07/11/2017, 20.03
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For Mgr Pizzaballa, the notion of citizenship is key to a new model of coexistence in the Middle East

Just over a year after his appointment, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem looks back at his work. Many issues remain unresolved, from the major shift ongoing in the region to the principle of unity and closeness with its people. The positive elements include collaboration with the local clergy and the welcoming attitude of locals. Still, there is still a lot to do.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Mgr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, appointed apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem just over a year ago, told AsiaNews that a major change is needed, not only in the Middle East, but also in the Church in the Holy Land. The goal is to "work on unity" and "maintain close contact with locals” to meet the many challenges of the present and the future.

His diocese is “odd” because it includes “four different countries” and “three national languages”, which require something that links them in a very different context from that of ten years ago. This calls for refocusing on the notion of citizenship which is "the key to change in the future". For him, "The model on which the Middle East has been founded in recent centuries has collapsed. [. . .] In this sense, I believe that the notion of citizenship can be the most concrete and feasible reference in the present situation.”

On 24 June of last year, the ex-custos of the Holy Land was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the  Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem sede vacante, following resignation of Patriarch Fouad Twal due to the age limits. The 51-year-old archbishop received his episcopal consecration last 10 September in the cathedral of Bergamo, Italy, his diocese of origin.

Born in Cologno al Serio, Bergamo province, on 21 April 1965, he has been in the Holy Land since 1999 where he was chosen as custos in May 2004. On 22 March 2010, he was appointed for a second term. In 2013, he was named for a further three years. His assignment ended in April 2016. An expert in Hebrew culture, he has taught Biblical Hebrew at the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Sciences in Jerusalem and has many ties with leading Jewish leaders in Israel.

Here is the interview Mgr Pizzaballa granted to AsiaNews:

Excellency, what can you say about your first year?

It has been a year of challenges, with many new things in my personal life and in the Church. This is a radical change because it represents a major transition, with the presence of a new administrator and the need to invite the local Church and the diocese to do some self-examination. It was certainly not a boring year.

The major change took place in the administration, in the management of practical things, but it was not an upheaval, or a radical change. The first year was one of observation and listening. I wanted to hear and understand the reality of the priests and the diocese. Now is the time to set to work for the future.

On what aspects will you focus in the coming months?

First of all, I will focus on the organisation of the office that will set up pastoral outreach in the area. There are different groups that must meet and talk. From this work, new guidelines for the future will emerge. The administration of diocesan life itself has to be reset and we have started the work with new vicars and new parish priests. After listening and evaluating, the time has come for action. Now we have to get down to work.

What is important is working on the unity of the Church and in close contact with the people. Ours is an odd diocese, with four countries and three national languages, as well as three peoples. Actually, four if we include Cyprus. Hence the need for various challenges and needs. Our priority today is finding something that binds together these groups, a minimum common denominator.

How have relations with Israel and the leaders of the Jewish state evolved?

The relationship with Israel is the same as always. Some issues and files are open. We have committees closely working on them. We need to clarify them, and solve the problems we encounter on the way. It is something we have to deal with and it is one of the areas where our efforts are focused, but it is too soon to say if we have taken any steps forward. Right now, we can say that we are still working on them.

What about relations with the Palestinians and the Muslim world?

When we speak about the Palestinians or the Muslim world, we have to refer to a much wider and varied domain. We have the Palestinians and the Jordanians, the Palestinians in Gaza and those in the West Bank. The relationship with the authorities is excellent, but on the grounds, there is a more complex reality, and not only from an economic point of view. This requires constant and continuous dialogue. These groups are different in the context of an evolving relationship.

What about the events of the region, the war in Syria, the violence in Iraq, the recent Gulf crisis? Have they had some influence on life and relations?

With regard to the broader events in the Middle East, there are no practical consequences for us. However, these events affect people's thinking, and the perspective with which these facts are interpreted. This is a latent issue, and we cannot rule it out. Perhaps there are also practical changes in Gaza, because relations between Hamas and regional powers have changed, but for the rest, these events have a latent influence that will emerge on the long run.

What are the positive aspects of the past 12 months of work?

There are two positive elements in fact: the collaboration of the local clergy, which has in general been very promising, and the welcome I received from people. Of course, the appointment of a non-Arabic speaking head of the local Church surprised many, but this did not cause any negative reaction or feeling of rejection. Everyone did some self-examination, trying to figure out what to do for the good of the community. Overall, there has been a mature response, which bodes well for the future.

... and negative ones, one aspect for the long haul?

There are many things that are currently unfinished. First and foremost, the administration must be reconsidered and restructured. Whilst it is true that the Church must think about the “celestial bread”, it must also necessarily have activities that need a real and proper administration. All this further complicates matters because it involves people and activities and requires at the same time a major radical rethink of work. But we are only at the beginning.

Excellency, what are the main challenges for the Church in the Holy Land?

Like all the Middle East, the Church of the Holy Land faces major changes, and not only from a social point of view. Add to this, the conflict in Syria and the unresolved violence in Iraq. From a demographic point of view, there is emigration and its impact on numbers and economic prospects. There is also a generational change that here too is not happening without pain, raising new issues and touching different aspects than those that came before.

We must add the invasion of sects, a recent and rapidly expanding phenomenon. We are faced with a very different regional reality than that of ten or even five years ago. All this cannot but raise questions about the life of the Church. These issues are about life, not just numbers; they are open challenges that raise new questions. Hence, at the moment there are no answers yet . . .

There is much talk about the notion of citizenship as a common element on which to establish peaceful coexistence. What do you think?

This is something that had already emerged in the last Synod on the Middle East and is the key to change in the future. The notion of citizenship must be refashioned again, based on equality of rights and duties, on equality before the law irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliation. This should not only be valid for Christians and Muslims, but also for Islam itself between Sunni and Shias. The model on which the Middle East has been founded in recent centuries has collapsed and new ways and new models have to be found. In this sense, I believe that the notion of citizenship can be the most concrete and feasible reference in the present situation. (DS)

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