INTERVIEW – May 8, 2014. Interviewed by the Portuguese weekly VISAO, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in Portugal for ceremonies on May 13, asked all to pray for peace in the Middle East and pointed out the difficulties and the challenges of the Christian community in the Holy Land.
Will you preside over the May 13 ceremonies at Fatima, and what message will you bring to the pilgrims?
The greeting that the Lord gave to his disciples when they first appeared after his resurrection was “Peace be with you.” Yes, this peace that we expect in the Middle East for many years. At the same time I have come to Fatima to beg for your prayers and the intercession of the Virgin for our country, and the earthly Jerusalem.
In little more than ten days, you will welcome the Pope in Jerusalem…
Pope Francis is to commemorate the visit of Pope Paul VI in 1964 and his meeting with the Patriarch Athenagoras. In order to obtain the maximum benefit from this visit, we will need to read and meditate on his speeches to discover the message he want to leave with us and make a life plan.
Is it true that the land that will welcome the Pope is a land of soaring extremism?
The Middle East is experiencing a period of violence. The culture of violence produces devastation but, at the same time, dialogue meetings to eradicate violence are flourishing. All – institutions, schools, mosques and churches – need to work to fight violence. It is the responsibility of everyone. The West and the international community must work to block the dispatch and sale of weapons, and to all the friends of the Virgin of Fatima, we ask you to intercede for us in prayer. The Lord is the Lord of history and we believe by faith that one day Peace and Justice will have the last word. I’m sure the Pope in his speeches will call for greater justice and peace. No, we cannot say that the land that will welcome the Pope is a land of extremism.
The peace or you can learn in school?
Peace, above all the gift of God, is a gift entrusted to men who must work for and achieve it. It is a huge task to which governments and churches must devote unceasingly. In school you learn that a person should live in peace because you learn about the horror and destruction that wars have wrought in history. But there are many other places of learning – or not learning – about peace. This, you learn on the road, in places of prayer and in the family. Some people get an education for peace, others one for hatred and violence. It’s hard to counteract the education that one receives, for example, from his father.
How do Christians live today in Jerusalem?
Local Christians, today, are an integral part of the Palestinian people and they suffer together. All aspire to an independent state with defined borders, according to international laws and resolutions. To live in the Holy Land is to accept the dramatic dimension of Jerusalem, this holy city that made Jesus cry in person. All this without forgetting that we are also the Church of the Resurrection, of joy and hope.
Is Religious Freedom a reality or a mirage?
In the Holy Land there is freedom of worship. We have the right to go every day to our churches, to ring the bells, to manifest our presence with processions or gatherings. But religious freedom is limited when Christians are prevented from entering Jerusalem for safety reasons. With regard to the freedom of conscience, there is still work to be done in the matter. This is also a problem of culture.
Is Christianity in the Middle East going to disappear?
Not at all. Christianity, at the foot of the cross and by persecution, becomes purified. Yes, there are Christians who are emigrating, but also many who come. We have no right to be afraid, if we believe the words of the Master: “Do not be afraid… I am with you until the end of time.” In contrast, Christians see in their Church protection and shelter.
From your viewpoint in Jerusalem, how do you see the conflicts that tear the Middle East?
There are too many “remote controls” from outside that agitate or calm the conflicts in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East are no longer free to decide their fate. The war in Syria is the sign of a blind policy that does not know how to measure sufficiently the consequences of military intervention and the devastation a war bring upon a nation. Such is a policy that only destroys, that does not build anymore and does not guarantee the future for their country.
How do you see the definition of a Statute for Jerusalem and access for Christians to the Holy City?
We have to work so that all believers – Christians, Jews, and Muslims – can have free access to Jerusalem to pray. Some live a few miles from the city, sometimes they see it only from a distance; they cannot reach it because a Wall blocking the way. Meanwhile, believers who are from the other side of the world – Europe, USA, Japan and elsewhere – can easily reach it.
What role can play the Pope in the peace process and dialogue between religions?
It is first of all a pastoral visit by a man of peace, dialogue and prayer, who comes primarily to commemorate the ecumenical meeting in 1964. But the political aspect of the event should not be underestimated. We believe that His Holiness will speak and make gestures that will affect people, we who are every day hit by the problems of occupation, free access to holy places, separation of families and right of each to a normal life. As for the dialogue, the Holy Father will certainly leave a message of Unity and Charity. I really think that he will erect a bridge between the three confessions of the children of Abraham. In fact, on his trip he will be accompanied by a rabbi and an imam.
Does the legacy of the Crusades hold some weight in your daily ministry?
At first, the Crusades were promoted to allow Christians access to holy places occupied by Muslims. It is a problem of the past and there is no question to talk about today? My ministry today is to keep alive the Word of God in the land where Jesus was born, died and arose. This, among other things, with attention to the protection of the Holy Places, so that men and women from every part of the world can continue to make a pilgrimage.
On the other hand, 70 years after the Second World War, do you feel the weight of other representatives who can portray negatively your relations with the Jewish community?
Our relations with the Jewish community cannot be normal as long as Israeli military occupation lasts. This is a matter hurts the occupier as much as occupied! As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, there will be the lack of peace and mutual trust. We hope and pray for a peaceful coexistence, but we are still far from having a normal life. We hope to live in peace as good neighbors rather than live always as enemies… A good and fair solution for all requires the construction of two sovereign states, with well-defined borders; the discovery of a solution for Palestinian refugees, and finally the resolution of the status of Jerusalem.
What do you think of the Israeli attempt to distinguish between Palestinian Christians and Muslims?
The project would be to disregard Christians as Arabs and therefore not part of the Palestinian people. There is a desire to undermine our identity, which is not acceptable. No one can force us to be what we are not. It is a dangerous attempt because it can cause a division between Christians and Muslims within the same nation. It is the peace that is threatened!
Amartya Kumar Sen says that a poor man is not a free man. Do you agree?
Considering the current situation in Palestine we are tempted to go in the sense of this statement. A country whose economy is not independent can hardly aspire to political independence. Its hands and feet are tied. But all the same, there does not exist a poor person in this world who does not have something to give it, and a rich person who does not need something. One who gives, even in the most extreme poverty, it’s free to donate.
To conclude. I would like to invoke the intercession of the Virgin of Fatima for our earthly homeland, because born in the hearts of all is a spirit of charity, sharing and solidarity. And that also there arise people of good will for peace.
Interview by Inês Rapazote (VISAO)