Franciscan Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa has already spent more than three decades in Jerusalem. In 2016, the former Custos of the Holy Land was made archbishop and apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), he spoke about the situation of Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
What is the current situation of the Christians in the Holy Land?
It is often said that three groups of people live in the region that is considered the Holy Land proper: Israelis, Palestinians and Christians. But the Christians are not a “third people.” The Christians belong to the people among whom they live. As Christians we don’t have any territorial claims. Meeting a Christian does not represent a danger to Jews or Muslims. However, life is not easy for the Christians: it is more difficult for Christians to find work or an apartment. The living conditions are much more difficult.
Is the religious freedom of the Christians restricted?
It is necessary to make distinctions here. The freedom to practice religion is one thing, the freedom of conscience is another. The freedom to practice religion exists: the Christians can celebrate their divine services and develop their community life.
Freedom of conscience means that all Church members can express themselves freely and should members of other religions wish to become Christians, they have the right to do so. That is a lot more complicated.
Politics always plays a major role in the Holy Land. Even wanting to visit a certain place can quickly evolve into a political issue. For example: Christians from Bethlehem would like to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to pray. However, this is often not possible because they need a permit to do so.
Therefore, is this an issue of religious freedom or is it just politics and they are not being granted permission to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because they are Palestinians? It is all interconnected.
The US government has moved its embassy to Jerusalem. How perceptible are the effects of political measures of this kind?
For the time being, this has not had much of an effect on everyday life. However, politically, relocating the U.S. Embassy is a dead end. All issues relating to Jerusalem that do not take account of both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—lead to a deep fracture on a political level. And that is exactly what happened.
After the relocation of the US Embassy, the Palestinians broke off all relations with the US government, bringing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian regions, which were moving sluggishly anyway, to a complete standstill.
Is there something the Church can do in this dead-end political situation?
Christians make up about one per cent of the population. We therefore cannot expect to carry the same political weight as other groups. But, of course, the Church has strong connections worldwide. And then there are the millions of Christian pilgrims who come here from all over the world.
It is our job to communicate to the people: there is a Christian way of living in this country. There is a Christian way of living with this conflict. This is not the time for big gestures. The Church has to try to establish small connections and build small bridges.