Very Important: Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land makes profound statement on violence in Middle East and Holy Land

The power of the heart – Researchers of Truth: Intervention of the Custos of the Holy Land at the Rimini Meeting 2014

(FMC) (online editor note: for brief summary of some important points, read bold, italics) It is not easy in a short time and in a place such as this, to enter a subject that is so vast and complex, such as the Middle East today on fire, undergoing a radical and dramatic transformation.

It is even more difficult to relate this tragic situation with the “power of the heart,” which is the theme of our meeting. What can the heart not do when confronted with the humanitarian tragedy that the media has shown us for months? There needs to be much more than a few good words or fine sentiments, one would think.

I believe, however, it is a mistake to confine a professional analysis to the political, social and historical dimension of what is happening (if we are able to do that!), without a look at the religious, redeemed dimension, which helps us to interpret events without allowing oneself to be overwhelmed/carried away. The two areas are necessary to one another. We need experts to help us comprehend the radical changes in terms of the political, economic and social dimensions that we are witnessing. But we also need to look higher and broader, free from fears and complexities.

In Jerusalem, in these recent months, we were overwhelmed by demands and proposals coming from the most unthinkable associations and international movements of an absolutely secular character who, concerned about what was happening, wanted us to become involved in the most diverse initiatives in the fields of media, culture, politics and even as military advisers, in order to “save Christianity and its culture” in the Middle East and beyond. These are legitimate concerns, as we are seeing, but unfortunately this approach is missing the glance of faith, the look of someone who not only trusts in his own operational capacities, but who also entrusts, delivers his life to an Other, in another way.

In another way means: working, praying and listening to every suggestion of the heart, letting the passionate and free pursuit of truth indicate unexpected or unfamiliar roads, ready to take responsibility to give body to our personal commitment to others, with others.

I did not come here to present the chronicle of events. You can get this from the media, along with different analyses about what is happening. I will give you my personal thought and position on what is happening, knowing that it are necessarily partial and approximate.

The radical change in the Middle East

The Middle East has returned to the forefront in the media, but also of the concerns of the many. Egypt, Israel and Palestine, and especially Syria and Iraq are the center of a profound change by still unclear perspectives. The kind of stability that had characterized relation (or non-relations) in these countries for forty years has definitely ended, and a new equilibrium that we still cannot define is evolving, a source of concern for many, especially for the small Christian community and the other minorities.

The Middle East that we have known since the 900’s, one which was born from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire, from the end of various colonialism and the birth of nation states, is ended. Now begins a new period, the direction of which, however, we are not yet able to comprehend.

Initially was has been dubbed “the Arab Spring” aroused much enthusiasm: there was witnessed in the squares the fall of dictators who had dominated for decades; finally the people, and young people in particular, became protagonists of their own lives and of their countries, and history was made. Everyone, regardless of his or her affiliations, participated in this important moment.

This process, however, was in a certain sense “hijacked” by religious movements and religious parties that have distorted the nature of this spring, transforming it into a veritable power struggle between the different religious and social components of the Middle East, in particular in the fight between Shiites and Sunnis. A fight for power, which included a number of interests of various kinds (political, economic, energies, etc.), but we are not here to analyse this.

A clear sign of this involution with respect to the initial moment of the Arab Spring is the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities who have been victimized in these recent months, and the consolidation and strengthening of movements and Islamic parties – some very extremist – on the public stage. The relationship with minorities, in fact, has been strongly undermined by forms of persecution and exploitation of various kinds.

However, in order to understand more fully the nature of the relations between the different religious communities in the Middle East, it is necessary to start from their historical and social context.

Much more than in Europe, the Middle East has always been a crucible of religious differences. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have their hearts and their roots in the Middle East. Also, each of these faiths have known lively internal divisions: Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac and many other communities have sprung up over the centuries, making the Middle East – the only one of its kind in the world – a place of cohabitation. It must be said that living together has never been easy and there have been persecutions throughout the centuries. But one has not seen a “religious cleansing” of the kind we see today.

The Middle East as a place where people live together? Difficult to believe, yet certainly more than in any other part of the world. Let me use a reality we all know as way of explanation. If a meeting or time of dialogue takes place in Italy, or in a European country or in the West, between people of other faiths and religious traditions, it is generally within a framework that smooths the corners, which emphasizes the virtues: we want to see the best and they want to offer the best of themselves. In the Middle East, when encountering a Jew, a Muslim, a Copt, an Armenian, each remains himself. We pass by each other daily, living with the same problems, though each within his own culture, faith and tradition. They share in common the difficulties of daily life, what is being deliberately excluded in the meeting, which happens in the West.

