The Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton The Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton  (AFP or licensors)

Fr. Patton: Holy Land needs leaders to commit to reconciliation

In an interview with Vatican Media, the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton, discusses the wounds caused by the war, the Two-State solution, the role of Christians, and paths to peace.

By Andrea Tornielli

In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican Media, the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton, reflects on the war in the Holy Land. He illustrates what it means to stand, despite everything, in the midst of the warring parties,and to bear witness to the Easter proclamation and to the awareness that evil has already been vanquished.

Q: Father Patton, how would you describe the atmosphere in Jerusalem?

Since 7 October, there has been a very heavy air because it is as if a balance within the State of Israel, between the Jewish-Israeli component and the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli, component has been broken. And also the balance that existed between Israel and the West Bank has broken as well. There used to be the possibility to come and go, without great problems; and also for Palestinians from the West Bank, it was quite easy to come and work. You could go out from Gaza to work in the neighbouring kibbutzim. It used to be possible to go out to get treatment in Jerusalem with therapies not administered in Gaza. After the 7 October attack, however, all these balances broke down. Now within the State of Israel itself, the Jewish-Israeli component has begun to look with distrust at the Arab-Israeli component, and the Arab-Israeli component has begun to feel increasingly insecure, both in the workplace and in everyday life, even walking down the street. Several of our Christians told me: "When I walk around the city, in Jerusalem, I avoid speaking Arabic." This says a lot about the climate that has been created.

Q: How is the tragedy of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas being experienced?

The hostage situation has severely tested these families who are almost all, with rare exceptions, very open-minded. They were not families hostile to the Palestinian element in Israel or the West Bank, on the contrary. Their suffering has been and continues to be terrible, as one does a sad countdown, wondering how many are still alive.

Q: And what about the tragedy in Gaza?

The Palestinian component obviously feels solidarity with Gaza. They belong to the same people and they suffer from seeing so much destruction: 35,000 dead, of these probably more than 15,000 are children, and we don't know how many are still under the rubble... Systematic destruction. This has created a sense of frustration, anger, an inner conflict. Then, let's not forget that there are even Christians, especially from Galilee, who are part of the army, fighting in Gaza. There is a discomfort and a great difficulty in addressing these issues even for us Christians in the Holy Land because we realise very well the suffering on both sides. We realise the reasons and wrongs on one side and the other. We want this war to end, because otherwise the furrow of hatred gets deeper every day, and putting the pieces back together afterwards will be, indeed, very difficult. 

Q: In recent months, we have also witnessed the escalation of violent acts by settlers...

In the West Bank, we have seen an unprecedented escalation. Whereas before their actions were somewhat more controlled, during these six months, not so. We also know that several thousand Palestinians in the West Bank have been detained under administrative detention, that is, essentially without rights. And there are also several hundred Palestinians who have been killed in the West Bank, in the course of military operations, by settlers or otherwise, and therefore not in circumstances related to attacks, attacks or in any case violent actions, but also in ordinary life. Farmers who went to pick olives and met settlers who then shot at them. It will take a long time to overcome this kind of wound, because the emotional dimension in this conflict has been very strong. 

Q: Going back to 7 October, what explanation can be given for what happened?

What happened on 7 October will need to be studied and investigated in depth, because the Israeli newspapers themselves have accused both the government and the army of ignoring the documents that army intelligence had provided and which spoke of a possible operation of this kind by Hamas and of the signs even in the days before. I believe it is in Israel's own interest to shed light on this. 

Q: The consequences of that heinous terrorist attack against civilians are what we have seen, namely the carnage in Gaza...

The reaction was so strong precisely because there was a shock. Even from the point of view of military choices, the more emotional dimension seems to have prevailed, the desire to reassert a form of military supremacy, the desire to reassert a deterrence that has been somewhat challenged and questioned. One can see the desire to say: 'In the future, no one will dare to attempt something like this.'

Q: These are facts that leave a trail of hatred. To rebuild houses, financial aid is enough; to rebuild peace in hearts, much more time is needed.

