Risks and opportunities in Middle East Today
Vatican Embassy, Washington DC, October 10, 2015
I am honored to be here with you for this lovely evening of solidarity with the Church in the Middle East, and in particular in the Holy Land.
We have followed from afar with attention the journey of Pope Francis in the USA. I imagine that for you this has been an experience which has made you feel more involved. The memories of the visit are still alive.
Even for us living in the Holy Land, in spite of the fact that a year and some months have passed, we still cherish the vivid memories of the visit of the Holy Father, who with his passing among us has profoundly marked our internal relations, particularly those between the various Christian Churches. With the prayer vigil in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (and especially during the time of its preparation), together with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, relations between Christians have progressed in an evident and hopefully irreversible manner.
It is not my intention in these few minutes to resolve the problems of the Middle East, nor to present a chronicle of what is happening. We know the facts through the media: the war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, persecutions of Christians, problems regarding energy resources, national and international interests in the region, civil war, and so on. The consequence of all this is death and destruction. We are speaking of the death of thousands of civilians, the destruction of entire countries which are disappearing, like Syria and Iraq, whole communities which are on the brink of extinction, like the Christian community in Syria, the emigration of millions of persons who arrive at our doors.
The Syrians who are displaced within the Country are about 8M. In Aleppo the Christians were about 300,000, the highest in Syria. Now they are not more than 40,000. I can continue for hours in telling all the different details of this terrible war.
Even in Jerusalem the situation seems to be deteriorating. We assisted in these last months to an increasing tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The lack of trust between the two peoples and their respective leaderships is complete and it is the cause of a deep frustration. But all these things you already know and you can read about it on the newspapers and on internet, because all these facts are unfortunately part and parcel of daily news.
I would like, instead, to present to you, during this meeting, our reflections, our reading of the contemporary dynamics and to present our approach to these situations as Christians and as Franciscans.
We see every day what is happening. It is dramatic and shocking to see how the barbarism executed by ISIS and its associates and imitators, veiled with religious values, can kill and trample the most basic rights of people, of entire populations, of different faiths, in short of any difference in general: that is, anything different from itself.
As I have had occasions to say in other circumstances, that the terrible power struggle going on in the Middle East is changing its structure in political and religious terms but, above all, it is running the risk of destroying forever a unique heritage of traditions, relationships and cultural intricacies that for centuries have characterized this part of the world. It is the duty of all to stop this tragedy, because we are all involved.
The fate of peoples and nations, of faiths and cultures, are now in fact threatened by this tragic war, which we have to pay attention to. This interest should not be borne only from the so-called “globalization”; because of the media and social networks, as well as the displacement and migration of millions of people worldwide, all countries in fact have become more intricately linked to each other culturally, economically and socially. The destinies and journeys of each are today intertwined with those of others in all spheres of life. This can be seen negatively in the context of this tragedy in the Middle East, with the enrollment of many Westerners in this absurd war, a war that is ever-widening. The interest, the involvement in what is happening must stem mainly from the common moral rejection of the threats to society made by these terrorists. It is no longer possible today, in 2014, that there should still be ethnic and religious persecutions. The international conventions on human rights and of the individual, and the common conscience, do not allow anymore the possibility that such crimes be committed. And no one today can remain indifferent to all this.
In the face of so much violence, the reactions are naturally very disparate. It is my intention in this prestigious venue, to point out some risks but especially the major opportunities that this dramatic moment is highlighting.
The first risk is indifference. “There have always been many wars in the world, this is not the first nor the last; the Middle East is in a quagmire from which it never escapes, and it is better to stay out of it; it is a complex reality that we cannot understand; the economic crisis does not allow us to come to their aid, even if we would like to.” These are just some of the responses that we hear. After an initial reaction, one easily becomes a little accustomed to everything – and it is easy to become used to the tensions in the Middle East – by limiting our participation through economic contributions, in the best of cases.
The second risk is diametrically opposed; the call to arms and the clash of civilizations: “We must stop this barbarism with weapons, denying any form of critical and positive dialogue with moderate persons of this world, simply because moderate people do not exist.” “That civilization wants to destroy ours, and we must stop it by all means if we do not want to succumb to it.” This position denies the fact, or otherwise ignores for various reasons, of the subtleties and varied range of co-existence, movements and presences of the Middle-Eastern World, hence identifying it purely and simply as fanatic and contrary to the West. In my opinion it is not a realistic position.
