ROME—Jerusalem’s top Catholic official said Wednesday that an international agreement for the Holy Land is urgently needed, because everyone there is currently “ready to kill the other for their love of this land.”
“I hope that one day, the political leaders of Israel and Palestine, along with the international community, will come to understand that – beyond the game of interests and political ambitions – the nature and vocation of this holy land [is to be] chosen by God to unite all men to himself and each other,” said Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Speaking at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Twal gave an overview of the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.
Today, Christianity represents less than 2 percent of the total population, or some 450,000 Christians spread among the 18 million inhabitants of Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
Despite the numbers, or perhaps because of them, Twal said that, “They deeply feel that they are, even today, the living memory of the history of Jesus.”
The patriarch said it’s with their “witness to the history of salvation,” their prayers, and their ability to love amidst the difficulties that the local Christian community prevents “the holy places from being reduced to mere archaeological sites.”
In the Gaza Strip, the situation is perhaps more critical, with Christians of all denominations amounting today to little more than 1,000.
“The conditions in which they live are very difficult,” Twal said, explaining there’s a high unemployment rate, many children, and homes crumbling.
The silver lining, he said, is that it’s generally accepted across the region that the Christian presence is playing “a positive role in Arab society.”
Twal also defined the Christians in the Holy Land as a “buffer” between the region’s dominant religious communities: Muslims and Jews.
They’re that “small flock” the Gospel talks about, he said, “a bridge between two religions, two civilizations, two cultures, and in the end, two policies.”
Christians, he said, are an “integral and essential” part of the area, because they live in contact with both Muslims and Jews, trying to face the difficulties of the Middle Eastern conflict.
Those challenges, Twal added, come from what he called an Israeli “military occupation,” mutual violence and growing religious fanaticism, which he said comes from both sides.
“It’s enough to think about the dividing wall, more than 700 kilometers [434 miles] wide and 8 meters tall, which turns the Palestinian population into an island, limiting their freedom to move, to study, work, travel and access medical assistance,” he said.
Amidst the situation, Twal lamented, there’s a sense of panic that leads everyone to the conclusion that the situation is precarious, always with the possibility of new conflicts, such as what he described as the “knives intifada,” with “kids stealing knives from their grandmother’s or mother’s kitchen and stabbing the first person they see.”
He regretted that the response from the Israeli government has been to give the military the order to kill, “so you have kids on the other side, shooting freely.”
For Twal, one of the biggest challenges is the fact that for many young generations, there’s been nothing but war in their lives, with active conflicts in Gaza in 2008, 2010 and 2014.
“I wonder: Who can really heal an 8-year old child who has seen his parents die, or a grandmother who couldn’t leave a building because she couldn’t walk, or because she was too deaf to notice the danger?” Twal asked.
“Who can turn this child into a healthy citizen, able to feel love and to respect others?”
Twal spoke about a 2015 agreement between Palestine and the Holy See, under which the Vatican recognizes the state of Palestine and asks for it to be admitted to the United Nations. The agreement, as he pointed out, recognizes the freedom of conscience and religion and to found charitable institutions.
Yet “freedom of conscience,” he said, is a relatively moot point, because converting from Islam to Christianity is almost impossible.
“Religion and social life are so tied, that a person who wants to become a Christian loses her or his family, friends, loses it all,” he said.
The local hierarchy, he said, doesn’t keep a record of how many people embrace Christianity, but instead works on “converting hearts of people so that they become more respectful of others, more humane, and open to peace.”
“If we achieve this,” he said, “we’re happy.”
Speaking about the specific situation of Christians in Israel, Twal said they mostly move among Arabs, but also recalled migrants coming from the Philippines, India and some African countries.
Most are Christians, he said, but they go to Jewish schools where they risk losing their Christian roots.