Patriarch Pizzaballa: Christmas of mercy response to 'blood and violence' in the Holy Land
by Dario Salvi

The prelate underlines the "veil of silence" that has fallen over the deaths linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fears over the language used by senior members of the next Israeli government, whose prospects "are not encouraging". The first "open" celebrations after the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 and the "surprising explosion" of pilgrimages. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - A "year of bloodshed passed over in silence" and "concern" over the "violent" language used by members of the future coalition government, which will see the return to power of long-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These are some passages from an interview with AsiaNews by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, on his return from a pastoral visit to Gaza and on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The primate speaks of a celebration "without restrictions, open" after the closures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and characterised by the "surprising" arrival of a large number of pilgrims, especially from Asia where "the devotional element" prevails. Lastly, there is a reference to migration, which risks emptying the Holy Land of its Christian component. Below is the interview with Patriarch Pizzaballa:

Beatitude, what kind of Christmas will it be for the Christians of the Holy Land?

It will be a Christmas without restrictions, open, with the presence of many pilgrims. We have returned to a situation of normality [pre-Covid], without any particular problems. 

Did you expect such a substantial resumption of pilgrimages?

Their numbers are exciting and surprising. We knew there would be an upturn, but listening also to the forecasts of the ministries, we thought it would be gradual. Instead we are witnessing a real explosion. In addition, the origin has changed: Europe is lower in numbers, while the United States, the Americas in general, Asia and Africa itself are growing a lot. 

What difference does the number of people arriving today, especially from Asia, make compared to the past?

In the past, both because of visas and for economic reasons, pilgrimage was much easier from Western countries, Europe and the US above all. Now the situation has changed both economically and in terms of openness and international visas after the pandemic. All this has made access easier for Christians, not only Catholics, from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, now a forerunner for Asia. Moreover, there is a difference in the way pilgrimage is approached: the European one is more cultural, more touristic, while in Asian countries the religious and devotional element prevails.

Another recurring theme is that of migration, which deeply affects Christians...

I always insist that Christians are not a world apart, but live the same reality as others. There is no Christian problem, but we can speak of a problem for Palestinian Christians linked first of all to the Palestinian question. The greatest difficulty is economic and is connected to the political issue, to the fragility of future prospects, to tensions. Then there are the families worried about the future. Migration is a temptation for everyone, not only for Christians, but since we are few it has a far greater effect than on Muslims, who continue to grow.

Speaking of migration, the incident at sea involving a boat of Palestinian migrants in Gaza, with eight victims, has sparked anger and protests. Is this something new?

The Mediterranean is not only trade, energy and wealth, but has also become a basin of emigration, of flows of people from the south of the world to the north, and this phenomenon also includes the Strip, as we have seen in Cyprus with the trafficking of human beings. [In the case of Gaza] we have to add an extra political issue, because the Palestinians - and especially those in the Strip - have no other outlet to leave. 

Patriarch Pizzaballa, a year of attacks and victims in Israel and Palestine is drawing to a close, in many cases passed over in silence: how do you explain this increasingly violent drift, amid general indifference?

True, this year many bloody events took place in silence. We Catholic bishops have also denounced it: precisely this year we have had the highest number of Palestinian deaths due to the political context in the Territories. We no longer talk about it, even though almost every day there is someone who dies. We also know that the Palestinian issue is no longer the focus of international politics and the media, whose interest hangs on Ukraine and other parts of the planet. The Palestinian issue seems to have tired most people out. Added to this is a complexity of the situation that is ill-suited to today's increasingly fast-paced communication that leaves no time or space for in-depth analysis. 

The end of the year marks, among others, the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and the most right-wing government ever in Israel's history. How does the Church position itself?

Discussions on the prospects with this government are complicated and we have already expressed our concerns about the violent language of some coalition members. There is a tendency to exclude both within Jewish society and non-Jews in the State of Israel, and there is the Palestinian issue which they really do not want to hear about. The prospects are not encouraging and jeopardise the already delicate balance between the various communities that make up our society: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis. As a Church we will continue to be on guard and to be very clear. 

You will soon publish your Christmas message. What is the central theme? 

In a context of violence, of every type and at all levels, the Christmas message is a message of mercy, but it also awaits our response. It is God's judgement on the people, which awaits our response.