GERMANY – On February 11, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa sat down for an interview with DOMRADIO.DE in Germany, to talk about the anticipated Child Protection Summit, which will take place in Rome from February 21-24, 2019, as well as the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and his reflections on the recent visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi in UAE.
1) In the coming week the heads of the Bishops’ Conferences worldwide will meet in the Vatican for consultations on the clerical sexual abuse scandal. You will travel to Rome as the Vice President of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Regions. What do you think of this meeting?
I think the expectations are too high. Such a meeting cannot end with a concrete and specific results. In addition, the problems and dynamics in Western countries differ from those in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. In the Middle East, for example, we do not really have this specific issue of child abuse in our churches. In such cases, the penal law allows for the death penalty, whereas the tribal law can be even harsher. So, you always have to consider the different local dynamics.
2) What result do you expect for the meeting?
I expect clear ideas on how to proceed to deal with the issue. Then, the Bishops’ Conferences in their region have to adopt their own laws according to the specific situation.
3) To what extent is child abuse actually present in the Middle East?
When I was the Custos, I was responsible for the Holy Land for twelve years, now for two and a half years as a Bishop. I have never encountered a case of child abuse during this time. We may not have this specific problem, but there are lots of schools and institutions, where we have to take action to prevent such cases in the future. The fact that we have not heard anything, does not mean that they do not exist in our country. I am sure that they exist, and we have to be prepared for that and react appropriately.
4) Let us look at the general situation of Christians in the Holy Land. In which situation are they in principle?
From the point of view of numbers, we are a minority. It may be true but in the Middle East, minority is associated with having fewer rights. We want to be citizens with equal rights. In reality, we are about 1% of the population in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Depending on the region, our problems are very different: In Israel, the main question is about our rights as a Christian community. In the Palestinian territories, there are more economic, social and political problems. We have no problem with the authorities, but things are different in everyday life. As we are not part of the bigger Jewish and Muslim communities, it is harder for us to get the same opportunities.
5) Are Christians in the Holy Land free to live their faith?
We are free to express ourselves. There is freedom of worship, which is not freedom of religion. Our situation in the Holy Land is different than, for example, the Christians in Egypt or that in Syria or Iraq. The numbers of Christians are decreasing, slowly but steadily.
6) What is the biggest problem for Christians in the Holy Land?
As Christians, we are not a third population. The Arab Christians, for example, are Palestinians. Those living in Israel have a problem of being seen as equal citizens, as are all other Palestinians. In the Palestinian territories, they are facing political problems due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lack of opportunities and unemployment.
7) What role do Catholics play in the Holy Land?
An important one. Of course, the history of Christians in the Holy Land and even in Europe was one of conflict among the different denominations. But in the end, these are conflicts about power, not about faith. The great tensions today are more within the Orthodox Church, not the Catholics. As Catholics, our job is to cultivate and improve the relations with the other churches. I have to say that relations have dramatically improved over the last decade, especially since the war in Syria. I think it is rather ridiculous and antiquated, for example, to argue about places, times of prayer and the Status Quo here, while Christians are being killed in Syria or Iraq for simply wearing a Cross.
8) What do you think is the significance of the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi in UAE?
This visit has been very important. While for us Catholics it is one of many visits of the Pope, in the Middle East, it is considered something historical because it took place near the heart of the Islamic World. Muslims consider the Pope as a very important person for Christians, so the fact that he went there and spoke about the necessity of human fraternity had a very strong impact on the whole Islamic society and the mentality of the people in the Middle East. Also, the declaration he signed with the Imam of Al-Azhar was very important because the latter has an influential authority in the Islamic World. I think this visit was very necessary and changed dramatically the relations between Christians and Muslims.
9) Is there anything that left an impression on you?
Two important moments; the first was the hug between the Pope and the Imam of Al-Azhar in that place. All the people in the Middle East were attached to their TVs and smart phones to see that moment that no one expected would happen.
The second was the Mass in the Stadium, which was the first public Mass celebrated by a Pope in the UAE in front of 140,000 people. It is a public recognition of the presence of Christians in the Arabic Peninsula.
I saw people of all rites and languages united and happy to express their faith openly. It was heartwarming to see the local authorities who organized the event, Muslim men and women bringing water to the people and help them have a wonderful celebration.
An interview conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch