After a weekend of tension and violence, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem talks about the recent events in the Middle East and the implications for the Holy Land. Editor’s note: The interview was conducted before the Israeli strike in Gaza that killed the Hamas military leader on Wednesday afternoon, November 14.
1. Between the hostilities with Gaza and warning shots against Syria, do you fear that the situation could degenerate?
I would say that the situation has never been quiet or normal or peaceful. From time to time there are attacks here and there which are an integral part of the overall disturbing situation. We live in a great crisis often made up of smaller crises. As we live in the abnormal, it is more than normal to go through such sufferings either in Gaza or the Golan Heights. To be more resolved, I would say we need a complete solution for full peace and justice for everyone and for all sides. Today, however, there is no clear solution, we live in the embarrassment of an uncertain future.
2. Now Jordan is host to nearly 230,000 Syrian refugees. What are the practical issues for the Patriarchate?
This flow of refugees is a serious human problem as refugees by the hundreds of thousands are living in tents. Some are in rented houses or live with families as there are many mixed marriages between Jordanians and Syrians. One can imagine the human drama and the precariousness of those who find themselves under the tent in the refugee camp in Mafraq in northern Jordan. Imagine the scorching heat of the day and the cold of the desert night for a family with children.
It is a human tragedy to which we cannot be indifferent. Upon my instructions, my Vicar went to Mafraq to understand the situation which he observed was deplorable. I must admit that Caritas Jordan works in conjunction with Caritas Italy, Caritas Sweden, Caritas Norway and our local humanitarian organizations in Jordan and have carried a wonderful job. I remember that last year the organizations let go of about 50 volunteers because there was not enough work for them to do.
As refugee camps are not enough to accommodate all refugees, our parish in Mafraq opened the doors of its school for children, Christian and non-Christian who can continue their schooling. Families are also welcome in Mafraq.
However, I do not think Jordan is ready with electricity, water and all other basic necessities, to receive these refugees. The country lacks essential infrastructure. We really need external financial assistance to help the country meet the needs of refugees.
3. What is your expectation of the re-election of Barack Obama for the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knowing that he will not support the Palestinians who seek non-member status at the United Nations on November 29th?
I can only ask Obama to remember his first speech in Cairo. We would be grateful if he is able to achieve what he promised. (Editor’s Note: the US President in June 2009 expressed his support for the creation of a state for the Palestinians and had requested that the Israeli settlement “stop.” Obama had mentioned his desire to see the Middle East without nuclear weapons and to discuss with Iran about its nuclear program).
Now that he is re-elected, I hope he will be more courageous to see the reality of the situation as it is and will take the necessary action. I would like, as it is the desire of the Holy Father and a hundred states see regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for two independent states that respectfully exist side-by-side with a lasting peace agreement.
Secondly, we cannot remain indifferent to what is happening in Syria and Egypt.
The violence in Syria that is at our doorstep.Jordanians, governments and citizens must be very careful to give judgments. We do not yet know how the crisis will end. The fact that there are extremist Salafis in Jordan to fight this regime is to me the height of a political blind policy with nowhere to go. The protagonists themselves do not clearly know where these revolutions will lead. I heard that only 8-10% of Syrians are fighting against the regime! All others are mercenaries who came from outside. Yes, there are risks that Jordan is destabilized. (Editor’s Note: despite the dissolution of the Parliament and the call for elections on January 23, the Muslim Brotherhood continues the challenge).
The situation in Egypt is worse than ours. I will be in Egypt for the installation of the new patriarch of the Coptic Church of Egypt, H.B. Tawadros II. He will not have an easy task and will reassure a concerned community regarding the progress of Islamism in Egypt. My presence is an expression of my support and encouragement. Among Patriarchs in the East, we must help each other.
It is indeed difficult to assess the current situation to see better conditions. Changes are happening at lightning speed. What is said today may change tomorrow. But we are far from despairing. We know that we belong to the Church of the Resurrection, and also of Calvary. It is now November, we need to create a Christmas atmosphere to share a message of peace, and serenity for us, our faithful and our pilgrims. There is no point of sounding the alarm. The situation is difficult, we must be rooted in our faith.
4.The Bank accounts of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate partly in charge of the Holy Sepulchre were blocked by an Israeli water company. The Holy Sepulcher could close its doors for a day in protest. What can you tell us about it after your meeting with Patriarch Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church?
I had the great pleasure to meet Patriarch Kirill. I hope that a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church will live in Jerusalem. This church is larger, stronger, richer than some churches here who have bishops. It is his dream and mine here too.
Strictly speaking, the problem of water in the Holy Sepulchre, the visit of Patriarch Kirill has no connection with this case. This is an issue that concerns only the Greek Orthodox and non Russian Orthodox. Besides, we know that relations between the two Orthodox communities are rather strained.
Having said that, I do not believe that Israel’s only dream is the pursuit of money. It was for the Church since the Ottoman Empire, an agreement for exemption from payment of the water bills. The agreement lasted during the British mandate, under the Jordanians and even a few decades after the creation of Israel.
I am convinced that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism can help us resolve the dispute. With regard to the closing of doors, I don’t believe it too. The primary custodians of the Holy Sepulcher are the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church with the Franciscan Order, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. No decision can be taken unilaterally.
5. The Synod for the New Evangelization is completed. What are the challenges to deliver the Gospel in the Middle East, in the reality of the Arab Spring and the rise of religious extremism?
In my opinion, there is no New Evangelization. As a Christian, it is always the same evangelization in question, that which was given by the first Christian community in Jerusalem. We must take this small community as a good example. They were “united in the teaching of the Apostles, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.” I have a call to make: “let us go back to the basics, back to Jerusalem. We must go from Jerusalem and return to Jerusalem.”
Actually, what is new is the context in which we live and it should be noted that there is the revival of Jewish and Muslim extremism.
Let us also consider the difficult context of the “Arab Spring” by which to react and live in giving witness to our faith. Add to this global crisis the political, economic and moral implications here in the Arab world. Throughout this new context that is not really in our favor, we must wake up, take charge of our responsibility in respecting and loving our Christian identity, and be willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ.
6. Despite the situation, the Patriarchate recorded a significant increase of vocations to the priesthood. How do you explain this sign of hope for the Holy Land?
Our daily challenge is probably the very reason that explains why we easily fled from the spiritual yet conversely there are more vocations. It is a psychological reaction. Wherever there is more comfort, convenience and peace, there are fewer vocations. At the present time we have 50 minor seminarians and 30 in the major seminary. Last year, three priests were ordained and probably two next year with the grace of God.,
There have been requests to send missionaries to North Africa and the Gulf countries. I would like to help these countries in a special way. I have been asked as well to send priests to the Ecclesiastical Academy of diplomats and Europe. Soon you’ll hear about it. But I must also meet with my Auxiliary Bishops and council of advisers to see how many priests we are able to send on mission to different parts of the world.
Interview by Christophe Lafontaine