The wounds will remain for a long time; to be healed they will need enlightened leadership, on both sides, who know how to work for reconciliation. Two World Wars were fought in Europe in the 20th century with millions of dead. But then, instead of fighting over resources, they shared them: this was the great stroke of genius of Schuman, De Gasperi, and Adenauer when they decided to create the Coal and Steel Community. It was a path that guaranteed Europe a season of peace. Right now, I do not see the possibility of doing something similar in Israel and Palestine, because they do not share the same cultural framework. Europe, for better or worse, until the mid-20th century, was a continent that referred to Christian values and thus also to the values of reconciliation, peace, cooperation and the like. Here we are now confronted with cultures that are not so able to dialogue among one another.

Q: What do you think of the 'Abrahamic Agreements'?

I saw them positively: countries that were in different positions for ideological reasons starting to cooperate, even if for economic or defensive interests. For me, it was a first step and I thought that, once the Abraham Agreements were over, it would also become necessary to get to grips politically with the Palestinian issue. Instead, just as an agreement with Saudi Arabia was also on the home stretch, there was the 7 October attack. An operation that not only sabotaged the Abraham Agreements, but actually made it more difficult to deal with the Palestinian issue politically. And at the same time, it made it necessary.

Q: Indeed, even those who considered the Two-State hypothesis outdated are now returning to what has always been the Holy See's position. 

It is certainly more difficult now than it was ten or twenty years ago. But, at the same time, there is now an awareness that the Palestinian question must have a political solution. And therefore, the return of the Two-State theory is also linked to the fact that at this moment, I believe it is unrealistic to think of a single state. How to concretely set up the second state, the state of Palestine - because there already is one, that of Israel - certainly needs the contribution first of all of those directly concerned, that is, the Palestinians. One cannot make the State of Palestine on the skin of the Palestinians, because this operation has already been done in the past and it did not work. They must be involved. It is then necessary that the most influential countries - first and foremost the United States, but also the Arab countries of the Gulf - help to find the right form. Problems, you know, are solvable. In his time, Sharon, when he decided on the withdrawal of the settlers from Gaza, was also able to actually implement it.

Q: How is such a scenario possible today?

In the West Bank, if the State of Israel accepts the Two-State solution, it will have to opt either for the withdrawal of the settlers or for the integration of the settlers into a Palestinian state, as in Israel there is an Arabic-speaking component in the state, or some other form in any case to be studied. We know that there are many types of state models, there are some in which autonomous regions are envisaged. This is not something that can be done in a few months, but neither can it be left to the indeterminacy of the Greek calends. To give the Palestinians hope as well, we must also set a certain date by which this state will begin to exist, and consequently a road-map must be set. Obviously, first the war must end, and there must also be international support because those who live on the West Bank, and even more so those who live in Gaza, are in unimaginable difficulties. 

Q: How do Christians experience what is happening?

Christians are a very differentiated reality within themselves. On the one hand they feel they belong to a people, on the other hand they also feel, as Christians, that they are called to go beyond an ethnic vision. Christians are also suffering a lot at the moment because they are caught in the middle and are being pulled on both sides. There are those on both sides who would like Christians to take a one-sided stand. Christians try to be women and men of peace, and in general the Christians in the Holy Land are - I dare say - the culturally most peaceful component, and therefore the one that in some way could make a contribution, in the future, to that path of reconciliation we were talking about. However, they feel frustrated because, often beyond the official statements and those for political marketing purposes, by the Jewish world they are considered simply Arabs and by the Arab world they are not considered sufficiently Arab as Christians. Right now, the desire to emigrate has returned. Of those living in Gaza, I believe very few will remain, and that is a shame, because Gaza is in the Acts of the Apostles, it is one of the places where monasticism flourished in the early centuries. Even in the West Bank many are thinking of leaving. But the most surprising thing is that even in Galilee, because of local organised crime, many are thinking of emigrating.

Q: What does it mean, in the face of all this, to believe in the Resurrection?

The Christian, first of all, believes in the message of the Resurrection, but knows that the time of history is not yet the time of the full communion of all peoples in the heavenly Jerusalem. We are still in a middle phase, the time of history is still a time of tensions: this is how it is described in the Gospels, this is how it is described in the Letters of Paul, and this is how it is described in that marvellous text that is the Apocalypse, which describes the clash in history between those who follow the immolated Lamb and those who follow other logics and turn everything into a market, even going so far as to buy and sell human lives. What we must keep alive within this battlefield that is history, is the certain hope that comes from the fact that Christ has already conquered evil and death with his Resurrection. Being Christians in the Holy Land represents a special vocation. Christians here are closely linked to the historical dimension of revelation and the Incarnation. Whether they are few or many, it does not matter, but it is essential that the Christians of the Holy Land always help the whole Church to remember the historical dimension of Christianity, which is a very important dimension in order to avoid dissolving Christianity into forms of gnosticism or forms of religions of myths. 

