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Christians in the Muslim World

Faithful custodians of the restless heart of the world

On an unknown day in 1219 or 1220, in mysterious circumstances, Saint Francis of Assisi met the Sultan al Malik al Kamil. It was the beginning of an extraordinary story that has continued uninterruptedly to the present day. The Franciscans have been present in the Holy Land for 800 years. In the XIV century, the Pope officially entrusted them with the custody and recovery of the holy places. Service to the Church, assistance and help for the Christian communities, dialogue with other religions, scientific and cultural activity: these are the lines their presence, which extends from Jerusalem to diverse countries, has followed.

It is saturday in Jerusalem, a nice day at the beginning of november.


In the alleyways of the old city, the shopkeepers have not yet opened their rusty blinds. Piles of garbage, just as always. And just as always, the sound of bells, the voices of the Muezzin, the quick steps of students from the Jewish schools. And the crackle of military radios. Father Pizzaballa is waiting for me in his study, in the Convent of San Salvatore.



You have been in the Holy Land for nearly 14 years. How have things changed during this time?



I arrived in 1990, just before the Gulf War. We were in the middle of the so-called First Intifada, then there was the euphoria of the Oslo agreement, followed by post-Oslo disillusionment and the Second Intifada. Surely much has changed, both from the political point of view as well as for relations between the peoples. A very strong feeling of tension has been created between Israeli and Palestinian society (but also within each one), in the sense that there exists rancour, resentment, scorn There is fear on both sides, fear of dialogue, of encounter. The foundation of this climate is a profound, piercing disillusionment with the failure of Oslo. This was not just a political failure, it truly rent the relationship on both sides. This is the grave and sad novelty of the current period. We have seen a few signs of hope in the last few months, but one must admit that there is a profound detachment, a barrier, not just between politicians, but also between the two peoples. This famous wall symbolises the current situation quite well.



We will come back to this subject. Now I would like to discuss the historical experience of the Custody, which derives from the celebrated but mysterious meeting between Saint Francis and the Sultan al Malik al Kamil in 1219 or 1220. What do we know about this meeting? What has been said about it? And what happened afterwards?



Saint Francis arrived in the Middle East, in Egypt, with the Crusades, that is with the aggressors, those who were the Sultan's enemies. But the meeting took place. Francis wanted to meet the other side, to speak with them. Then, as often happens, literature, legends and hagiography accumulated around the event. Certainly, one asks how it came about, there must have been a mediator, negotiations, a messenger, a translator But we know that they saw each other, and this in itself is a very important fact. The Franciscans, and Saint Francis himself, did not seem like enemies. They were dressed like the peasants of that age: I do not think that Francis was a cause for worry in the Sultan's eyes. As for what happened during the meeting, it is difficult to know. Biographies say that Francis talked of Jesus Christ and the Sultan listened willingly, then peacefully sent him back where he came from.



Out of fear, they say, that people might have been convinced by Francis' words. . .



Rather, the Sultan probably listened to him willingly, with that sense of hospitality which is a rule in the Muslim world, without seeing in him any sort of threat or danger. Then he probably dismissed him. I imagine that it happened in this way. The Franciscans have been here since that time, developing an ever more organised presence, and in the XIV century the Holy See officially granted them custody and recovery of the holy sites. We are talking about eight centuries of uninterrupted presence: the only case of a peaceful Catholic and "Western" presence in the Middle East.



And they have overcome various trials and tribulations, have they not?



Yes, the Franciscans in this have always been very "Franciscan", in the sense that they have always been able to adapt themselves to the context in which they live, to connect with the population. They are not very rigid in their internal structure, nor in their relations with the outside world. In these eight centuries there have been many changes of administration and regime, but the Franciscans have always known how to adapt themselves quite well to the situation, becoming somewhat Eastern themselves, understanding the Middle Eastern way of life.



Earlier you used the term "Western": is there a foreign overtone to this word here in the Middle East?



