Four days before Pope Benedict XVI embarks on his trip to the Holy and, the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, is one of the most worried people in the Middle East. In an exclusive interview with Haaretz yesterday, Twal concluded with a personal confession.
“The thing that worries me most is the speech that the pope will deliver here. One word for the Muslims and I’m in trouble; one word for the Jews and I’m in trouble. At the end of the visit the pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences.”
In advance of the visit, in advance of the speech that will be delivered here, the local patriarchate sent the Vatican a document enumerating the bleak situation from its perspective with warnings of possible complications. All that remains for Twal is to pray that the words are heeded.
Twal’s frank admission embodies all the difficulty of the position he holds. Even at the best of times, it is complicated for the important but shrinking Roman Catholic Church to navigate in this quarrelsome region between Jews and Muslims; it is immeasurably more difficult to do this in advance of the visit by Pope Benedict, from which all sides expect to benefit, when the visit is taking place such a short time after the bloody war in Gaza.
“The tension that the this war has left behind is making the necessary organization and coordination between the Israelis and the Palestinians even more difficult,” said Twal, “but it is also making things difficult for me personally. During the war, the faithful wondered what the patriarchate was doing for them, and there was nothing I could do to stop the death machine. I was helpless and I felt humiliated. This is a feeling that I experience here often. Even the Vatican could do very little. It, after all, has to be cautious and to maintain balance.”
Indeed, not everyone in the Arab community agreed with Twal, who has the authority to approve the date of the pope’s visit, and chose a time just four months after Operation Cast Lead. The patriarch deliberated the matter, but eventually decided that now, of all times, his flock needed spiritual guidance and encouragement, and Benedict should come and pray with them.
Church officials said that even so, critical voices were few and far between.
If not now, when?
In advance of the visit, Twal has a list of expectations and wishes that have to do with agreements between Israel and the Vatican that have not been concluded. Most of them have to do with tax breaks, the issuing of visas to clergy and greater freedom of movement for them, issues which has been under discussion since the upgrading of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993.
The implementation of these agreements, as well as the final formulation of the church’s material assets here, could make the life of the Christian community in Israel easier. Twal expected that these things would have been resolved as a goodwill gesture in advance of the visit. Since this has not happened, he expects that this will perhaps be the outcome of the visit.
To put it differently, Twal is wondering if agreements aren’t finalized in honor of the pope’s visit, when exactly will the right time will roll around?
Nevertheless, it appears that at this stage the main thrust of Twal’s prayer is that the visit goes peacefully.
It was only less than a year ago that Twal replaced the legendary Latin patriarch Michel Sabbagh, an Israeli Catholic who, to the distress of the Jews in Israel, adopted a Palestinian identity for himself.
Twal, 69, who holds a doctorate in law, is a Jordanian, a member of the large Al-Uzaizat tribe. He says that in the first century C.E. the tribe accepted Christianity, a fact that earned them a mention in the New Testament. For generations his clan led a nomadic life, until 150 years ago an energetic priest settled them in the town of Madaba, which Pope Benedict XVI will also visit during his journey through the region.
At the age of 14, enchanted by the personality of a priest who became his “teacher for life,” Twal chose the priestly life.
“The church has brought me back to a life of wandering,” he jokes, summing up a diplomatic career that took him from Latin America to Cairo and from Germany to Tunis. None of those assignments was as difficult and challenging as the one with which he is grappling with in the Holy Land, where he heads the Catholic community in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.
When Twal is asked to indicate the main problem the papal visit could solve to make his life easier, he says instantaneously, “The roadblocks.”
The difficulties in mobility are embittering the lives of the Palestinians in general and weighing heavily on the functioning of the church, he says.
“It is hard to move priests, it is hard to move nuns among hospitals. It is hard to get to funerals, it is hard to come to weddings. The entire functioning of our priesthood is hampered,” he said.
However, Twal acknowledges that there is another aspect to this difficulty, which is even more distressing.
“I have a hard time with the total distrust that the government of Israel evinces towards us,” he said. “You can trust us and you can even get help from us.”
Twal is aware of what are seen as improved Jewish-Christian relations. He listens patiently to a description of Jewish claims that in contrast to Muslims, “It’s possible to live with Christians,” while the Muslims in the territories and in Israel are envious of the Christians “who have a big brother in the Vatican.”
He listens, but rejects this outright.
“We don’t derive any benefit from what the two sides see as preferential status,” he said. “At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn’t help.”
Twal does not agree with the claim that all the open complaints by the Christian community are always directed at the Jews while troubles with Muslims are swept under the rug.
“I say openly that we have serious problems with the Muslims and with the strengthening of Islam in the region,” he says. “Christian families in Bethlehem are suffering quite a bit. However, this too is a result of the weakening of the central government in Palestine. When Islam gets stronger we suffer. When the regime gets weaker, we suffer. Look at what is happening to our people in Iraq.”
Safe in Gaza
Surprisingly, the situation of the Christians in Gaza under Hamas rule (only 286 Catholics) is in fact just fine. “We aren’t a threat and we’re also not an electoral asset,” laughed Twal. “We are simply too few for it to be worth opening another front because of us. The children of Hamas families attend our schools. Apart from that, they too know that we have a voice that echoes in the world. You could call this propaganda.”
Now he is partner to an effort to obtain exit visas for as many Gazans as possible to allow them to take part in the ceremonies for the pope’s visit. This is a complex reality, especially for someone who has also seen better situations for his coreligionists. Christians constitute only about 3.5 percent of the total population of Jordan, but they are prominent in all walks of life “as though we were 30 percent,” he said.
They have always been close to the Hashemite dynasty and now Twal is observing the ease with which the pope’s visit to Jordan is being organized, in contrast to the difficulty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Alongside the practical achievements the patriarch is hoping to reap from the visit, he is well aware of the Jewish expectation of hearing some sort of diplomatic statement, perhaps in the matter of Jerusalem or, in quite a different area, in the matter of the Holocaust-denying bishop. If you read between the lines of what Twal has to say, apparently neither sort of statement will be made. Bishop Richard Williamson, according to Twal, “is an insignificant nobody” and the pope’s attitude toward him isn’t a significant criterion for evaluation.
As for Jerusalem, the patriarch reiterates the Vatican’s position to the effect that the city must remain open to adherents of all religions in a arrangement that will be anchored in international law.
He himself would like to hear words of encouragement for the Christian community in the Holy Land, a call for peace, a condemnation of violence and an explicit statement of support for a two-state solution for two peoples from the pope.
At the end of the conversation, the patriarch again wonders about the Israeli government’s wisdom.
“We need you, but you also need us,” he says. “It isn’t clear to me why the government of Israel doesn’t understand that it cannot separate its attitude towards the local Christian population from its relations with the Vatican. The local church and the Vatican – it’s one entity. Maybe this is the opportunity to internalize that.”