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How Christian division hampers peace, reconciliation in Holy Land

Banner inside the church of the holy sepulchre in jerusalem may 23 2014 credit lauren cater cna 2 cna 5 23 14

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, May 23, 2014. Credit: Lauren Cater/CNA.

The lack of unity among Christians is one of the factors that keeps them from playing a mediatory role in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, according to the head of the Franciscans in the Middle East. “Here in the Holy Land, we Christians are irrelevant. There are too few of us. In addition, we are confessionally divided,” Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, told Aid to the Church in Need's Oliver Maksan Dec. 2. “We can’t even agree on who cleans what in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. How then are we supposed to be a model for unity and reconciliation?” This, he said, “is why we cannot be the ones to build the bridge. However, we can of course provide opportunities for encounters. After all, every church has interreligious fora. However, I don’t believe that there is very much else we can do.” Violence between Israelis and Palestinians was heightened in 2014 relative to recent years: the outbreak of war in the summer killed nearly 2,000 people. Peace talks had been broken off earlier in the year, and terror attacks have taken place in Jerusalem more recently. “We are doubtlessly far away from peace,” Fr. Pizzaballa commented. “I can’t see that there is any possibility of changing the situation in the near future. There is deep-seated frustration and a profound lack of mutual trust between these two peoples.” Rebuilding trust “will take a long time,” he said. “And there are no easy solutions. What we are seeing at the moment is the result of years of hate and frustration. You have to start in the schools and in society.” “You have to give the Palestinians something concrete and not just promises. And the Israelis also have to feel as if they have a contact person on the other side.” Fr. Pizzaballa affirmed that 2014 “has been a turning point” for Christians in the Middle East: “What World War I was for Europe, this year was for the Middle East. The old orders no longer exist. However, we don’t know yet what the new will look like.” “In Syria, for example, hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing. The middle class is leaving the country. What is left are the poor. The ecclesiastical infrastructure that we built up in Aleppo and other such regions of the country has been destroyed or abandoned. We are faced with enormous tasks. We not only have to rebuild the Christian community, but also the relationship with the Muslim majority.” The advent of the Islamic State has been a “horrendous shock” for Christians in the Holy Land, he said. “It strengthens the feeling that there is no future for Christians in the Middle East, that they are not wanted here.” Relations between Christians and Israel are likewise strained. A bill in the Israeli parliament that would strengthen the nation's Jewish character, while it would “not fundamentally change the situation of the minorities, including the Christians,” would “intensify the feelings of reserve that minorities in Israel harbour towards the state. It will make them even more convinced that they are not really wanted here,” Fr. Pizzaballa said. The emigration of Palestinian Christians can be explained both by Israeli occupation and the Islamization of Palestinian society, the custos commented. “There is no 'either or', only a 'not only but also'. The one does not exclude the other. From an economic standpoint, life in the Palestinian areas is very difficult. On the other hand, relations with the Islamic community are not the same as they once were. All of that plus everything else that is going on around us and you get a feeling of hopelessness.” “Nineteen Christian families have left Bethlehem for Europe and America in the past two, three months,” Fr. Pizzaballa added.

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