Q: After the attack on the United States on 11 September, in his 2002 Peace Day Message, Pope St. John Paul II wrote: 'There is no peace without justice, there is no justice without forgiveness.' How important are reconciliation and forgiveness?

Reconciliation is fundamental. I think that message is by far the most important message for Peace Days ever given by a Pontiff. And it stands next to John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris, which lists four pillars for building peace: justice, truth, charity and freedom. Reconciliation, as Pope Francis states in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, has a dimension not only of justice but also of truth. And so it is necessary, in order to be able to walk a path of reconciliation, to also be able to call a spade a spade. The same applies to forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an amnesty, it is not a pretending that nothing has happened. Forgiveness is taking upon oneself all the negative consequences, of suffering, of evil, that evil produces. When we think of forgiveness, we think of Christ on the cross, from the cross forgiving. To be able to forgive, I must accept the kind of suffering that allows me not to react. To the slap, as Jesus did in the hour of the Passion, I do not respond with the slap. 

Q: How can such a path be created in the Holy Land?

It will be very long because for us Christians, reconciliation is universal, it concerns everyone. The Jewish world and the Muslim world have the category of reconciliation, but it is mostly applied within their own communities. So, once again, the presence of Christians becomes fundamental, because it takes one beyond both the ethnic horizon and the horizon of one's own religious community. And Christians must also be willing to pay a price of suffering for this. This cannot be demanded of everyone, so I understand those who can no longer cope and leave the country, as happened in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, because they fear for their lives or those of their families. At the same time, when I am asked, especially by young people, "why stay," I reply: "Will your country, without the Christian presence, be better or worse?" The answer they always give me is: "It will be worse." Those who stay, know they have to pay a price: the price of being faithful to Christ and also of giving their lives, in the sense that in the end that is what happens.

Q: In these months, what has it meant for you to be Custos of the Holy Land?

My approach to reality has changed. Before 7 October, I thought it was possible to move forward slowly, and to have grow the initiatives of dialogue that had been started both on the side of the Jewish Israeli world and on the side of the Muslim world, especially, in this second case, in schools. In these six months, I have seen that many of the initiatives started have somehow 'frozen', and this leads me to say that one must be patient, in the sense of being able to wait for the time when it will be possible to restart them. Then I felt that was particularly important was the service of prayer, recognizing the value of interceding: it is a matter of walking between two realities, asking God, to somehow, make them meet. Many times we spoke with Patriarch Pizzaballa, and we also realised that, in this reality, it is not just human will at stake, but there is a mystery of evil at work. Therefore, I feel, even more so, the need to pray. Finally, I tried to encourage, first of all, the brothers, and then, the people, to keep hope alive.

Q: In the face of what is happening, it is easy to be pessimistic...

Pessimism is a lack of faith. Letting oneself be devoured by pessimism means not believing in the power of Easter. I believe in the power of Easter: I believe that Christ has truly conquered evil and death, and I believe that those who today try to solve problems in a certain way have already lost at the start. I know that those who choose to use violence in some way have already lost. Because Christ who died and rose again tells us that it is another perspective in which to live and from which also to face problems.

Q: Have you felt supported during these months of war?

So many people show their closeness, they write to tell us that they remember us, that they pray for us We have felt very supported, always, by the Pope, because he has never stopped talking about peace, even knowing that it was an unpopular theme, even knowing that it was a misunderstood theme. And he always mentioned Palestine, Israel, the Holy Land... I have said on more than one occasion that we are in some ways privileged, because there are many other realities that are suffering and are not remembered as we are. And then we have also been supported a lot by our Order. So I would say that on the whole I have felt the support. What we have and will need in the coming times, in addition to proximity, will also be concrete support to help Christians and the local population in the face of the economic difficulties that the war has brought.

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04 May 2024, 13:00