MONACO – July 9, 2019 – Politicians, journalists, photographers and a few other professional persons often share the dizzying experience of being able to observe the course of history while it happens. One such privileged observer is none other than Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate since 2016 and, a long time before, Custos of the Holy Land. For almost thirty years, he’s been living in the Holy Land and can observe the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the viewpoint of the very small Christian minority still living in the places of Jesus’ public ministry.
Archbishop Pizzaballa, tell us briefly the meaning of your complicated title and what your duties are.
The Apostolic Administrator is a bit of a strange figure, let’s say he is the emissary of the Pope. The Pope appoints someone for a particular work in a particular place. In that case, I was made Apostolic Administrator. I am in all respects the Diocesan Bishop of the diocese that is living a particular moment due to some political problems, but also due to internal problems, above all, of an economic nature. Therefore, the Holy Father wanted to entrust me with this task of bringing serenity back to the internal life of the Church.
How many Christians live in the Holy Land, and what are their living conditions on average?
First, let’s define the territory. There is the extended Holy Land; the typical Holy Land is what we understand politically today as Israel and the Palestinian Authority or Palestine. Christians in Israel number around 130,000, Arab Christians, then we must add around 80,000 foreign Christian workers, while in Palestine Christians are in all between 45,000 and 50,000.
In what conditions do they live? Are they discriminated against in the workplace? How does their daily life take place?
Christians are not a third people. It is generally said that there are Israelis, Palestinians, and Christians. Christians belong to the people in which they live. In the Holy Land, thank God, we did not have the problems we’ve seen in Syria and Iraq. We’ve not had direct persecutions with Daesh (ISIS) and so on. It is clear that for the Christians who are in the Holy Land, who are mostly Palestinians, life is not simple. We do not have direct persecutions, but there are indirect persecutions, difficulties, and discrimination. If you are a Christian, it is more difficult to find a home or find a job; in short, living conditions are not natural, instant.
Has the tragic fate of Christians in Syria and Iraq influenced the lives of Christians in the Holy Land?
It’s had a strong psychological impact. The Christians who lived alongside the Muslims in Syria and Iraq found themselves from today to tomorrow in situations they never expected. This made Christians of the Holy Land think: “Can it happen here too?” Here, this question certainly created more anxiety and more concern for the future.
Last year, the US administration of Donald Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, followed a few months later by Romania. How much do these international political movements hear about the territory?
The move of the American embassy was a point of no return, if you will. From the viewpoint of practical life, ordinary life, not much has changed. More or less the same things are done as before. It was a point of no return from the political point of view. It was, how to tell the Palestinian side: “Jerusalem, yes, it could be yours, but it’s not.” Something like that. The heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was Jerusalem, and any issue involving Jerusalem that does not include both sides is bound to create a profound rift in the political scene, and that is what happened, after moving the embassy the Palestinians interrupted any relationship with the American administration, blocking the already very slow, if not already stopped, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
In this complicated situation, how does the work of the Catholic Church fit in?
We must be aware of our limits and have the right proportions. As Christians, we are 1% of the population. We cannot, therefore, claim, politically, to have the weight that other communities can have. That said, the Church has international relations, links with the other influential churches in the world, which makes it more visible, much more than the real numbers it has in the Holy Land. Then there is the element of the pilgrimage. There are millions of pilgrims coming from all over the world, and they come to visit the Church, the holy places. That certainly makes it a point of reference in local life, even if not so decisive. The role of the Church is not to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, because if they want to talk, they do it even without us. The role of the Church is to show a style. There is a Christian way of being inside that land; there is a Christian way of staying within that conflict, this is what we must do, non-violence, not having enemies, seeking relationships, building relationships continuously, with all. Now is not the moment of the significant gestures, the Church must work in the territory, with the community, it must try to create small bonds, small bridges with everyone, with our Christian style.
You have lived in the Holy Land for 30 years; this will undoubtedly have enriched you as a man and as a religious. Is there anything you have seen, of which you have experienced, that you would like to forget?
Episodes of violence, gratuitous violence. Very often, when a man has power, he has a weapon in his hand, he forgets why he has it. Episodes of gratuitous violence by young soldiers against families are things I would like to forget, which I would like to stop seeing.
Have you instead had an experience that you remember positively and that perhaps gives you a reason to hope in the future?
I have so many beautiful memories; otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. It is a very challenging land, where there are always tensions, but where personal relationships are very intense and also authentic and profound. I studied at the Hebrew University, and therefore, I have very nice friendships with schoolmates, religious Jews who helped me re-read my Christian faith. I read the Gospels with them – Matthew’s Gospel at that time – their questions helped me re-read my relationship with Jesus.