“We must be prepared”

The abuse scandal is causing unrest not only in Germany's church, but worldwide – for example in the USA, Australia or Chile. But what about the Middle East? An interview with the president of the Arab Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Pierbatista Pizzaballa.

Interviewer: In the coming week, the leaders of the bishops' conferences around the world will meet in the Vatican to discuss the abuse scandal. You travel to Rome yourself as president of the Arab bishops. What's your take on the abuse meeting?

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa (head of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and president of the Arab Bishops' Conference): I think that the expectations are too high. Such a meeting cannot end with a concrete decision. Moreover, the problems of the Church are very different. In the Western countries – in Europe – there are different realities than in the Middle East or Africa. We in the Middle East, for example, don't really have this specific problem of child abuse in our church. Of course there are other problems. The laws in our country provide for the death penalty for such cases. Tribal law is even harsher in many cases. So you always have to consider the different starting points as well.

Interviewer: What result do you expect for the meeting?

Pizzaballa: I expect clear statements and ideas on how to proceed – how to deal with the ie as a Church. Then each bishops' conference in its region must respond with its own appropriate steps.

Interviewer: To what extent is the ie of child abuse present in the Middle East at all??

Pizzaballa: I was responsible for the Holy Land as a Franciscan Custos for twelve years, and now as a bishop for three and a half years. I have never come across a case of child abuse during this time. We have problems with sexuality, but on a different level. But we have to be ready for such cases. Maybe we don't have this particular problem, but for example we also have a lot of employees, run a lot of schools. There, too, we must take measures to prevent such cases in the future. The fact that we have not heard of these cases does not mean that they do not exist in our country. I am sure there is. And we have to be prepared for that and respond appropriately.
Interviewer: Let's look at the general situation of Christians in the Holy Land. In which situation are they basically?
Pizzaballa: In terms of numbers, we are a minority. But that is not quite the case. In the Middle East, minority is associated with lack of rights. But we want to be equal citizens with equal rights. In reality, we are ca. One percent of the population in the Holy Land.

Depending on the region, our problems are very different: In Israel, the question is mainly about our rights as a Christian community. In the Palestinian territories, it's more economic, social and political problems. We don't have a problem with the authorities, but in everyday life it looks different. We are not part of the big groups, Jews or Muslims. That's why it's harder for us to get the same chances and opportunities.

Interviewer: Are Christians in the Holy Land free to live their faith? After all, there are always attacks.

Pizzaballa: We are free to live our faith. However, that is not the same as religious freedom. Our situation in the Holy Land is different from that of the Christians in Egypt, for example. I don't even need to talk about Syria or Iraq. The numbers of Christians are decreasing, slowly but constantly.

Interviewer: What is the biggest problem for Christians in the Holy Land??

Pizzaballa: We as Christians are not an independent third ethnic group. The Arab Christians, for example, are Palestinians. Those of them who live in Israel have a problem to be considered as equal citizens, like all other Palestinians. In the Palestinian areas it is again the economic problems, but this is the case for all Palestinians.

Interviewer: What is the role of the Catholics in the Holy Land??

Pizzaballa: An important. Of course, our history as Catholics in the Holy Land is difficult – a history of conflict with the other denominations, as in Europe. But the bottom line is that these are conflicts about power, not about faith. The big tensions today are more within the Orthodox Church, not with Catholics. As Catholics, it is our duty to maintain good relations with all denominations in the Holy Land. We try to improve relations among ourselves.

To this I must say that relations have improved dramatically in the last ten years, especially since the war in Syria. In Syria or Iraq, Christians are killed just because they wear a cross. In comparison, it is ridiculous and also no longer in keeping with the times, for example, to argue about times and rights in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.

Archbishop Pizzaballa spoke as part of the "Impulse Day Reconciliation" of the initiative "Challenge Future" in the parish of St. Elisabeth in Bochum-Gerthe.

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