Bloody mix of faith and politics in Holy Land
"Nineteen Christian families have left Bethlehem for Europe and America in the past two, three months. All Christians are appalled by what is happening in Iraq at the hands of ISIS. It was also a horrendous shock for the Christians in the Holy Land. It strengthens the feeling that there is no future for Christians in the Middle East--that they are not wanted here."
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa is the Custos or Custodian of the Holy Land. He oversees the work of some 300 friars and women religious in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon—all in service of the principal Christian shrines in the region. These include Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. He spoke about the recent upsurge of violence in Jerusalem in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
With the unrest on the Temple Mount and the terror attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly taking on a religious dimension. Do you fear that a national conflict will be turned into a religious one?
There is that risk. On the other hand, one should not forget that this religious dimension has always existed. Religion has always been part of the problem. But now there is the risk that the religious dimension will become pre-eminent. But we are not the only ones who are concerned about this. I am under the impression that politicians on both sides are working to calm things down.
But would you agree that the crux of the conflict is still the fight of two peoples for the same piece of land?
Yes. But it is not that easy to separate the religious aspect from the national one. To be a good patriot, you either have to be a good Muslim or a good Jew. You also have to realize that the lay movements on both sides, both in Israel and in Palestine, have become very weak during the past 20 years. However, I don’t believe that politicians such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas want to transform the conflict into a religious one—even if religious parties on both sides are working in this direction.
Also in Israel?
Take the national religious parties. I am not saying that everyone in Israeli society wants this. But the risk of an increasingly religious dimension is there and we have to do everything in our power to avoid it.
Most recently there was unrest on the Muslim-administered Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Some Jews are trying to enforce their right to pray there. Up until now, they have been prohibited from doing so, also under Israeli law. Do you believe that this should change?
According to traditional Jewish views, Jews are forbidden from entering the Mount where the Jewish temple once stood. Thus the religion in and of itself is not the problem, but the mixing of religion and politics is problematic. Up until now, the status quo on the Temple Mount has always been respected in Israel. If this is changed, it will push the conflict in a religious direction that will be irreversible.
The year 2014 was not a good one in terms of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. In April, peace talks were broken off; in the summer war broke out in Gaza; and recently Jerusalem has been plagued by terror, most notably in the attack on the synagogue that left five dead. Are we farther away from peace than ever before?
I don’t know whether we are farther away from it than ever before. But we are doubtlessly far away from peace. I can’t see that there is any possibility of changing the situation in the near future. There is deep-seated frustration and a profound lack of mutual trust between these two peoples.
What would have to happen to build up trust?
It will take a long time. And there are no easy solutions. What we are seeing at the moment is the result of years of hate and frustration. You have to start in the schools and in society. You have to give the Palestinians something concrete and not just promises. And the Israelis also have to feel as if they have a contact person on the other side.
Could the Christians in the Holy Land play a role in this?
Here in the Holy Land, we Christians are irrelevant. There are too few of us. In addition, we are divided among ourselves, among the various Christian Churches. We can’t even agree on who cleans what in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. How then are we supposed to be a model for unity and reconciliation? This is why we cannot be the ones to build the bridge. However, we can of course provide opportunities for inter-religious encounters. Much more we cannot do.
How are Christians in the Holy Land affected by the violence and tension?
Naturally we feel the massive decline in religious tourism. As compared to last year, we have had a 60 percent drop in visitors to the holy sites since the Gaza War. That is a dramatic decline. It is only climbing back up slowly. But those Christians who depend on tourism are used to this. These kinds of conflicts occur every few years. However, in addition to the economic dimension, frustration is also on the rise among Christians. Nineteen Christian families have left Bethlehem for Europe and America in the past two, three months.
Why did they leave?
All Christians are appalled by what is happening in Iraq at the hands of ISIS. It was also a horrendous shock for the Christians in the Holy Land. It strengthens the feeling that there is no future for Christians in the Middle East—that they are not wanted here. Added to this is the frustration that peace has failed to appear.
Two reasons are given to explain the emigration of Christians from Palestine: the consequences of the Israeli occupation and the Islamicization of Palestinian society. What do you consider the main reason?
The one does not exclude the other. From an economic standpoint, life in the Palestinian areas is very difficult. On the other hand, relations with the Islamic community are not the same as they once were. All of that plus everything else that is going on around us produces hopelessness.
Israel’s Parliament is currently discussing a bill that would establish the Jewish character of the state. Will this happen at the expense of Israeli democracy that is home to a large Arabian minority, including its many Christians?
It is nothing new that Israel considers itself a Jewish and democratic state. This has been the case ever since the state was founded. I believe that the bill currently under discussion will not fundamentally change the status of the minorities, including the Christians. However, it will intensify the feelings of reserve that some minorities in Israel harbor towards the state. It will make them even more convinced that they are not really wanted here.
ACN photo: Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa