Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa is head of the Franciscans in the Middle East, custodians of the holy places in Israel and Palestine. He spoke with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need on Wednesday, discussing the prospects of Christians in Syria, Iraq and throughout the Middle East five years after the beginning of the “Arab Spring.”
The Arab Spring has primarily resulted in chaos and the disintegration of nations, especially in Syria. Is there any reason for the hard-pressed Christians in the region to be optimistic in 2016?
Father Pizzaballa: It is difficult to say whether there are reasons for hope. However, from a political and military standpoint, this year will doubtlessly be a decisive year, a turning point. In Syria, I detect a certain war-weariness among the parties concerned. They will not be able to continue at this intensity for much longer.
But many Christians have already left Syria. Trust is broken between Christians and their (former) Muslim neighbors.
Not all Muslims agree with the ideology of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups or support them, of course. After all, ISIS, for one, also suppresses Muslims in the areas under their control, and thus numerically speaking one could even say they primarily suppress Muslims. But they still enjoy great popularity. It would be impossible for these groups to control such large parts of Syria and Iraq and for such a long time without support from the general population.
Is it necessary to separate the groups along religious and ethnic borders?
This should not be done under any circumstances. In order to make a future possible for Christians in their countries, you have to push through the concept of citizenship and civil equality. This is where the religious leaders have a part to play. Because Islamic fundamentalism didn’t just come out of nowhere.
However, most of the Islamic clerics say that ISIS, for example, has nothing to do with Islam.
It is surely a deviation, but there are links to the established theology. After World War II, we Catholics also had to ask ourselves how modern anti-Semitism that led to the Shoah was born and if we had a role in this. Muslim theologians now have to ask themselves similar questions. A theological examination of conscience is necessary. They have to ask themselves: What in our doctrine led to modern fundamentalism?
Christians must set an example of forgiveness. The Year of Mercy can help make this clear to us. If we hate ISIS, then they have won. It is of course extremely difficult to grant forgiveness and this cannot be done automatically; it requires time. And as an Italian who is living in safety, I am the last person who can tell a Christian in Aleppo how this is to be accomplished. But the Christians in Syria and Iraq have to ask themselves this question. The Gospels require this of us. If we fail to do so, our faith will remain theoretical.
Europe has long ceased being simply an observer of the upheaval in the Middle East. It is directly affected by the flow of refugees from the region. Many Christians are also making their way to Europe. Does this trouble you?
Under no circumstances would I encourage the Christians to emigrate. We are doing everything in our power to make it possible for the Christians to stay. I would tell them: Go to a safe part of the country, but stay in Syria. Fleeing is not a solution. Because the Christians belong here. They have a calling here. And Europe is not a paradise.
I would tell the politicians in Europe: It would be better to help the refugees, including the Christians, here than in Europe. It would be better to invest the money required to admit millions of refugees in Europe here. It would be better for both the refugees and the region.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)