First it is necessary to say that until just a few years ago most of the monks were Westerners, mostly from Italy, Spain and France. But more generally, the Franciscans have not only safeguarded the holy places, they have also kept the local Catholic community alive and present. And if the Roman Church exists in the Middle East today, it is because of them. The Franciscans are part of the panorama and the history of this land, at the same time however, they are an international presence: this dialectic has always existed in the Holy Land and will always exist. Sometimes there are difficulties: "what are you colonisers doing here. . ." sometimes we hear accusations of this type. But the dialectic is necessary because Jerusalem, the Holy Land, is not just any place, this land gave birth to our faith, our roots are here. The entire Church has a profound connection to the Holy Land, not just the local church, but everyone. For this reason I think that this dialectic, this small amount of tension, is necessary, because in any case it is only a small amount of tension.



Can your extraordinary history here be defined in some manner? Is there some sign, a particular trait, which could define it?



It is very difficult to give a short answer. There are clashes and encounters; there is dialogue and tension. We have had much suffering, and suffering means incomprehension, hostility, harshness. But there has also been dialogue. We have recovered nearly all the holy places in two centuries, and we have not done it with the sword, but peacefully through discussion, dialogue, meetings, winning the friendship and trust of the authorities. It is a complicated story, in which the Franciscan ability to know how to adapt oneself, to use the same language as the local people, is entwined with international interests, with the difficulty of the Western world in understanding the East. A story in which certain attitudes that we would call proselytising are mixed in with dialogue with the Muslim authorities. And there is not just Islam here, the majority is Jewish. The situation here in this web of encounter and conflict is much more fascinating today, but also much more complex.



Everything here speaks of the sacred, of religion, so glaringly that is almost seems too much for one city, for one land, for the person who walks along these streets. A pressure that sometimes seems excessive, unbearable. . .



I am not sure if it still exists, but in the psychiatric hospital there was a section called "Jerusalem syndrome", where many people were given assistance, mostly tourists, who were afflicted by this excess of the sacred. Jerusalem is surely a city where the religious aspect is reality; it is the context that regulates life. From the most banal things: there is not a single day when traffic is not affected by some religious event, and in the old city the monks in procession always encounter Muslims going to prayer, or Jews going to the Wall. It is also an extraordinary physical encounter, unique of its kind. It is also true that it becomes a matter of course. Even in Jerusalem. The sacred becomes a form, a way of life, and a routine. But there is fascination even in this normality.



But maybe it needs a little secularity?



Yes, without a doubt some secularity would do good. But it depends on what you mean by secularity. Secularity as understood in Europe, as something anti-religious, would not be beneficial. Maybe a greater sense of distance towards appearances would be useful, since every religion has a certain attitude of intransigence, is jealous of its own traditions. But there is an excessive sensitivity for which even those things that are not objectively offensive can become an offence against one's own faith and identity. On the other hand everything here speaks of history. Every stone, everything, every person has a connection with history. The history of destruction, conquest, occupation, and often of suffering, but also the history of ancient, wonderful traditions, which only exist here. In Europe when we speak of history we speak of the past, but here history means today. We see the Holy Sepulchre: the history of the relation between the world's churches is not past, but present, because we live this history in the present, the divisions between the churches are our daily reality. Conflicts are not born here, they are brought here. Sometimes, as happened last autumn, a quarrel between friars and monks breaks out. But this is a reflection of the prejudice and incomprehension that exist between Catholics and Orthodox in the outside world. We suffer the consequences. The difficulties and conflicts of history are alive for us here, they are everyday life, present history.



And yet one would think that without these different religions, without this history, there would be less violence. Why this destiny, here where peace should rule?



It seems somewhat rhetorical. If there were no religion Religion is part of everyone's life, it is an inseparable aspect of man. Even the atheist has a relationship with religion, an antithetical relationship. Even in today's secular Europe there are religious conflicts. Here we live together, very near one another, in a smaller context where everything makes more noise. But that which happens here also happens in the world. We always try to explain this. The world is not in peace, therefore not even Jerusalem can be in peace.



But the violence here is more striking because one feels a nearness to Jerusalem, an intimate feeling that one does not feel with other places in the world. . .



I totally agree. Jerusalem always calls us back to reality somewhat, back to our roots. Our sentimental connection to this city is different. This should always make us think: why does this happen in Jerusalem?



In fact, this is the question: what relationship is there between religious identity and this story of violence? Some people claim that religion does not really bring conflict, but rather that it is the manipulation of religion. Manipulation by ideology, politics, economic powers. Others instead claim that the origins of such profound hate must be religious, even if it is a distorted religion.



You will say that I am more Jesuit than Franciscan, but I think that both ideas are true. In this land everything is divided by religion: there are Jews, Muslims and Christians, all separate. Religion defines and stabilises the country's and the people's life. Here secularity does not exist. Even in the so-called secular State of Israel, from the cradle to the grave everything is established by religion (for example there is no civil marriage). Then there are ideologies, and it is difficult to determine which came first. But it is the religious element that establishes one's identity, the different identities. As a friar, I have difficulty in saying that religion creates conflict, but I cannot deny that the religious element is an integral part.



Now I would like to speak about your experience in the Jewish world. How did this come about?



Casually. I was asked to study the Old Testament at the Jewish University. There I had to study the language (modern Hebrew) in order to enrol in the department of Sacred Scriptures. In this way I created a link that has developed intensely over the last ten years. In Jerusalem I met the Catholic community of Hebrew expression, for whom I was responsible and thus I lived completely within Israeli society.



What does "of Hebrew expression" mean?



They are people who speak Hebrew, they pray, they speak and express themselves in Hebrew. This means that they share a culture, a context of life, but they come from very different places. Some are from Europe, for example Christians married to Jews, or maybe they came after the war and the horror of the Shoah, to express their solidarity with Israel. Others are Israeli Jews who have been baptised and have come to Christ, who has become the reference point for their life. Thus each one has his own story, one cannot generalise, if only because we are talking about several hundred people in four communities: Sheva, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Maybe another community will come into existence in Nazareth. The itinerary of those who convert to Christianity is very peculiar and delicate: at the beginning it is always a strong, non-intellectual experience (meeting a person, a visit to church, reading the Gospels), a fact which marks the beginning of a sometimes difficult inner walk, which then is relieved in the Church. They understand that in order to live fully the relationship with Christ, one needs the Church. This is very beautiful and fascinating. Also difficult, because the relationship of the Jew to the Church has always been very difficult.



And is one able to cross what appears to be a distance?



Yes, one can, not without pain, though it will always be a somewhat painful relationship - history is very present, as we said earlier. But one is able to, and for this reason there are few. On the other hand there are thousands of the so-called "messianic Jews." They do not have link with the Church. The relationship with the New Testament Christ is self-managed. Living in the Catholic communities is very different, but contrary to what one might think, these people find an incredible element of freedom in the Church, even with all the difficult baggage. It is wonderful.



I imagine that another difficult aspect could be the family and social environment. . .



Yes. Judaism does not permit conversion. For example, the law of return states that any Jew born of a Jewish mother, as long as he or she has not converted, has not received baptism, can come to Israel. Obviously the state does not ban people from making different choices, but there is incomprehension and tension. Therefore one must be fairly discreet with these communities, somewhat austere in pastoral management, even if this is not a clandestine situation. Let us say that these people live their relationship with Judaism and the society around them in a fairly serene manner, they do not provoke the surrounding environment nor do they ask that one pay much attention to them or take a position as regards them. There are no problems. It depends on the context. As for family relationships: in the walk of the catechumen, which is fairly long (it lasts two years), communication is considered fundamental. In general the catechumens themselves feel the need to explain to their parents, their brothers, their children. In some rare cases, it is objectively impossible.



Are there also practising Jews?



There is a little bit of everything. Non-believers who are affected by Christ and then, through their fascination with this person, discover their own Jewish roots. Secular Jews who come to Christ and do not want to know anything about their origins. Then there are those who come from religious backgrounds, for whom the journey is much easier. Easier because a practising Jew already has religious experience. He already knows what prayer is, has an idea of the mystery, understand what revelation is, and what a God that speaks to you is. These are people who incarnate the union of these two situations, that which, for Christians, is faith's plenty.



In August of 2003, Jean-Baptiste Gourion, a Christian "of Hebrew expression," was nominated Bishop for these Christians. How did the State of Israel and the religious authorities take his nomination?



Well. State authorities were present at his Episcopal ordination. They took his nomination as recognition on the part of the Church not just of the existence of Israel, but of the importance of religious Israel. At the end of the ordination, the Bishop said: «Dear friends, I do not have much to say to you, but there is one sentence that I feel strongly within me, the meaning of which I do not completely understand. But I will say it to you because I feel that it is true: "Finally, in the end, we have come home"». Some people interpreted it in a Zionist manner, but Zionism had nothing to do with it. The deeper meaning was the reconnection between the Church and its roots. By nominating a Bishop of Jewish origin for the Jewish-Catholic community of Jerusalem, the Church recognised the importance this community has and the reconnection with its own origins. This was the true sense: we have come home. There is another aspect: many people talk about the future of these communities, especially in relation to the thousands upon thousands of Russian immigrants of Christian origins, but from my point of view these communities will always remain small. And not only because the Russians are very secularised. The fact remains that being Christian in Israel is not easy. It is a choice. In Europe one is born Christian and all things considered it is not difficult to remain Christian. Here even if your parents are Christian, you must choose, you must decide if you want to be Christian, and decide continuously. For this reason these communities will remain small, but strong, with a strong sense of belonging to Israel and a strong sense of belonging to the Church. And they will always have this double sense of belonging.



Do you mean belonging to the State of Israel, Israeli citizenship, or something more?



The question of Israeli citizenship is not in discussion. But for many of these Christians it means something more: belonging to religious Israel, to one's roots. These communities will always be able to think and reflect on their own history, their own theology, their own faith in a particular way compared to the rest of the Church. And I think that the Church must respect and see its own roots in this particularity.



Are there analogous experiences in the Muslim world?



One must distinguish from zone to zone. A Muslim from Israel, from north of Galilee, is different from the Muslim who comes from the Palestinian territories. Most cases of conversion are due to marriage. But there are also Muslims who come to Christ. They are rare cases of which one does not speak. The personal risks are high. In Israel the society is more open and it is much easier to leave one's own context for another. In the Palestinian territories this is much more difficult. There is much stronger pressure, for which reason the Church must use more reserved means. Also because the Church itself must make a voyage. Not all friars and priests are prepared to become travelling companions on those streets. There is much suspicion and fear. For everyone it is a painful voyage that implies great faith. I have said it before: ours is a harsh land, not very gratifying. One has little human satisfaction, and one pays for one's choices.



In fact many Christians are leaving. What is most disturbing is that it is not a new phenomenon. It has been estimated that roughly 230,000 Christians have left he Holy Land since 1948. The difficulty of living here is not contingent, it is absolute. . .



I would like to deflate some myths. It is not just Christians who are leaving, but everyone, Muslims and Jews too. They say that nearly a million Israelis live abroad. Here there are about 6 million, and there are nearly 4 million Muslims. But there are only a few hundred thousand Christians, so if only 100,000 leave Plus the Christians from Galilee grow in numbers but shrink in proportion because the other groups are stronger demographically. It is true that Christian emigration is consistent in the territories. In four years 3,000 have left. It is not an astronomical amount, but from the point of view of population it is a grave and worrying situation. Many leave because they see no economic prospects. This phenomenon is typical in the whole Middle East. Here it is worse because the Christian presence is fundamental. The holy places must not become museums or places of ancient history. They must remain a part of present memory.



Do you think this is an irreversible phenomenon? Will there be only friars and monks here?



No, there will always be Christians here.



And what reasons do you give a young Christian? Why should one remain in a place where nothing is certain?



I believe that being a Christian is becoming a choice even for young Europeans. When I meet people it is not so difficult to say: you were born here, you belong to this land, your roots are here. It is not so difficult to convince people of the importance of remaining here. Then I must say that it is also fascinating, not just harsh and unsatisfying. It is beautiful, you truly have a wealth that does not exist in other places. You can go to the Holy Sepulchre: there is no other place so rich in religious tradition and liturgy, in authentic religiosity. People go to pray there and that enriches the place in a wonderful way. It is not difficult to speak of these things and find people who listen.



In an interview you said that Palestinian Christians feel Palestinian and Israeli Christians feel Israeli. Is this not a sign of a division that overcomes the common faith?



First of all I think it is a beautiful and positive thing. It distinguishes one Christian from the others. As I said earlier, the identity is religious, one automatically thinks that a Palestinian is Muslim and an Israeli is Jewish. One thinks that religious identity defines national identity. The Christian is different, in the sense that he is a Palestinian Christian or an Israeli Christian.



But for Saint Paul "there is no longer Jew, nor Greek, nor slave nor freedman": doesn't this mean that every difference, even ethnic, has been abolished? That precisely the fact that there are Christians in these two peoples means that a bridge of friendship could be created?



Saint Paul's phrase means that Christ has liberated us from all these denominations. Christian identity is different. Christ completes you as a person, he identifies you. But this is not an abstraction. He is even incarnated in concrete, precise reality. The Christian born in Palestine is completely Palestinian and Christian, and this is also true for an Israeli. But obviously these two groups have something that unites them, the person of Jesus Christ. In this they are a single body that belongs to the same Church. I think that from a practical point of view the communities are still too small and new to have a constructive effect. But the unifying element is there and it is the single Church guided by the Roman Patriarch. This must become an element of reflection, to make one see how these Israelis and these Palestinians are able to speak to one another, how they do not recognise barriers. This is an omen, a hope. The Church must show solidarity with all the situations in the country, faithful to the truth. For the Church, there are no dividing walls, there must not be walls. We should be free to speak with everyone and to look everyone in the eye. I think of the prophet Jeremiah, who said difficult things to his people that they did not want to hear. They preferred the court flatterers. But Jeremiah remained faithful and solidly behind his people. I dream of a Church that knows how to express this belonging even when it does not share the other's point of view. A Church that says: "look, I do not agree with anything you do, you are making a mistake, but I am on your side because I belong to you, I will not abandon you, I will not leave you". We should recover this freedom to speak the truth to everyone and show this belonging without barriers.



The dramatic and heated debate lately has been over identity: who am I? who are you? Us and them. . . There is always an "us" and a "the others". One is defined by one's difference, one establishes borders. Some propose other readings: cultures are not monolithic platforms but rather continuous contaminations, interweaving, hybrids, to use a word which has again become current. What do you think about this theme?



I said before that identities are well defined, even the roles are well defined. Each one is itself, the relations between the different groups are clear, and we move ahead in this manner. There are Christian schools, Christians have their own network and so do Muslims This allows each group to endure and maintain itself. My point of view is that one must have clear knowledge of one's own identity, know who one is. Those who have a clear knowledge of their own identity are happy with who they are and do not fear difference because they do not see it as a threat. From here I look on Europe as an insecure adolescent more than as a mature person. I do not see clarity on the identity question. For example I do not understand why when one speaks of difference one must give this term a negative connotation, differences can also be positive. They exist, they are part of life, our history, world history. They are alive in the present



Maybe because in some way difference and identity evoke fundamentalism.



I affirm that I am Christian, I am proud of my Christian roots, I am proud and I live like this. This has nothing to do with fundamentalism. I simply have a name and a surname. Fundamentalism is when your identity is not important for me, when I do not want to listen to your truth, when you must be like me.



In today's Islam it seems that this fundamentalist vein is predominant. What is your opinion?



Here it is also difficult to read the Muslim world, which is quite composite. Where the majority is Muslim, the presence of Christians is tolerated. But not in the way we understand tolerance in Europe. They think that your religion contains elements of goodness, and therefore one can accept it, but in the end they do not believe that it is a real religion. Therefore it is better if Christians convert. Then there is obviously the conflict between West and East, which even influences the relationships between single persons. One difficulty arises from the fact that this is not a unified world: just as in Judaism there is no single authority in Islam. One wants dialogue, but with whom? In perspective I think that Muslim immigration in Europe will change Islam, just as the movement of Jews here radically changed Judaism. I am convinced that in time the massive presence of Muslims in Europe will create a different Islam. This will bring with it a way out, it will show a true willingness towards encounter. The next generations will be freer to give themselves a European identity, they will be able to think calmly about the theme: being Muslim in Europe. This will be good for everyone.