© Ilona Budzbon / Aid to the Church in Need
Jerusalem, Holy Land
“Nineteen Christian families have left Bethlehem”
Franciscan Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa talks with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the violence in the Holy Land and its consequences
by Oliver Maksan, ACN InternationalAdapted by ACN Canada
Aid to the Church in Need: Father Custos, with unrest on the Muslim 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. 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 the respective politicians are working to calm things down. I don’t know whether it may not already be too late for this. Like I said: the religious aspect will always be there. What is crucial is keeping it as small as possible.
Aid to the Church in Need: However, would you agree that the crux of the conflict is still the fight of two peoples for the same piece of land?
Yes. But like I said, 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 twenty years.
However, I don’t believe that politicians such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas want to transform the conflict into a religious one. But it is true that religious parties on both sides are working in this direction.
Aid to the Church in Need: Also in Israel?
Yes. 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.
Aid to the Church in Need: Most recently there was unrest on the Islamically administered Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The 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. However, this is what is happening at the moment. Up until now, the status quo on the Temple Mount has always been respected in Israel. If this is changed, it will transform the conflict in a religious direction that will be irreversible.
Aid to the Church in Need: 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, now in autumn Jerusalem has been plagued by terror. Are we further away from peace than ever before?
I don’t know whether we are further 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.
Aid to the Church in Need: 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.
Aid to the Church in Need: 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 confessionally divided. We can’t even agree on who cleans what in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 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 encounters. After all, every church has interreligious fora. However, I don’t believe that there is very much else we can do.
Aid to the Church in Need: 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 sixty per cent 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 live from 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.
Aid to the Church in Need: What is the reason for this?
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.
Aid to the Church in Need: Two reasons are given to explain the emigration of Christians from Palestine: the consequences of Israeli occupation and the Islamization of Palestinian society. What do you consider the main reason?
There is no “either or,” only a “not only but also.” 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 and you get a feeling of hopelessness.
Aid to the Church in Need: Israel is currently discussing a nation state bill that would establish the Jewish character of the state. Will this happen at the expense of Israeli democracy with its large Arabian minority, including its many Christians?
Now, 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 situation of the minorities, including the Christians. However, it will intensify the feelings of reserve that minorities in Israel harbour towards the state. It will make them even more convinced that they are not really wanted here.
Aid to the Church in Need: Looking beyond the Holy Land: with the advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has the year 2014 been a turning point for Christianity in the Middle East in general?
Yes, 2014 has been a turning point. What World War I was for Europe, this year was for the Middle East. The old orders no longer exist. However, we don’t know yet what the new will look like. In Syria, for example, hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing. The middle class is leaving the country. What is left are the poor. The ecclesiastical infrastructure that we built up in Aleppo and other such regions of the country has been destroyed or abandoned. We are faced with enormous tasks. We not only have to rebuild the Christian community, but also the relationship with the Muslim majority.