ROME – As Israel faces ongoing political and social instability, its new cardinal has said that since achieving stable peace in the near future is unlikely, constructive efforts in facilitating dialogue are needed.
Speaking to journalists during a Sept. 28 press briefing, Cardinal-Designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said his appointment was a surprise, and that he sees the red hat as “a responsibility.”
“To be a cardinal is not just a title, but also a responsibility, to be a voice from Jerusalem, of Jerusalem, about our situation, and also from Jerusalem to all the churches, to be able to say something positive for constructive building in this very complicated context,” he said, referring to Israel’s socio-political crisis and the broader tensions of the Holy Land.
Constructive efforts in bettering the current situation are difficult “but not impossible,” he said, saying what can be done to improve the status quo “depends on what your perspective is.”
“If you want to arrive to a solution of peace where everyone is living peacefully and will love one another, of course we are not there, and I don’t think we are going to see this [anytime] soon,” he said.
Yet at the same time, Pizzaballa insisted that “it’s possible to create a context of peace, a context of encounter, of dialogue, in society, in groups, in movements.”
“There are many people, Israelis and Palestinians, belonging to different religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, who are ready to cooperate, to do something positive in society. This is what we have to do right now,” he said.
Pizzaballa, who will get his red hat from Pope Francis Saturday, has been in the Holy Land for 34 years, and is seen as one of the most authoritative Church voices on regional affairs.
His appointment takes place amid a recent uptick in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as ongoing tensions over the controversial judicial reform pioneered by the rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Violence in the West Bank has surged following Israel’s general elections last November, bringing in the country’s most rightwing and nationalistic coalition to date, composed of hardline parties many observers accuse of being increasingly radical, worsening the violence.
For example, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition includes settler leaders in key roles, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in 2007 was criminally convicted for incitement of anti-Arab racism and support for a Jewish militant group.
Observers have argued that the presence of Ben-Gvir and other equally radical coalition members has empowered Israeli settlers to tighten Jewish control of the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Church leaders have spoken out against these actions, voicing concern that such efforts are a threat to the Christian presence in Jerusalem, while Palestinians have pushed back.
Christians themselves have been subjected to increased discrimination, with Holy Land leaders, including Pizzaballa, issuing repeated statements condemning acts of violence and discrimination, and urging greater religious tolerance and respect for minorities.
Observers have also warned that democracy in Israel is at stake amid the debate over a controversial judicial overhaul.
In July the Israeli parliament passed a controversial law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to declare government decisions unreasonable, marking the first step in a massive judicial overhaul which many fear will worsen the country’s crisis.
In his conversation with journalists, Pizzaballa said the Church’s position on issues such as the current political upheaval “is that we never say anything publicly about this, because it’s a crisis within the Israeli Jewish society mostly.”
“We say what we have to say, which is, you cannot change basic laws by majority, you need to have a vast majority. These laws should reflect the desire and the will of all the country, which is not the case right now,” he said.
Pizzaballa said he has met with Netanyahu several times, but not in recent years, and that there is no direct contact with the government, though the Church does have regular contact with certain state ministries, such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another issue Pizzaballa addressed is current debate over the international status of Jerusalem, one of the most sensitive topics in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Jerusalem is claimed by both Israel and Palestine as their capital city, while international law under the United Nations formally recognizes Jerusalem as a Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel, with most diplomatic partners housing Israeli embassies in Tel Aviv.
However, in 2018 United States President Donald Trump made the controversial decision to move the US embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, prompting a wave of international backlash, including from Vatican officials.
“First of all, I have to say that it’s the first time after many years that the Holy See is talking about Jerusalem and the Status of Jerusalem. It’s something we didn’t hear, not only from the Holy See, but many other countries, for a long time,” Pizzaballa said.
Apart from the United States and a few other countries, there are no embassies in Jerusalem, he said, “because embassies are in Tel Aviv and also because from the international community, the status of Jerusalem is still under discussion, (it) should still be under discussion.”
“How realistic it is, it depends how strong the international community wants to be,” he said.
Referring to difficulties in moving between Israel and Palestine, which requires a special permit, Pizzaballa said the situation “hasn’t changed.”
“From Palestine, from Bethlehem, to go to Jerusalem you need permits, and permits are a nightmare, always. Our chancery is always working for permits for the Christian community, and the situation is changing continuously,” he said.
He said the Church has good line of communication with Israeli military authorities, “but it’s also true that we are always, in a way, in a limbo where you never know where you are.”
Pizzaballa also addressed the current situation in Gaza, a Palestinian city on the Gaza Strip under Israeli control which has traditionally been a hotbed of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Gaza is a prison, an open prison. Two million people packed inside there with a very difficult economic and social perspective for the future,” he said.
The Christian community in Gaza ironically complains the least, because they are “very well united, maybe because of the situation,” he said, and called the political and social situation of Gaza “something shameful.”
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