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With the Patriarch of Jerusalem, 200 days since the start of the war

The Cardinal Patriarch of Jerusalem reflects on the ongoing war in Gaza expressing his belief it shows the inevitability of the two-state solution: “There is no alternative to the two states but the continuation of war."

By Roberto Cetera

“When we met in Gaza in November for a long conversation 30 days after the beginning of the war, we certainly did not think we would find ourselves here again after 200 days, and without a possible solution to the conflict”, says Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Patriarch of Jerusalem, on the sidelines of an event for Earth Day.

In that interview, you spoke of your sadness regarding the ongoing events and of the disappointment for the “bridges” that seemed to have definitively collapsed.

Unfortunately not much has changed since then: uncertainty over the outcome of this crisis still reigns. What has changed concerning what may then have seemed an excess of pessimism, is our – and when I say our I mean mine and of the community I lead – having found a compass and the will not to give up and to endure the tragedy that continues to unfold before our very eyes, at times directly touching so many of our people. At that time, we were truly shocked. I have lived in this land for 34 years. It is now my land and I have seen so much between wars, intifada, and clashes, but I have no doubt: this is the most difficult trial we have had to face. The uncertainty now is about how much longer this war will last, and even more, what will happen after because you see one thing is certain. Nothing will ever be like before. And I am not referring just to politics. I am thinking of each of us. This war will change all of us. It will take a long time to digest this war. But it is also true that a long time is ordinary here - patience in good and bad is never amiss. Otherwise one could not explain a war that, in various forms, has been going on for 76 years.

Do you also feel that you have changed?

Of course. For example much more than in the past, I feel the need for listening. Knowing how to read the times in the light of the Gospel is the primary task for a shepherd. And this can be done only through total listening. Also because I feel that my people and not only them, express a great need for listening. Each person has their story, their pain, their suffering which complains it is not being listened to, understood, comforted. Today more than ever the first form of charity here is listening. I have just returned from Galilee, from a pastoral visit to Yafa an-Naseriyye, where in addition to my people, I wanted to meet also the local leaders of other religions. Listening to their reasons without preconceptions does not mean sharing them. But it is in any case very important because if people see that the leaders talk amongst themselves, they are likely to do the same and overcome mistrust.

Pesach has now started and Ramadan recently ended. The religious festivities are a very good opportunity to recognize one another and to enter into dialogue. There is no need for great speeches. It is enough to share a meal and drink something together to break down the walls that separate us. A dinner together can do a lot more than a conference or a document on interreligious dialogue. We have to try to understand what we have in common rather than what separates us. We certainly have suffering in common. But we cannot stop at the suffering. What is unbearable for everyone is the absence of prospects which does not mean theorizing about abstract future scenarios, but understanding which are the constitutive elements of our identity. And to understand how these identities can coexist and permeate one another. This goes for everyone but also for us Christians. We too need to rethink how to live on this land as Christians. Certainly as witnesses of the history and geography of Salvation. But there is also something further to understand because being Christian is above all a lifestyle, inspired by the Gospel.

Do you think it is a difficult commitment?

Absolutely. It is a difficult commitment and above all it is tiring. It is tiring to question ourselves and to compare how each of us has lived through this period. Because pain often tends to be “egoistic”: It is my suffering that you cannot understand. It is my suffering which in any case is superior to yours. The difficulty thus consists in facilitating this discussion by leading each one to recognize the suffering of the other. Let us be clear, I am not saying this out of Christian “piety” but simply because I see no other alternative. Can we emerge from this tragedy any other way? You see in this land in the past, some courageous people had attempted the political path of peace. But they were always attempts that went from the top down: accords, negotiations, compromises. They all failed miserably. Take Oslo for example. So now it is time to invert the direction and begin a journey from the bottom towards the top. I repeat: it will be a struggle but I see no other way.

Does your observation also refer to the West’s interpretation of the conflict?

Definitely, because outside of this land, there is a largely polarizing interpretation of the conflict. And in addition to being detrimental, it is also extremely foolish because the reasons behind the conflict are very complex, and accumulated throughout the decades. To treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the spirit of a soccer match is a mistake. In the West too, there is a need to speak to one another, to discuss, to document. Obviously in addition to praying with insistence for peace.

And the Church that you lead?

We also have a great need to speak to one another. After 7 October, there were different perceptions and there still are. Even radically different ones. And I do not think that now is the time to condense them. Now is the time to listen to them. And also to speak about them even within the context of the different perceptions and positions that have emerged. And what thought patterns induced them. It takes courage to do this. The courage to admit that we too have changed. And to understand how and why. It is a process that can only take place as Saint Francis teaches us, through a decisive openness of the mind and heart. The mind on its own does not suffice. And the heart alone is not enough. It is only in a sincere relationship with the other that we can define ourselves at our best and in truth.

It is a process that involves me personally. No one can have the presumption of remaining the same. In this sense, I believe that we also need to review the Christian narrative which as I said, can only be reborn from the conscience of what is truly constitutive of our identity, always starting from reality, from concrete experience, from the reality of our faith, the core of which is hope based on the experience of the Resurrection. We can describe the constitution of our identity, also by looking back to our rich history. In the past, our presence was achieved in the construction of churches, schools, of hospitals. Today we are no longer called to build structures but relations. Our relations with “others” in the understanding that we are their “others” – this with respect to other religions – but also in respect of the rich diversity of the makeup of the Catholic community in the Holy Land, always bearing in mind the Arab-Christian nature as an irreplaceable aspect.

