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Christians in the Muslim World

‘Pope Francis will get on well with those of the East’

The Pope in Jordan will find a living community of Christians who can freely practise their faith. And certainly he will not be able to forget about neighbouring Syria where Christians have paid, side by side with their Muslim fellow citizens, a very high price of blood in a war which now seems to be at a turning point. An interview with Msgr. Maroun Lahham, the Vicar of the Patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins for Jordan.

A single pilgrimage but with stopovers in different contexts. What are its salient features?



The visit will take place in three stages – Jordan, Palestine and Israel – which are completely different situations. In Jordan the Pope will meet a community of happy Christians who can live and freely practise their faith, without problems of persecution. We think that there will be about 40,000 people at the Holy Mass in Amman and we aim for a great success. In Israel, on the other hand, there are repeated attacks on churches, monasteries and mosques by certain Jewish fundamentalists who almost every two or three days daub offensive and threatening slogans on Christian or Muslim buildings. In particular, they write the slogan ‘pay the price’, which means ‘you have persecuted us in the past and now you will have to pay’. These are painful attacks but we cannot speak about religious-based persecution. The government officials stop some of these fanatics but not with action that stops them once and for all. In Palestine the heavy situation of the unsolved relations with Israel, a suffering which by now has been going on for decades, is strongly felt.



In particular, what do Jordanians expect from this meeting with the Pope?



For Jordan we expect words of faith and of hope, such as only he knows how to give. In Jordan everyone, the King and the Queen, the princes and the princesses, want to see this Pope who has overwhelmed the world. From him we expect words of friendship, dialogue and coexistence with Muslim citizens. And words of encouragement for the sick people that he will meet at the site of the baptism. As regards the relations between Palestine and Israel, we hope that he will speak strong words of peace, justice and dialogue. Above all now that the peace process has become blocked, the Americans have washed their hands of it and have left behind them a stalled situation, words of reconciliation are urgently needed. Pope Francis, thanks to the constant work of the Nuncios, well knows the reality here. The Assembly of Catholics Ordinaries has already drawn up an ample series of documents. The Pope will not arrive unprepared.



How has Pope Francis been seen by Muslims during this first year of his pontificate?



The requests that came from the King, the princes and the princesses, and the over 1,300 requests from Muslim embassies, are concrete signs of the fact that everyone wants to touch this Pope, who is seen very, very, very well. Hitherto Francis has not had an opportunity to speak about Islam, but what touches people are not words but deeds. People do not need words, they need deeds. When Francis embraced the disfigured sick man in Rome, he engaged in a simple deed that reached the hearts of everyone. The whole world was struck. His simplicity, his gestures, and his humility touch everyone, Muslims as well. Even though he has not yet written an encyclical on Islam.



Even though he will not be in Syria, this country which is so near will in fact be present, impelling…



The Pope wept when he saw the photographs of Christians crucified in Syria. The Pope spoke about the Syrian conflict as no Pope had done before him. He used the phrase ‘my beloved Syria’. Only that even if Popes speak, the politicians remain entrenched. I remember when John Paul II wrote to Saddam and Bush and beseeched them to stop. I remember that La Repubblica had a headline ‘The Pope Hopes and Bush Shoots’. And nobody listened to that Polish Pope. I hope and pray that this crisis will stop. I do not believe that if Francis proposed another day of prayer and fasting that the situation would change. What is changing now is that Assad’s army is regaining ground. Homs has been liberated from the militias. In two month’s time the national army will regain the lost areas and then there will be more or less serious elections in June. I believe that a political solution, which some people speak about, cannot be achieved because the army will prevail and the militias will have to go away. I do not see a political solution. No, for the moment I see only a military one.



The subject of Eastern Christians and ‘protection’ remains a sensitive one. How do you interpret it?



When you are a minority, you go to the majority to ask for protection. This is called the psychology of being in a minority. Christians lived in tranquillity in Syria and Iraq. After Iraq the alternative proposed for Syria, that of Al Qaeda which plays football with the heads of killed Christians, is a terrible alternative. I believe that the Christians in Syria have before them two alternatives: either Assad as he is, or the fanatics. The person who is elected president will have understood what has happened in Syria and will thus have to open doors and windows, holding freedom, justice and work dear. Things cannot go on as before.



But do not those who win wars on the battlefield become even more overbearing?



Those who win in the end must have some heart. Knowing that there have been 150,000 deaths during this crisis must lead those who govern to reflect, I believe. At least, that is something I pray for. This is my very personal opinion.



How can this Pope relate to Muslims so as to have a real relationship?



In the Holy Land everything is complicated. One must pay attention to very many nuances. But I believe that fanatical Islam, with the political failure of Egypt and Tunisia, is now inclined to be more reasonable. I believe that moderate Islam, like that in Jordan and Tunisia, easily understands Pope Francis because it does not need a great deal of speeches. We of the East are more touched by feelings than by Scholastic arguments. For us a gesture, an embrace, a smile, is enough.



Reference is made to a historic visit. What do you think about this?



In Jordan there will be a great celebration of the people.