy Land and why the Church is relying on the power of small steps.
ACN: Your Grace, what is the current situation of the Christians in the Holy Land?
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa: It is often said that three groups of people live in the region that is considered the Holy Land proper: Israelis, Palestinians, and Christians. But the Christians are not a “third people”. The Christians belong to the people among whom they live. As Christians, we don’t have any territorial claims. Meeting a Christian does not represent a danger to Jews or Muslims. However, life is not easy for the Christians: it is more difficult for Christians to find work or a flat. The living conditions are much more difficult.
Does this mean that the religious freedom of the Christians is very restricted in the Holy Land?
It is necessary to make distinctions here. The freedom to practice religion is one thing, the freedom of conscience is another. The freedom to practice religion exists: the Christians can celebrate their divine services and develop their community life. Freedom of conscience means that all church members can express themselves freely and should members of other religions wish to become Christians, they have the right to do so. That is a lot more complicated. Politics always plays a major role in the Holy Land. Even wanting to visit a certain place can quickly evolve into a political issue. For example: Christians from Bethlehem would like to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to pray. However, this is often not possible because they need a permit to do so. Therefore, is this an issue of religious freedom or is it just politics and they are not being granted permission to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because they are Palestinians? It is all interconnected.
The U.S. government recently moved its embassy to Jerusalem. How perceptible are the effects of political measures of this kind?
For the time being, this has not had much of an effect on everyday life. However, politically, relocating the U.S. Embassy is a dead end. All issues relating to Jerusalem that do not take account of both sides – Israelis and Palestinians – lead to a deep fracture on a political level. And that is exactly what happened. After the relocation of the U.S. Embassy, the Palestinians broke off all relations with the U.S. government, bringing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian regions, which were moving sluggishly anyway, to a complete standstill.
The latest escalations have led to the radicalization of a growing number of young people, particularly among the Palestinians. Does this also have repercussions for the Christians?
There are Palestinians who belong to fundamentalist movements. But there are also many who oppose violence. The majority of Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians. Therefore, they live under the same conditions as the Palestinian Muslims. Religious fundamentalism places Christians clearly on the fringes of society. We experience both cooperation and solidarity, but also exclusion and discrimination.
Another problem is the growing emigration of Christians …
Emigration is not a mass phenomenon, or the Christians would have long since disappeared from the Holy Land. It is a constant trickle. Each year when I visit the parishes, the priests tell me, “This year we lost two, three families.”
Is there something the Church can do in this dead-end political situation?
Christians make up about one percent of the population. We, therefore, cannot expect to carry the same political weight as other groups. But of course, the Church has strong connections worldwide. And then there are the millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world. It is our job to communicate to the people: there is a Christian way of living in this country. There is a Christian way of living with this conflict. This is not the time for big gestures. The Church has to try to establish small connections, to build small bridges.
Pope Francis visited the country in 2014. Did this have an effect on the political situation, but also on the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians?
The visits of the Pope are important stepping stones on the way to peace, even though they will not bring about a major change. However, the opposite is true when it comes to ecumenism: with his visit, Pope Francis built on the historic meeting that took place between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Keeping this in mind, the visit of Pope Francis, in particular, the ecumenical prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a decisive and perceptible turning point in the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
Aid to the Church in Need has been close to the Christians in the Holy Land for many years. In Jerusalem, for example, the pastoral charity funds an interreligious seminar entitled “Develop forgiveness, overcome hatred”, which is attended by hundreds of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Could you tell us something about this initiative?
First and foremost, I would like to thank ACN because the pastoral charity does a great deal in the Holy Land. It supports many projects, including this seminar, which is organized by the Rossing Center. Daniel Rossing was a Jew who felt that Jerusalem, in particular, needed to be a place where all religions felt at home. Many young people who participate in these classes apply what they learn in their professional lives. Which makes religion, which is often an element of division in the Holy Land, an element of unity.