01-02-2009 - Traces, n. 2

current events

The One Who Gives the GIFT OF PEACE
For the moment, the thunder of war has ceased in Gaza. But many questions remain. Is there a way out of the conflict? What can the Christians in this area do?
We put these questions to Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land 

Edited by Giorgio Paolucci

The thunder of war has ceased in Gaza and Israel, but the fundamental questions remain in all their drama. How can these people find a way out of the darkness of violence and hatred, an escape from the mutual vetoes of their governments? What role can the Christians who live in the region play in this difficult transition? In Jerusalem, the 44-year-old Franciscan Pierbattista Pizzaballa, from Bergamo, Italy, nominated Custodian of the Holy Land in 2004, looks at the events of these weeks, keeping alive his hope for peace and highlighting the realism and reasonableness of the words of Benedict XVI.

In this “post-war” phase as well, it seems like we’re witnessing a dialogue of the deaf. In addition, the situation is so complicated that nobody presumes to have the magic formula for resolving the crisis. What are the essential conditions for building a lasting peace?
The first condition is to end every kind of violence, that of the armies and that of the militias. If the weapons aren’t silenced, the negotiations are destined to be fragile. Then, it’s necessary for the parties to speak to each other, acknowledging the legitimacy of the various interlocutors. In this sense, the role of mediators and diplomacy is fundamental. In the Arab world, Egypt can play a key role, because of the authoritativeness she has in that area. In the West, the first moves of the new American administration will be important, since this country has always had great influence on Israel, while Europe can exercise her action of mediation above all with the Palestinians, but must do so in a unified direction, not each country on its own, as often happens. Finally, there’s the UN, because of its super partes authoritativeness, though it has lost credibility in that area. The work of diplomacy, in any case, is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. In order to build a lasting peace, much more is needed.

What is needed, then?
Terribly deep lacerations have been wrought during these years, and very strong resentment, solidified over the years, has to be dealt with. The efforts of politics have to be supported by work on the level of civil society, by the development of a new mentality in which the educational agencies and the mass media can play a crucial role. The great majority of Israelis and Palestinians are weary of the violence, the precariousness with which they live the present, and the uncertainty of the future. The desire for peace is growing but, to date, those governing haven’t been able to give solid and lasting answers to this desire.

Benedict XVI has spoken often, urging multilateral action for what he has defined “a difficult, but indispensable reconciliation.” He asks us to pray incessantly to implore the gift of peace. How realistic is this position?
If we look at what has happened over the past weeks, it’s evident that the logic of revenge and dishonesty is dead-end and increasingly laborious. There’s need for a freer, broader scope, that derives only from the willingness to embrace a logic greater than the human one, and prayer educates us to this. Praying for peace isn’t a sign of passivity. On the contrary, it’s born of the desire for a change that acts in the depths of souls; this desire acknowledges that change can come only from an Other, One capable of moving the hearts of men. This is an Other who is present and is a protagonist in history, who enables us to live together with those who are “other than myself.” In light of all this, it’s increasingly evident that Benedict XVI’s position is marked by authentic realism, because it takes into account all the factors in play, starting with the necessary engagement of the international chancelleries and the need to grapple with the knotty problems long left unresolved on the negotiating table, and extending to the level of the individual person.

Have the Pope’s pronouncements had any reverberation in the Holy Land? What is the role of the Christians in the area, who seem like clay vases amidst iron ones?
The universal Church, particularly in the words of the Holy Father, is listened to attentively in the Middle East, and held in great regard.  There’s a fairly unanimous recognition that the attitude of the Holy See and its diplomatic action are motivated by a sincere desire to collaborate in bringing peace to the areas, and reconciling souls. Here in the Holy Land, the presence of the Christians continues to decrease, and is very “marked” ethnically, inasmuch as almost all the Christians are Palestinian. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that they have no influence. On the contrary, they can play an important role. 

 What is this role?
First of all, in the decision to be here, to remain here like a bud of new life, incarnating the logic of the Gospel: a logic that doesn’t exclude the others, but considers them part of a single project of salvation. With their attitude, the Christians witness to the fact that the person must always be considered an irreducible subject, beyond any framework or political project. This is manifested in particular in the numerous works of charity and education tied to the Catholic Church and other Christian confessions. In the course of centuries of activity, the schools run by the Custody of the Holy Land and the various religious congregations have become very highly regarded, a prestige seen in the cultural and professional results achieved by their graduates. These schools are attended by thousands of Muslims and constitute an important laboratory of shared living, which proposes and testifies to decisive values in the Middle East: the irreducible value of the person in all his dimensions, freedom, human rights, the dignity of women, respect for others, and rejection of violence. All this leaves an indelible trace in the minds and hearts of these young people who attend, and contributes to creating and spreading a new mentality. For heaven’s sake, there’s nothing automatic: we don’t build automatons, and freedom reigns in the heart of every person. But if a Muslim boy and a Christian boy grow up side by side for years as classmates and learn to know and esteem each other, as adults they’ll be more prepared to combat prejudice and diffidence, and to bring bricks for constructing a common building.  Every day in our works, students go to a school of shared living–it’s a daily wager, that contributes to creating fertile terrain for the growth of “new men,” of whom there is truly great need.

There are those who fear that Christians will disappear from the Holy Land within a few decades. Could this land end up as an archaeological museum of Christianity?
The demographic tendencies indicate that the Christian percentage of the total population, compared to that of Muslims and Jews, continues to decrease. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain ownership of facilities here; there’s the growing risk that the buildings owned by Christians will be acquired by others. But I don’t believe that the Christians will disappear entirely, that we’ll come to “museum-ification.” It’s more likely that we’ll see a progressive reduction of our percentage of the population, a presence that will become less visible and less distinguished, especially in Bethlehem.

Many wonder what they can do for the Holy Land. The clear-cut answer is “pray and go.” The year 2008 saw a strong renewal of the flow of pilgrims. Apart from the evident economic contribution, what does this represent for the Christians who live in the places where Jesus lived?
The pilgrimages are the testimony of the universal Church’s affection for them; they help them overcome discouragement and the sense of solitude (and sometimes feeling “surrounded”), to conceive of themselves as part of a greater family. And not infrequently, pilgrimages press them to lift their gaze from the jealousies and bickering among the local Christians that threaten to weaken the consciousness of unity, the great gift we’ve received and to which we’re called to testify before men. The encounters of pilgrims and the communities living here, the accords for economic and cultural friendship between local towns and dioceses, associations, and movements that are formed and nurtured, and the distance support of educational and charitable projects all create a weave of relationships and works that foster faith in the future and help them feel part of a providential plan. They shore up against the recurring temptation to emigrate, combat pessimism, and nourish hope, contributing to making our brethren’s presence a lively reality in the land where the Mystery became flesh, and enabled humanity to encounter Him.