Pope Francis will visit the Holy Land from May 24-26 of this year, on the occasion of the 50thanniversary of Pope Paul VI’s historic visit. The visit will take place in a complicated geo-political context, given the Syrian crisis, which is entering its third year, bringing with it heavy repercussions on the neighboring countries, especially in regard the question of security and refugees.
Father Rifaat Bader, one of the organizers of the papal visit, spoke with ZENIT about the situation of the refugees in Jordan and the atmosphere preceding the Pope’s visit.
Father Bader, a Jordanian priest of the Latin Patriarchate, is the director and founder of the Abouna site and director of the Center of Catholic Studies and Information in Jordan.
ZENIT: What is the estimated number of Syrian refugees in Jordan?
Father Bader: The number of refugees in Jordan is close to one million. There are three camps, the most important of which is A-Za’tari. There are about 250,000 refugees present in the camp, while the others are scattered in several countries.
ZENIT: How do these refugees receive what is necessary for their survival? Do they have the right to work in Jordan?
Father Bader: Whoever is registered as a refugee can’t work. The same problem was lived and is still being lived by Iraqi refugees, whose number is close to half a million.
ZENIT: How do they live then?
Father Bader: The charitable organizations offer a great contribution, together with the work carried out by the United Nations. Caritas offers a great service. Every day some 100,000 refugees receive help without distinction of religion or race. The Christian charitable work isn’t exclusivist. And here I would like to stress a question of crucial importance: charitable work must not be a cover for proselytism. I say it because, unfortunately, there are realities that offer humanitarian services to then propose a proselytizing agenda. This is an error of timing because it catches man in a moment of great fragility and takes advantage of his hunger and thirst to manipulate his religious sensibility. It’s a lack of respect of the dignity of the human person.
ZENIT: How many Christians are there among these refugees?
Father Bader: There is talk of some 17,000 Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan. They all came after the Syrian crisis. Their motives for coming to Jordan are diverse. Many of them come to us only temporarily, while waiting to receive visas to immigrate in the West. This phenomenon is a motive of great grief for them, because they live two difficult exoduses, but also for the Middle East in general, because it is being emptied of its Christian children.
ZENIT: In this context, what is the importance of the Pope’s visit?
Father Bader: The timing of the Pope’s visit was dictated by the 50thanniversary of Paul VI’s historic visit. We are preparing a book for the occasion which comments on that visit, presenting the historical picture of the Holy See’s relations with Jordan, on one hand, and with Palestine on the other. The book will contain notable contributions, among them that of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, of Jordanian King Abdullah II, and a special word from Cardinal Paul Poupard, who has communicated to us his personal experience of Pope Paul VI’s trip.
Pope Francis is coming to commemorate that visit and to foster diplomatic relations with three States. He will go by helicopter from Jordan to Bethlehem in support of the Palestinian State. There are few Heads of State who recognize the independent status of Palestine. With this visit, the Pope will express the position of the Holy See, which recognizes Palestine and supports it.
As Jordanians we are extremely happy with this visit, although we would have liked a longer stay of the Holy Father.
ZENIT: What will be the motto of the visit?
Father Bader: The visit will be a cry of peace. We have been asked to put forward our proposals for the logo and the motto. I think it will be “Joy and Hope.” The motto of Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon was: “I Give You My Peace,” and that of his visit to the Holy Land was: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This time, also to commemorate
ZENIT: The interlocutor of the desire for peace is not a State now. Rather, we find ourselves before a destructive and closed ideology. What (human) hope can the Pope’s visit awaken?
Father Bader: You are absolutely right. We don’t have a real interlocutor. There are so many leaders and even more ideologies. However, I don’t see the present war as a war against Christians; it is, rather, a war of terrorism in the same way against Christians and Muslims. And precisely here is the occasion for us, as Arab Christians, to show our support for dialogue and friendship between Muslims and Christians. We must be one single source against terrorism and fundamentalism, against the forced insertion of religion in political battles.
Here I am pressed to affirm that the declaration of a Jewish religious nation is not an opportune step. The only State of a religious nature and of a totally peaceful character is Vatican City. If there should be religious nations — and it’s something we don’t wish for — they must be of a similar peaceful nature. The genesis of a Jewish religious State will give an alibi to the Islamists to form Islamic religious States, which will make everything all the more complicated. We hope, rather, for democratic States constituted on the right of citizenship and on equality in rights and duties.
Two days ago Palestine decided to eliminate the box of religious confession from identity cards. I think this is a great step forward. We must not deal with people according to their religious creed but as human persons. Our hope is that the Pope’s visit will be a contribution in the direction of equality and peaceful coexistence.[Translation by ZENIT]