The third risk is to have a truly interested and involved but partial approach. A partial approach is one that believes it has a clear idea about the situation and in a sense rejects a critical analysis of the complexities of the Middle East. This is especially typical in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where everyone has his own clear opinion: the Palestinians are victims and the Israelis the executioners, or vice versa, depending on the opinions. Reading the events is processed through the filter of one’s own ideas already assumed. There is no room for other assessments: when there is a conflict, there is no room for maneuvering; the position is fixed and that’s it.
Another partial approach is the one that wants to face or tries to understand what happens from only a political perspective, or only military or only religious. The Middle East does not know of such distinctions, as we know. Trying to understand the dynamic of political realities without understanding the religious background, or vice versa, is a serious mistake and does not help to identify possible solutions – assuming that it is possible to find them.
Another partial approach is to discuss possible solutions to the problems with only some Middle Eastern countries, or with only some religious and social components. The problems between Sunnis and Shiites are not resolved in dialogue only with the Sunnis, for example.
Addressing the complex problems only from one of these perspectives without placing them in a fuller context, has led many to make mistakes even in the recent past.
It is imperative therefore to intervene. It is important to have a common and united understanding in the East and West, to stop the barbarism being perpetrated mainly in Syria and Iraq. If necessary, as already stated in the past by other more authoritative people, it must use force. However, if it is not placed in a context of a political perspective of reconstructing at all levels those populations and those countries, without a clear plan for the future, it will remain yet another partial approach to the problem and will not constitute a stable solution. In addition to stopping the aggressor, it must be clear as to how to (re)build the lives of these peoples, free from any form of exploitation.
Without an integrated vision, we will leave space to the fundamentalism.
This dramatic situation, however, can also become an incredible opportunity. The tensions, war and tragedies that affect us, force us (religious persons of different faiths, political views and intellectual fields) to take a common position and respond together in a new way.
Inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue is needed now more than ever. Not only should we not clamor at the clash of civilizations, but rather we should raise our voices to the different civilizations of the East and West at a common position against the barbarism of ISIS and the like, which are not civilization. Fundamentalists, in fact, threaten all civilizations and not just ours. The initiatives of encounter, of understanding, of overcoming mutual distrusts are as necessary as the air we breathe.
We are not engaged in a religious conflict and we must not yield to the temptation of those who want to return to the days of religious wars. On the contrary, today it is more necessary than ever, precisely because of the threat of these fundamentalists, to strengthen and deepen the dialogue between believers of different faiths. This dialogue can have an important influence on politics, especially in the Middle East. Politics in fact, when it is serious, operates the synthesis of social and religious dynamics, and translates them into concrete actions in their territory. Even a non-believer must take note that it is necessary today – and not only in the East – to understand the complex religious phenomenon, in order to find concrete solutions and shared dialogue and encounter.
A serious inter-religious dialogue is one that starts from reality that does not deny the problems and mutual fears, not even if they are overwhelming; it rejects all forms of violence; it tries at all costs to understand the other, without necessarily sharing the same opinion; it does not seek to convince or convert, but to respect and be respected.
The inter-religious dialogue does not affirm nor assumes that we are all the same. It does not deny the different religious and cultural identities. It must not deny the differences. Denying the differences is exactly what fundamentalism is, which wants everything to be according to himself. The inter-religious dialogue recognizes the differences, but does not consider them threats, and tries to understand them.
In short, an inter-religious dialogue means the meeting of religious communities and their leaders, beginning with the local ones, to discuss common and concrete problems. One cannot do the inter-religious dialogue on issues of faith. But it is necessary to have a dialogue between religious on common issues, starting from the common human values. The inter-religious dialogue can be considered as a pilgrimage, an invitation to come out of one’s own world and their certainties, to meet the other and his experience of faith, seeking mutual human and spiritual growth.
The inter-religious dialogue must be based on some criteria and models, which can be summarized in the following main points:
a) a redefinition of the boundaries in the religio-political relationship, where the different religious experiences are understood in the light of their cultural foundations and values, rather than the view of fundamentalism and exploitation which absolutizes the prejudice of each perspective and which develops misunderstanding and intolerance;
b) a deepening of the issues concerning the universal dimension of coexistence, urging to work for openness, peace, nonviolence, the collaborative and constructive encounter between different peoples. The contact between East and West, in particular, cannot be limited to the economic, political, social and cultural levels, but it is also a religious issue;
c) a rethinking of the categories of history, memory, guilt, justice, forgiveness which places in direct contact the religious sphere with the moral, social and political. This is crucial. Most of the causes for the violence today is the inability to process and overcome (in religious language we would say: redeem) its own history.
Today all this may seem utopian and unrealistic. I realize this. The path to a peaceful and serene relationship between the different religions of the East, and between East and West is still far off. We cannot, however, restrict ourselves to accusing extremism, but we need to talk to that part of the population and those movements who despite everything, remain open to discussion and dialogue. This perspective has no alternative. And in this tragic time, it is an incredible and unique opportunity for the coordination and coming closer between all parties, religious and lay people, who otherwise would not move nor meet. Christian and Muslim leaders who together act against ISIS; Christians, Jews and Muslims who meet together to pray and demonstrate against the war are exactly the images that the fundamentalists want to destroy, and that is precisely why it is now more necessary.
The testimony of Pope Francis, in this context, is exemplary: from the trip to the Holy Land, to the Day of Prayer for Peace in Rome, to the numerous appeals for reconciliation, he is reminding us believers not to give in to the temptation of conflict but to continue to believe and pray for dialogue, encounter and reconciliation between peoples, cultures and religions.
The current situation and even more recent events that shake the Middle East thus render more timely and urgent that challenge, without which the field is left open to different forms of fundamentalism on both sides.
In spite of everything, the Franciscans continue to render this same witness that they have been giving for eight centuries. It is not the first time that we assist at the drama of persecutions and war. But we have never wanted to leave those lands. We have remained for the love of Christ and of the people that the Church has entrusted to our care.
Some months back, Father Dhiya Azziz was kidnapped by a jihadist cell linked to Al-Qaida. He was, and still is, the parish priest of a small village in the north of Syria, which is nowadays occupied by Syrian rebels linked to Al-Qaida. In that village Christians cannot venerate statues, they cannot have crosses or any other Christian symbol, both publicly and even privately. Father Dhiya has remained with his parishioners. He did not want to leave those of his people who remained, the majority of who are poor and elderly persons, who do not know where to go.
In an incredible way, with the help of some Muslim persons, he managed to escape. He would say to himself: between choosing to be murdered by these fanatics or to be killed while trying to escape, I prefer the second case. In a few words, he managed to escape with the help of some Muslims of that place. Father Dhiya did not want to leave the country, but he returned to his village, to his parish, where he is still staying to this very day, among his own people. Like him are doing also Father Hanna Jallouf, Father Ibrahim in Aleppo and many others.
We Franciscans will certainly not resolve the grave problems of the Middle East. But we are living in the Holy Land for this reason. We are living there in order to give witness to our love for Christ, loving all those who he wants us to meet. We do this without judging and without condemning anybody. We are proclaiming the truth aloud, certainly, without fear, but also without excluding anybody.
The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land is an instrument through which the Custody of the Holy Land realizes all these projects with modern systems of assistance. To give witness to Christ is not an abstract expression. It means that we have to provide work and dignity for so many families who are homeless, it means that we must give them the possibility to study by offering them scholarships, it means that we must sustain the emergencies like that in Syria at this very moment, by sending all kinds of emergency aid, it means that we must support the ordinary life of the brothers who, like Dhiya Azziz, offer their lives for the few Christians who have remained in their parishes, in order to instill in them their trust.
We will not solve all problems, but we will continue to provide a contribution of life and hope to the hundreds of families whom we can reach out to with our work of solidarity, also supported by all of you here present.
This is our mission, and we could support it also thank to your help.
Thank you for your solidarity and thanks for whatever you can accomplish for the Christians in the Holy Land, and particularly those living in Syria and in the Holy Land.
May the Lord bless you all!