Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM is head of the Franciscans in the Middle East. The friars of the Custody of the Holy Land are active in Israel and Palestine, but also in Egypt and Syria. A friar was recently abducted in Syria.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) met the Custos in Jerusalem to discuss the prospects of Christians in Syria and the Middle East five years after the beginning of the “Arab Spring”.
He believes that the war in Syria will continue to have repercussions for Christians in the country, even long after its end. It is imperative to rebuild the trust between Muslims and Christians. In his opinion, Christians need to pray for forgiveness. And Muslims need to rethink their religious teachings.
Q) Father Custos, the Arab Spring is now five years old. It has primarily resulted in chaos and the disintegration of nations, especially in Syria. Is there any reason for the hard-pressed Christians in the region to be optimistic in 2016?
A) It is difficult to say whether there are reasons for hope. However, from a political and military standpoint, this year will doubtlessly be a decisive year. 2016 could be a turning point. In Syria, I detect a certain war-weariness among the parties concerned. Therefore, they will not be able to continue at this intensity for much longer.
Q) Do you believe that this will make it possible to find a political solution at the Geneva peace talks for Syria?
A) Probably not immediately. The trenches are too deep for that. But it may be a beginning.
Q) But do the Christians still have enough time left to wait and see if a political agreement can be reached at some point? After all, many Christians have already left Syria.
A) This is because the Christians are not only suffering from the war and its consequences, such as the destruction and shortfalls in supply. Even if the weapons were to fall silent, it would remain difficult for them. You have to realise that this war also has massive social repercussions.
After all, this war is not just a civil war, both in Iraq and in Syria. It has had a very distinct denominational, religious character from the very beginning. It will not be a simple task to rebuild the trust that has been lost between Christians and Muslims in these countries. Added to this are the economic consequences.
It will be very difficult to rebuild these countries, even if they retain their current borders. The Christians are also worried about the uncertain political future. Which kind of government will Syria have?
In answer to your question: Of course not all will leave. Those that could afford to or wanted to, are already gone. Those who remain are those who did not want to leave or could not leave. These are the ones we have to take care of.
Q) You said that the trust between Christians and Muslims is strained or has been destroyed. Why?
A) Well, for this you only have to think of jihadists such as Daesh or Jabhat al-Nusra.
Q) But do these groups really reflect the beliefs of the Sunnis in Syria or Iraq?
A) Not all Syrians agree with their ideology or support them, of course. After all, they also suppress Muslims in the areas under their control, and thus numerically speaking one could even say they primarily suppress Muslims. But they still enjoy great popularity. It would be impossible for these groups to control such large parts of Syria and Iraq for such a long time without support from the general population.
Q) And Christians are being targeted because the Islamists believe that they are on the side of the government?
A) Yes. However, one also has to say that in many places in Syria Christians and Muslims work and live together wonderfully. I am speaking more in terms of general developments.
Q) But how can you rebuild trust in this case? Is it perhaps necessary to separate the groups along religious and ethnic borders? This is a trend that has developed in Syria.
A) This should not be done under any circumstances. In order to make a future possible for Christians in their countries, you have to push through the concept of citizenship and civil equality. This is the decisive point. And this is where the religious leaders have a part to play. Because Islamic fundamentalism didn’t just come out of nowhere.
Q) However, most of the Islamic clerics say that ISIS, for example, has nothing to do with Islam.
A) It is surely a deviation, but there are links to the established theology. After World War II, we Catholics also had to ask ourselves from where modern anti-Judaism that brought to the Shoah was born and if we had a role in this. Muslim theologians now have to ask themselves similar questions. A theological examination of conscience is necessary. They have to ask themselves: What in our doctrine led to modern fundamentalism?
After all, you have to ask yourself where the hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists suddenly came from. They kill Christians and persons of different religions. Why are they doing this? This needs to be answered by non-radical theologians. But we Christians also have a role to play in this.
Q) Which role is that?
A) We Christians have to set an example of forgiveness. The Year of Mercy in particular can help make this clear to us.
Q) But how can a Christian forgive ISIS, for example?
A) If we hate them, then they have won. And that is exactly what they want. Being human, it is of course extremely difficult to grant forgiveness and this cannot be done automatically, but in a frame of a process that requires time. But we have to put this in our perspective. And as an Italian who is living in safety, I am the last person who can tell a Christian in Aleppo how this is to be accomplished. I don’t have any answers for this either. But the Christians in Syria and Iraq have to ask themselves this question. The Gospels require this of us. If we fail to do so, our faith will remain theoretical. After all, our faith was born on Mount Calvary. This means that forgiveness has been at the heart of Christianity from the very beginning.
Q) Europe has long ceased being simply an observer of the upheaval in the Middle East. It is directly affected by the flow of refugees from the region. Many Christians are also going to Europe. Does this trouble you?
A) Under no circumstances would I encourage the Christians to emigrate. We are doing everything in our power to make it possible for the Christians to stay. I would tell them: Go to a safe part of the country, but stay in Syria. Fleeing is not a solution. Because the Christians belong here. They have a calling here. And Europe is not a paradise.
Q) Don’t welcoming signs from Germany, for example, make your work a lot harder?
A) Yes. Of course this makes our efforts to help the people stay and not leave more difficult. Everyone is now talking about wanting to go to Germany. Angela Merkel has invited them, the people say. However, I would tell the politicians in Europe: It would be better to help the refugees, including the Christians, here than in Europe. It would be better to invest the money required to admit millions of refugees here. It is better for both the refugees and the region.