Despite their small numbers, Christian communities have objectively recognized you as a strong and leading presence. Every public intervention you make is always discussed, debated and perhaps criticized from one side or the other.

It is true. I don’t have much to do with that. Perhaps the very fact of being a small minority which makes up 2-3 percent of the population and cannot de facto be recruited by any side gives us this heavier specific burden. Much of it also depends on the fact that, despite being small, we are part of a global institution which has universality as its main character. Moreover, there is the the fact that we are always on the side of those who suffer, standing out from all those --who are the majority— who independently from their religious belief are inspired by the values of humanism. And then there is Pope Francis.

How have Pope Francis’ appeals during these six months been received in the Holy Land?

Pope Francis’ words during this war have had a great impact so far. Even when they were the object of criticism from both sides, indeed perhaps precisely when they were the object of criticism, they manifested the great authority which he enjoys. His repeated warnings for the release of hostages and an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip have entered into the history of this war. I would like to recall that many today invoke a ceasefire but in November only the solitary and courageous voice of Pope Francis called for it. This also goes for our people and the Christians of Gaza. The relief brought by the almost daily telephone calls was enormous and had great importance also for those who anxiously followed their fate from outside Gaza.

What is the situation of Christians in Gaza, according to the news you have now?

Two containers filled with food arrived yesterday and they can finally eat something more substantial. The situation remains difficult for psychological health which is shaky after six months of captivity in Church quarters. Everyone has to be involved in some work for the good of the entire community. This is important because in this way they are relieved of the permanent thoughts about their current state, the dangers they run and the memory of those who did not make it. Who are not only the ones who were killed by the bombs and the guns but also by those who did not survive the lack of medicine and care? Now there are a little over 500 people still in the Church. In the past days some of them could no longer take it and having reached Rafah, they left the Strip. They became quite heavily indebted in order to leave. The courage and dedication of three Mother Theresa sisters is particularly moving. They never stopped looking after disabled children. I hope that we will soon be able to reach these brothers and sisters of ours to bring them the aid they need, in person.

What were the most difficult moments in these 200 days?

The first days. We were shocked. I could not identify what my priority should be because at the beginning we could not understand even the true scope of what was happening and what a tragedy lay before us. And then definitely Christmas time. The privation of Christmas joy, the feast of Christ who was born to bring peace was terrible for our Christians. Especially for the youngest ones. Images of the desolation of Bethlehem at Christmas will not be easily forgotten in the coming years. I don’t renounce anything that was done. Even the mistakes were part of the reality. In such a complex situation, one cannot not make mistakes. But I think I can claim that our position was always very clear, transparent and honest.

Have you experienced moments of loneliness during these months?

Prayer is a great relief from loneliness because it makes you feel the permanent presence of the Lord. However, I would be insincere if I denied it. Yes of course, loneliness cannot be avoided when you have responsibilities and when these are so serious as to have an impact on the lives of people around you and for whom you care. I have the gift of many friends but a certain detachment allows me not to be influenced even emotionally, in my decisions. In this case, too, it is a style that I borrowed from Saint Francis’ teachings.

Was your constant relationship with Pope Francis in these months important in alleviating this loneliness stemming from your responsibility?

Of course. Not only Christians in Gaza but the Patriarch too benefited from the hard-working cooperation of the Pope. I am a man of few words from Bergamo but I feel I should thank him from the bottom of my heart for this and for the trust he expressed to me. It is not only a closeness of words and affection that Pope Francis wanted to send to our communities, but also concrete help that came directly to us with the visits of Cardinals Krajewski, Filoni and in recent days Dolan.

The priority now is certainly the end of the war. But after that, an even more difficult phase will begin in Gaza, Palestine and Israel.

Yes, the aftermath will be very difficult. Meanwhile, I hope that those who have left Gaza can and want to return. It will take decades to rebuild Gaza. There is nothing there left -- houses, streets, infrastructure. There will be the need for an enormous international effort. It is unthinkable that people sleep in a tent for years. But I also think that more generally everything will be re-founded not only there but also in Palestine and Israel. It is truly time to begin everything anew again, on a new and different basis. Meanwhile, I think that everything that has happened in these six months has shown in an obvious way, the inescapability of the “two-state solution”. There is no alternative to the two states than to continue war. But the two states have to change from within. They have to rethink themselves.

Despite the radical and rapid changes of recent years, the two societies must have the courage to rethink their societies. It will not be easy because both societies present themselves with a large degree of heterogeneity. They are polyhedric. Both societies need to have a new horizon of values because it is unthinkable that the only social glue for each of them defense from the other. If they do not do so they will seriously compromise their future. Throughout the world, there is currently not a great atmosphere. In many countries, there is the parcelling out of interests, an increase in social egotism, the delirium of power and subjugation that creates conflict. This does not help. Although I may accused of partisanship, I hear only Pope Francis’ voice going in the opposite direction.

The Patriarch also carries out duties of relations with institutions of the two sides. A political role.

It depends on what you mean by political role. The Church does not carry out a role of mediation, It is not one of her functions and duties. Rather the Church can carry out a role of facilitation, facilitating dialogue and mutual recognition. And we do this above all in society and also among institutions as expressions of society.

The sinister rumble of Israeli military aeroplanes that fly over Jerusalem to the “confrontation line” in the north has provided the backdrop to most of this conversation. Cardinal Pizzaballa, fixes his biretta and stands up. A community of Christians awaits him in Galilee.

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24 April 2024, 17:32