Fr. Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land. Even if the war were to end, it would be difficult to restore relations">

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Middle East and Africa

The Middle East on the Cusp of a Historic Change

Conflicts are no longer political but religious and are creating deep divisions between communities, said Fr. Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land. Even if the war were to end, it would be difficult to restore relations

Jerusalm sightseen. Photo: Oasis

“What is now occurring in the Middle East is not a crisis, but a sweeping change,” said Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, speaking on 27 October in Madrid, during a meeting of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference on the theme of “Christianity and Islam: 1.400 years of difficult coexistence.”



The Transformation of Liberation Movements



A sign of this change is that a few years ago, the political aspect of the conflict prevailed over the religious one, whereas now the opposite is true: “We no longer hear talk of borders, territories or States in the Holy Land. The watchword is liberating al-Aqsa (mosque), and Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are equally hated by the youth.”



The change can be seen in the components of the Palestinian movement: “Leaders of the liberation movements once included Muslims and Christians. For example, Georges Habache, a historical figure in Palestinian nationalism, was a Christian. Now all the liberation movements are Islamic, and ISIS exerts a very strong influence on them.”



There are several reasons for this appeal, but according to Fr. Pizzaballa, the nature of the Islamic State’s message is a fundamental factor: “In a region torn apart by conflicts and societies plagued by exclusion, frustration and resentment, ISIS offers extremely clear and simple answers. We rightly seek to provide detailed answers to complex issues, but the message of ISIS penetrates much more easily.”



The forms of militancy are also new. What is happening now in Israel is radically different from previous insurgencies: “We no longer have Intifada, but something worse. The riots of the past were organised and guided. The agitation today is spontaneous, carried out by mavericks, and sooner or later someone will begin to use this.”



War and Community Division



In the Middle East, the war and the ever-present element of religion are creating a deep rift between communities, particularly between Christians and Muslims. It is a problem within the problem because “sooner or later the war will end, and we Christians will remain in the Middle East because we have no intention of leaving. But it will be difficult to rebuild relations due to the loss of mutual trust.”



Tensions and difficulties were never lacking, but there was “a network of relationships”. To explain how this network has been compromised, the Custodian describes an episode he witnessed during a visit to Aleppo last May: “At a certain point, a place close to where we were was bombed. It was an area inhabited by both Christians and Muslims and there were 200 deaths, three-quarters of which were Muslims and one-quarter Christians. However, the Muslims only reported 150 deaths and the Christians 50, because each of them only counted their own and did not consider those of the others.”



The war in Syria is a tragic watershed. Fr. Pizzaballa has been in the Middle East for 25 years, but never before had he heard Christians criticise Muslims: “Perhaps in their minds, but they would never talk explicitly. Now they do. It’s understandable, but it will make living together very difficult, even if the war ends.”



The Russian intervention also seems to have created more illusions than solutions: “Many believe that Russia is changing the course of the war, but I’m not so convinced. Like all the others, Russia is acting in its own interest, which is to free the coastal zone where its naval base is located and where ISIS is not present. The Russians are mainly fighting Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Fath, which are the only groups that truly threaten Asad. In this way, only ISIS and Asad will remain, at which point there will be no more choice. But eighty percent of Syrians are Sunni and do not want Assad. To me, it seems unrealistic to think of a future for Syria that envisages him remaining in power.”



The Effects on Europe



The changes in the Middle East will have major repercussions on Europe. The phenomenon of migrants and refugees “is unstoppable and this fact must be taken into account. It needs to be managed, however, and that is not done by saying that they should all be thrown back into the sea, nor by waving flags of peace and ignoring the problems. Welcoming them is a duty, but we must devise integration processes that focus on the history and culture of the countries where the migrants arrive.” Father Pizzaballa explains this with another anecdote: “I come from a town of 5,000 inhabitants in Northern Italy, where religious and civic life has always revolved around the parish. Now about 1,000 Muslims are living there, and they have asked to be allowed to build a mosque near the church, arousing fears and frictions. It is right that they have a place to pray, but if it is built at some distance from the church, it will avoid unnecessary tensions.”

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