INTERVIEW – “The West should intervene in a logical way, not only intervene when its interests are threatened …The international community and the United States have ‘gifted’ all extremists, all these Europe crazies who have found refuge in Syria.” Thus, Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, commented on the issue of Iraq with effective clarity and in this interview with “Avvenire” on September 5, 2014 draws attention to the tragedy of Gaza and the unheard voice of the patriarchs of the Church in the Middle East.
After the ceasefire agreement, attention has now shifted to the reconstruction of Gaza. For those who remain in the Gaza Strip what is the possibility of change?
These days the auxiliary bishop and the administrator of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem have obtained a permission to visit Gaza. The truce is fine, but it’s a result achieved after the death of over a thousand Palestinians, and almost total destruction. It‘s not the first time that the population of the Strip has paid for such conflicts. Now we are facing a new and expensive reconstruction in financial and human terms. But I ask myself: destroying Gaza, destroying a whole people and then think about rebuilding it … why did it have to come to this? Who will heal the inner wounds? Who will heal those of the many children who have witnessed the horror and death of family members? I say that if conditions are and remain the same as before the war, if these conditions do not change, we will continue to have a people who are desperate, humiliated and frustrated. It will continue to breed hatred and extremist. And we all will pay the price of this policy.
How can you get a fair agreement and an appeasement?
To arrive at a just agreement and a just peace in the Gaza Strip it must be that each of the parties must give a little instead of just only one. It is mainly up to the major players, the politicians and executives to have a shred of logic and to act and work really in favor of a constructive peace. The international community should make an objective review and have the courage to tell the truth, even if disliked by all. The fact that we all have the same dignity, we all have the same rights and duties. There is a key law of international politics which is called ‘reciprocity’. This principle must be applied.
Can the Church in the Holy Land promote this perspective?
I believe that all Christian churches that have been in the Holy Land for centuries have more elements to help provide a complete view. They can help to give that balanced judgment and viewpoint directed to the good of all, and which the parties to the conflict are struggling to gain. The presence of the Christian Churches is a presence that is far from the political or religious fanaticism that can be seen in one or other party.
The parish priest of Gaza was received and encouraged by the Pope. Does the fact that the priest remained there during the conflict therefore have significance, not only for the Church in the Holy Land?
We remain next to our people; we are in the situation, whatever it may be. We are in the suffering of the people and our churches are open to everyone. This clearly shows who we are, and the nature of our true identity – in Gaza, in Syria, in Jordan, and in Iraq.
The international community should therefore, in your opinion, listen to the voice of the Churches of the Middle East?
Ask the opinion of the pastors of churches who live on site and who could help them grasp the right decisions, and avoid many missteps. Not listening to the voice of the patriarchs of the Church has led to many mistakes. Unfortunately, the policy that is being pursued in the area is a policy of interest. A policy that circumvents the cry of the shepherds. Our presence or our non-presence here, for the international community, says little.
Can you give an example of this policy?
Just think about Gaddafi. For forty years he was treated as a friend. Forty years later they discovered he was bad. But there were others who were even worse than Gaddafi and have not been touched. Changing regimes and destroy countries only to promote certain interests.
But what should the West do to defend you and defend themselves from the extremists?
At the moment, the West should intervene in a logical way, not only intervene when its interests are threatened. In one of the speeches in Jordan, addressing the people of Syria, the Holy Father called “criminals” those who sell weapons.
In the homily, which you delivered in Siracusa, you said that “ISIS was initially supported by the international community.” Can you explain this statement?
I come back to Syria, because it all started from there. To overthrow the Assad regime, the international community had supported these extremist groups. The international community and America we were then ‘gifted’ all extremists, all these crazies from Europe who have found refuge in Syria to fight against a regime that America did not like, that Israel and the international community did not like. The regime is still in good health and deaths are increasing in number. It is a blind policy.
However, the silence of many leaders of the Arab world is noted, both for what happened in Gaza in regard to the conflict for jihadist power in Iraq …
There have been articles by Islamic intellectuals and individual Muslims who have expressed their opposition in the face of attacks, and the violence and the jihadist ideology. But on the part of many Arab country governments it was lacking and they lack a clear-cut statement and position. There is not! These governments, though, have evidently their interests to protect.
The problem of fundamentalism remains nonetheless. In your opinion how can one fight it?
Our question is: who is behind, who feeds the fanaticism? But whoever exalts violence in God’s name can be neutralized only by a good and sound education. If this education is not in place, we pay the price. The point is this. It all depends on what is taught to our children. A bad education predisposes to fanaticism; a good education prepares the groundwork for a true dialogue that we all want. Fanaticism, fundamentalism is found in different parties, and is not a characteristic only of the Islamists, representatives of fanatical Islam. They are also on the Israeli side.
You are referring to those groups of settlers in Israel the sign ‘price tag’ and perform attacks against Christians and Muslims?
I suffered a lot last year for the attacks and injurious and offensive inscriptions against us by these groups, and which appeared on the walls of our churches. The authorities have deplored and condemned such acts. But it does not help to deplore them if they do not bring the perpetrators to trial, and they do not even put the problem within education of their students. And then I ask myself if it is appropriate for the work of education and prevention on the part of Israeli institutions to include such subjects. I received several phone calls from some academics who condemned such acts totally and sincerely asked me: “What can be done?” I replied: “You are in contact with many young people, many students, please teach them what it means respect others, democracy, and freedom.” These are things that every balanced nation can and should condemn through education and not allow them to grow.
And what do you think about the proposed enlistment of Arab Christians in the army of Israel?
At the individual level, everyone is free to act as they wish. But I think that this proposal is pursuing the goal of dividing the Arab community in its interior, tearing the community of Muslims and Christians who always live together, and the goal of affirming that Christians are not Arabs. Christians here, as I, too, are one hundred per cent Christian and one hundred per cent Arab. No one can change that and make false papers. Nobody can believe another line. If someone has accepted this proposal, shall bear the responsibility of it. Unfortunately, one always finds some weak individuals who, under pressure or promise of money, can do this.
Recently, you were able to meet Iraqi refugees in Jordan. What did you see and hear?
I visited the center opened by Caritas Jordan for refugees from Mosul. I have seen a very dramatic situation. Many did not want to speak because of the pain, the agony of leaving a son or daughter in Iraq. We do not know, at this time, what their future may be; if they will stay there or not. They do not want to go back because there is nothing left. We, as a patriarchate, are committed to give them material and moral support. I appeal to the solidarity of the international community and the Italian dioceses to help these souls.
Interview by Stefania Falasca for Avvenire