As the 2012 school year begins, Bishop William Shomali, Patriarchal Vicar for Jerusalem in an interview, shares his analysis of the situation in the Middle East and the Holy Land. He speaks about the UN annual meeting, the situation in Syria, the Holy Father’s trip to Lebanon, the “Year of Faith” and other topics of interest.
1. Mahmoud Abbas hoped that the UN General Assembly would “adopt a resolution considering the state of Palestine as a Non-Member State of the United Nations.” He also requested a resolution “binding” the UN to laying the groundwork for a peace agreement with Israel. What do you think?
Recognition of a Palestinian state has won international approval. So the fact that President Abbas is now requesting recognition of the State of Palestine as a Non-Member State to the United Nations, basically lowers the level of demand. It is less than what the vast majority of the international community sees as already evident.
Moreover, I think that he has reason to ask for a binding basis for future negotiations. If there is no secure platform to start negotiating, we lose much time. Negotiations have failed a dozen times in the past because the principles of negotiations were not clear.
2. Israel is demanding a “clear red line” on the issue of uranium enrichment by Tehran. What is your position?
I would like to link this question to the first. Mahmoud Abbas calls for a “clear green line”, that is to say a line that delineates Israeli land and Palestinian land because there is a border issue between the two countries. Benjamin Netanyahu asks a red line for Iran. I think both lines are connected. If Israel were to agree to give the Palestinians what they deserve, that is to say 22% of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, as the line of demarcation between Israel and Palestine (the green line) is clear, it would facilitate peace in the Middle East and Iran would not have the need for an atomic bomb against Israel.
3. In his welcome address in Lebanon, the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Lahham stressed the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “the recognition of the Palestinian state (…) will pave the way towards a true Arab Spring.” Is this your opinion too?
The Arab Spring is not exclusively linked to the Palestinian question. There are particular internal reasons to countries such as poverty, a lack of jobs, government corruption … It is true, however, that recognition of a state for Palestinians would clear-up relations between Arab countries and Israel; an outcome which would be desirable.
There would be more tranquility in the Middle East if there was peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but that does not circumvent requests of the Arab peoples from their leaders, which are mostly democratic and economic matters.
4. The conflict in Syria is worsening dramatically. What can you say about it from your position? How will the Latin Patriarchate welcome refugees?
The Syrian problem has gone beyond the borders of Syria. Inside Syria, there are parties who are making war. They come from Iran, Turkey and Gulf Countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It is a conflict with a wider dimension.
For me, this is a fratricidal war – an absurdity where there is no winner and all are losers.
All that we can do as a diocese is limited to humanitarian aid. Caritas Jordan and other Christian organizations with international aid agencies are working hand in hand to help Syrian refugees living in very difficult situations: the current summer heat, the impending winter season and also deplorable hygienic problems. Yet assistance from Caritas and other organizations cannot meet the needs caused by the crisis.
The sad reality for the half a million refugees (soon to be 700,000 at the beginning of the new year) is a very serious problem that is beyond the capacity of our diocese. The best solution is to stop the conflict which will decrease the amount of suffering.
5. What has the Pope’s visit to Lebanon done for you as a bishop and for the faithful in the Holy Land? What are the (new) responsibilities that emerged?
I think that we should not judge the Pope’s visit on its immediate benefits. It is like a tree that is planted: it does not produce fruit for a few years.
The Pope’s visit was an extraordinary event. He came to show solidarity with many Eastern Christians. It happened despite pessimistic forecasts in the context of the Syrian tragedy. His courage and his insistence on coming has strengthened many of us. On the morale level, the Pope’s visit has given us much.
Now we have to read (and implement) the apostolic exhortation which is basically a more cohesive repetition of the message and proposals of the Synod for the Middle East which was held in 2010. Therefore, we as Bishops must be consistent with the Christian people on this message.
By attentively reading this exhortation it will continue to serve us for years to come, I would say even for the next 50 years. The exhortation shows clearly the regulatory principles of our Christian attitudes with ourselves, with other Catholics and non-Catholic churches and with the Jewish and Muslim world. This exhortation also addresses emigration of Eastern Christians. In it, therefore, we find strong proposals and solutions to many problems faced by Christians living in the Middle East.
6. These days, anti-Christian sentiment (the tearing of the New Testament by an Israeli governmental official, graffiti on your Monasteries, and arson at the Monastery of Latrun …) has shaken the Christian community in the Holy Land. Do you see a resurgence of tensions and threats? Would an “anti-blasphemy” law be useful?
Reading the news of the world there is interreligious tension everywhere; in Africa, Asia, and even Europe. It should be noted that there is difference in mentality between the West and the East, which means that consequences and reactions are incomparable.
The creation of an anti-blasphemy law is a good idea, but I ask that this be done at the international level through the United Nations. I think we need a clear law that requires respect for religions with sanctions against those who desecrate religious shrines and others that disrespect religious symbols. A law without sanctions is a law that is not enforced.
7. The Year of Faith starts in the Latin Patriarchate in late October. What proposals do you do have for the faithful? What are the challenges of this year in your diocese?
There is a risk that you run when you define faith as a bunch of religious truths which must believed in. Faith is not simply a set of dogmas.
Faith is an extraordinary light from the Lord, through which we can see deeper, farther and higher. It is a light, and a force that allows us to live in accordance with what we see and to also to believe in what we don’t.
The risk which our community faces in the Middle East is that faith is material identification. We are Christian or Muslim or Jews. Religion is reduced to a social label.
We want out of this definition of faith and consider it as a relationship with God. A relationship of trust based on the fact that God is powerful, that He loves me and that He helps me in my present situation. It is this relationship that Jesus had with all of the sick he healed. They begged for his assistance (out of faith in what he could do) and thus by his strength, able to help out of his great love for them.
This is the faith that binds us to the friendship of Lord.
8. Speaking about the Year of Faith also means talking about the Second Vatican Council 50 years after its opening. What is the legacy of that council today and how is it growing and developing in the Holy Land?
We live half a century after Vatican II. It is true that was a second Vatican council but there have also been a number of synods convened to further the legacy of Vatican II. We must not forget that those synods which followed Vatican II have been crucial to a deeper understanding of the topics presented, delving into aspects such as the Sacrament of the Eucharist or the Word of God.
We also must consider that Vatican II has laid the platform for a renewal in the Church for the twenty-first century through the treasures (both writings and post-synodal exhortations) of recent popes.
9. Precisely, what do you think about the dynamics of the New Evangelization and what do you expect of the next Synod?
The New Evangelization was designed specifically for western countries where traditional faith has fallen sharply. These countries have come to see themselves as post-Christian giving rise to a lot of anti-Christian rhetoric, anti-clericalism, atheism, the de-Christianization of culture and religious indifference.
The outcome of synod will hopefully re-awaken Christian awareness especially in Europe and North America. At the same time, the synod will serve the churches in the Middle East because faith is – as mentioned – a social label and identification. We feel the need to deepen the faith of Christians in the Middle East, as requested by the Synod itself. Allow me to give an example: among those who go to church on Sundays in our parishes, very often, have a difficulty to forgive those who have hurt them.
And yet, they continue on in their lives as if nothing has happened in the first place.
The new evangelization is not just about faith itself, but on how to live faith as a deep and personal faith; a faith of forgiveness not a faith of obligations but a living faith that invigorates me to participate in society by living charity and forgiveness. We need this from the synod for our Christians.
I see a strong relationship between the Year of Faith and the Synod on the New Evangelization and I am excited to see what comes of it in the next few days.
Interview by Christophe Lafontaine