Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who was in Rome in October to participate in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which concluded Sunday, spoke with ZENIT about the complex reality that Christians face in the region.
In Part 1 of this interview, the Custos gives a panoramic view of the real conditions of Christians who live in Israel, and those who live in the Palestinian Territories.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.
ZENIT: The conditions of Christians in countries of Muslim majority have been presented in more than one venue, but their situation in Israel is little known. What can you tell us of the situation of Christians there, especially with regard to religious liberty, freedom of conscience and political rights?
Father Pizzaballa: When one speaks of the Holy Land there is always some confusion. There are in the Holy Land two political entities: Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which are in conflict, an aspect which makes things even more complicated. Hence the situation of Christians in Israel — where there is a Jewish majority, followed by a Muslim minority, and then by a Christina minority — is one thing, but the situation of Christians within the Palestinian Territories, where there is an enormous Muslim majority, has another dynamic. Hence it would be necessary to distinguish very well between these two environments.
In Israel, a Christian has serious identity problems. It isn’t an economic or social problem; they are problems that can be found in all countries, but let’s say that from the point of view of the economic and social life Christians don’t meet with great problems. The real problem for a Christian is that of being an Israeli citizen but non-Jewish, of being Arab but not Muslim, hence a minority within a minority.
From the point of view of laws there is no discrimination, there are however, in fact, inequalities of treatment, of approach, which particularly strike the Christian minority. I repeat, this is not because the law provides it, but because of the fact that in society a minority is not visible and is often not taken into consideration, and to make “oneself seen,” one must be twice as valiant as the rest. Of course, there is also the political problem: What relationship must minorities have with a state that defines itself as Jewish? This is one aspect.
Along with this, there is the influence of the ever difficult relationship between Judaism and Christianity. There is a deep-rooted prejudice that was born and developed in the course of the centuries in Judaism in confrontations with Christianity for reasons that are known and that in Israel become tangible.
The situation of the Palestinian Authority is different, influenced above all by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here there is a Muslim majority who find it increasingly difficult to take notice of Christians because they are always fewer, even in the areas that were traditionally Christian. I’m thinking above all of Bethlehem, where today there is a reduced Christian minority — less than 10% of the population.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also assuming a religious character, unfortunately. Sometimes it isn’t like this, but at other times the idea circulates that to be good patriots one must be Muslim. This isn’t true because within the Christian community there are persons of prominence, although the number is dwindling. There are forms of fundamentalism, certainly. They are in certain Israeli fringes and also within the Palestinian Authority. Hence, Christians in their small numbers and in their divisions feel somewhat crushed by this situation. It is a rather complex reality, which from the human point of view, many concerns arise.
ZENIT: What will the effect be on non-Jews of the oath of loyalty to the Jewish state proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu?
Father Pizzaballa: First of all, the state of Israel has always described itself from the beginning as a Jewish and democratic state, and the position of minorities at this level was never all together clear. Now, with a test of force, Israel wishes to give life to this law which has caused a great outcry, both within Israel as well as outside, not only between the Muslim and Christian minority but also within the Israeli-Jewish component itself, leading even to very serious accusations of Fascism.
It’s an unjust law because in the Middle East, as also in Israel, the separation of state and Church doesn’t exist, and then in this very intricate identity complex it creates very strong and also unjust hardships, because it’s an injustice to make someone who is not a Jew declare fidelity to Jewish principles.