It is important to understand that, in the Middle East, religious affiliations are still also social and cultural affiliations. Faith is not only a personal religious experience, but is also a way of defining ones personal and social identity. Religion is determinant in the structural sense, as well as in the historical, cultural and human sense. It is rare to find a trace of the secularism (laïcité) in the sense as introduced to the West by Modernity, where Church and State are kept distinctly separate and where faith is more or less relevant to the social reality. In the Middle East, religion permeates every aspect of daily life, both public and private, and permeates deeply. So the majority of the population continues to adjust and mark their existence on the basis of a consolidated religious ethos, typical of the various groups to which they belong and deeply internalized by each member of the community.

The religious component is almost always an essential element in the construction of personal identity and tends to express itself in some specific, distinctive and recurring traits, for example, active participation in ritual prayer and celebrations, the way of dress, the choice to wear and expose objects and symbols specific to their denominational belief, the choice of names for children. In addition, each individual receives at birth an identity number, next to which there is a code that signifies the faith to which they belong. It thus becomes an integral part of his civil identity: each is defined and considered Christian, Jew or Muslim, regardless of whether they are practicing or not. Finally, the religious authority delegate many aspects of life in the country. A significant example is related to marriage: there are no civil marriages, marriage is always religious and with significant social consequences.

Religious affiliation then, in addition to defining the identity of a person, also defines him in relation to another. One’s religious and social identity defines also the relationship with the other, on a personal and social level. Two inhabitants of Jerusalem, despite sharing the same citizenship, if belonging to two different faiths, will have two different ways of behaving, with respect to a common problem and respond in two completely different social models. You may in fact be an atheist, but you are still a Jew, a Christian or Muslim, and so on.

This form of interreligious coexistence – which is something other than integration, and which is challenge specific to Western society – has characterized the Middle East for centuries, though never in a simple and strait forward manner, and forms the nature of its constitutive character. It is for this reason that Christians of various denominations, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Yazd’s, Kurds, Alawites, Druze, etc., are until now still present in the Middle East.

The main concern at this moment lies in the fear of the rise to power of the fundamentalist Islamic movements, especially, but not exclusively, in Syria and Iraq. The images that we see daily shake our consciences. I refer in particular to the so-called Islamic State or Caliphate, which has targeted not only the non-Muslim minorities, but also other Muslims who do not share their doctrine.

The questions of these movements today are central to the concerns of entire religious communities in the Middle East.

A growing tension is witnessed within the Christian community, perhaps the nostalgia of lost guarantees, the temptation to leave, which at times has even become a necessity, as we have seen in Iraq. What has been done to Christians and Yazidis in the plain of Nineveh is simply shameful.

The “religious cleansing” of which is staining the so-called Islamic State, but subtly found also in other parts of the Arab world, is first and foremost against the history and character of the Middle East, and cannot be passed over in silence. It is of necessity that all religious communities raise their voices against his abomination. The Islamic world has eventually begun to fight back, but in honesty, we must say that this is a very shy outcry. The Arab media has not really gone far enough in reporting the statements of the various Muslim religious leaders.

Interfaith dialog at this time cannot disregard a common and strong complaint about what is happening. It demands the gravity of the moment and the need to continue to live and dialogue together.

This fanaticism has to be stopped, even with force, if necessary. The use of force, however, without taking into consideration the idea of reconstruction at all levels (political, religious, economic) will not solve anything. The force stops, destroys. But if you do not reconstruct in the void left behind by force, it will be filled with greater extremism, because there will always be someone else more pure and more just than the you…

This also applies to the now old Israel-Palestinian conflict. I don’t want to dwell on this because, frankly, I don’t know what to say. The use of force without the consideration of any social, political or economic reconstruction will lead to no other solution than to return to a use of other forces, in a sort of vicious circle. How can we speak of peace, or the prospect of peace, when in your own heart you only have hatred, resentment, pain and revenge because of the violence?If we do not build hope?There is no family that has remained untouched by this violence. Force will never build any perspective. It may, at times like now in Iraq, open a road, but it will never build it.

The Middle East, beginning with the Holy Land, Israel and Palestine, urgently and dramatically needs to identify a new way to define their own future, which can only be built together with all the other souls who together make up this area, and never with one against another. Christians, Moslems, Kurds, Jews, as well as all the other ethnic and religious communities form an integral part of the life of these countries and will not disappear. Presuming that that they will disappear is a pure illusion. Ignoring the existence of all these communities is blindness.

Alongside the betrayal of the historical cohabitation between the different religious communities, which is a sad experience of some Iraqi cities occupied by the fundamentalists, there are also forms of solidarity, which also must be reported.

On my recent visit in Syria, in the massacred city of Aleppo, I saw that it is possible for strangers to meet needs of common emergencies.

The city of Aleppo has been, for many months, without water. The only salvation is private wells and, of course, not everyone can have a private well. Electricity is also lacking, as they do not have power more than 2 hours per day. Even if you have a well, then, it is impossible to get water if you do not have a generator. In turn, diesel fuel for generators is difficult to find and is, thus, very expensive. A normal family cannot live like this. This is actually impossible for the entire remainder population, which composed largely of the poor, who do not know where to else to go. It is the main institutions that have a well, for example – the mosques, the churches, the hospitals, and so on. I personally witnessed Christians and Moslems queuing up together in a church to get water and for Christians to bring water to their Moslem neighbours and vice versa. In our convent, the Terra Sancta College in Aleppo, there is no generator, but the Moslem neighbors have a generator. The neighbors, all Muslim, collect money for the diesel fuel. The Moslem family keeps the generator, and the friars draw water for the entire neighborhood.

The Jesuits, through the Jesuit Relief Services, put a structure into use that had been part of the convent of the Franciscan Sisters in Aleppo. They organized a kitchen, which feeds entire neighbor-hoods in the city. More than 10,000 meals are distributed daily from the convent. The food comes from Islamic organizations, the sisters take care of the organization, and volunteers, both Christians and Moslems, carry food to those in need on a daily basis. It should be noted that moving around town is very dangerous, and nobody is ever sure that, if they leave home, they will return. Nevertheless, there are still many who are willing to risk their lives in order to do something, not only for themselves, but also for the other without considering the cost.

During my stay in Aleppo, our neighbors, the Syrian Catholic cathedral and the See of the Bishop, were hit twice. The first strike, by the rebels, destroyed the church. The second strike, by government forces, destroyed the bishopric. In both cases, everyone, without distinction, tried to do their best in order to provide support and encouragement or simply to be close. Very often, in fact, there is not much to do except watch helplessly in this drama.

I could continue with examples and testimonials, however, I believe this gives you a good idea of what is happening.

The Middle East is in flames. The ancient forms of cohabitation longer seem empty, and the new forms are not sufficiently clear. We are witnessing contradictory and indecipherable phenomena. Betrayal of old friendships alongside formation of new friendships. A refusal or denial of others and a search for others. Alongside the heart that has been betrayed there is the heart of one who has loved, who has spent and surrendered oneself. Gestures of many anonymous people are present everywhere. They are the secret force that is necessary for going beyond, not to stop in the darkness of the moment, in the face of Satan’s power. The neighbor beside you, who supports you with a gesture of friendship in the face of so much death allows you to breath and to believe that it is still possible to remain here, and to live together, united and diverse.

The power of the heart

I am not a “feel good” enchanter. I do not deny that there are dramatic problems, betrayals and cruelties, which actually raise questions in everyone’s conscience. In particular, it is a challenge to the Islamic world;we need to take a firm and clear position against all of this but we have also to ask them, the Islamic world, to do so. I think, however,this it is not enough and that we cannot stop in denouncing. It is necessary to have a clear perspective in mind, which is reconstruction and life. It is not enough to say that things are not going in the right direction. We have to indicate a path, the road.

The evil that affronts us as Christians challenges us to be even more Christian and to do so to the end. It is in these circumstances that we actually live our Christian vocation in a complete manner, without escaping and without fear. We should not, as Christians, be afraid of evil.

“Remain in perfect tranquility. Not stoic ataxia and impassiveness in front of the ruins of the world, but the security that humanity and the world are in the hands of God. Albeit, no great destruction can compromise the fulfillment of His Will; nothing can destroy man or take man away from God’s omnipotent love. The Christian life is always the same. God does not shirk any difficulty, any testing; it may seem that God abandons man to the destructive force of evil: but if He lives in you, it is the evil that is destroyed.” Divo BARSOTTI, “L’attesa. Diario: 1973-1975.”

We often hear desperate statements and analyses of the situation. It seems to be close to the end of everything. Old models may have come to an end, but not the world, and not us with it. It is not uncommon, perhaps even by religious, to hear words discouragement and resignation. We hear about a clash of civilizations and sort of call to arms to defend ourselves! All this has nothing to do with the Christian faith.

We tend to forget the basic fact: Christianity was born from the cross, and cannot be separated from it. Jesus becomes the King of the world on the cross, not after the success of multiplication of the loaves. Christianity, in fact, arises from a human failure, from a defeat. And from a perforated heart, which is the heart of Christ on the cross. When we speak of the power of the heart, we need to look at that heart, which is the measure of God’s love and consequently our own. Our works as Christians must be measured against that heart. We often forget this fact, and we fall into the temptation of believing that it is our own enterprises that are going to save us, even on our earth.

For a Christian, the analysis of any reality is not complete unless it is made also in reference to Christ. One does not understand the truth of an event unless it is in reference to Christ. Therefore, not to an ideology but to a Person, who becomes a measure and an model of one’s own thoughts and actions.

How can we not be reminded of the episode in Mark 4, 35-41? The boat with the disciples is being tossed about by the waves. The disciples panic, and Jesus reproaches them. “Why are you so fearful? Have you still no faith?”

The different Western and international strategies do not know if they can help the situation. Perhaps. Surely, we have to look urgently for a political perspective. But it is not these strategies that are going to save Christianity in the Middle East. Peter’s boat will always be in turmoil and there will always be someone inside the boat who will try to say what needs to be done. But it is only the Lord’s command that will calm the storm.

“Every union and solidarity with men is a continuation of the solidarity of Jesus with all of humanity, but if this were to end, it would be proof of the supreme failure, because it is solidarity that is consummated and becomes perfect in death on the Cross. Death on the Cross is the way to resurrection, and resurrection is not the solidarity of Jesus with man, but the union of man with the risen Jesus.

Each solidarity with man, each union with him is the means and the necessary path to the union of all men with God; if not, it lead us to what is vain, does not save, but only makes us partakers of pain, poverty and death; it does not give life.” Divo BARSOTTI, “L’attesa. Diario: 1973-1975.”

The small ones, those with courage, who run a risk and defy death by loving their brothers gratuitously, will save the Christian presence.

The images and pictures of the Middle East that we constantly see leave us, really, with a sense of great oppression. It is legitimate to ask ourselves what we can do, and it is also necessary to engage ourselves so that we put an end to this tragedy, a tragedy to us all. Our actions must be accompanied by the deep conviction that our actions, in order to be fruitful, must be combined with Christ’s actions.

Let me conclude with two more images linked to the Middle East, which happened some months ago, although now it seams light years away, and completely different from what we are seeing these days.

The first refers to the meeting between the Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulchre. The Basilica preserves the memory of the death and resurrection of Christ, but it also holds the memory of our sad divisions among Christians. That Basilica, for the first time in its history, saw the encounter of two realities, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, which have been opposed for many centuries. Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI also met but not in the Basilica;this time, for the first time in the history, it was a liturgical act prepared by the two Churches, there at the heart of the divisions. Certainly the divisions are still present, and now after the encounter, seems to be as they were before. But it is not as before, even if we wanted it to be. Those signs are powerful ones, and mark a commitment by those who made them. The two Churches committed themselves to establish a relationship that is different and more positive. The road to go is still a long one, but the road has been opened and marked.

The second image is linked to the moment of prayer, as requested by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Vatican. The Presidents of the two countries -Israel and Palestine –that have always been hostile.

Even with this fact, the two presidents are not so powerful, politically speaking; the Pope even less. He can give indications but not intervene at all in the conflict. Soon after that meeting there was unprecedented and inexplicable violence between the two sides, which seemed to wish to deny that historical moment. Yet also in this case, the signs were posted and the roads marked. The images of death, bombings, missiles, etc., which we have seen to date and, above all, the especially deep hatred, fueled by all this violence, should not be separated from the image of the two Presidents praying together for peace. This tells us that it is possible. They help us raise our eyes. It warms the heart.

The Middle East is also this

We need everything in the Middle East – financial aid, military help, political help, medical, support… but above all need to believe that we can still love each other. The testimonies tell us that, despite everything, thanks to the small ones, this force still lives.