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By Alan Wisdom

Over the course of a week last November in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to participate in conversations with three top church officials there. I joined with others in the Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East in meetings with his Beatitude Theophilus III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan monk who serves as Roman Catholic Custos of the Holy Land. Separately, I had a chance to talk with the Rev. Canon Hosam Naoum, Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. There was a remarkable convergence in the impressions conveyed by all three. They all spoke gently, choosing their words carefully, not wishing to cause offense. They seemed to be engaged in a balancing act. 

The church officials expressed the difficulty of attending to the needs of a flock living under various jurisdictions, and with resulting differences in political perspectives. Arab Christians who were full citizens of Israel often took a different view from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who faced a situation that was both less defined and less secure. The officials also had to take into account the sensitivities of congregants in neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. 

It was not easy to craft policies or public statements that would satisfy all of these constituencies. Harsh criticisms of Middle Eastern governments could backfire against believers who had to live under those governments. Above all, church officials wanted to avoid exacerbating the pressures that had already caused large numbers of Christians to emigrate out of the region. 

Patriarch Theophilus spoke of seeking good relations with the various governments. He said that Christians “enjoy freedom and respect” in Israel, but often feel “socially isolated” from the Jewish majority. In Gaza, the Greek Orthodox are “on good terms with the ruling regime,” according to the patriarch. But the Islamist Hamas regime does not treat Christians “as equal citizens.” They live instead as “a separate entity,” with the patriarchate overseeing a church, two schools, and a monastery. 

The patriarch stressed how “the monasteries are the heart of the Christian community,” and their preservation is of the utmost importance. He also expressed concern for refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. Their increasing numbers are straining the capacities of churches and other Christian institutions in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere that are trying to meet the needs. 

Fr. Pizzaballa saw diverse and difficult challenges facing the Catholic faithful in the region. Israel was the easiest situation. “In Israel we have complaints [disputes with the government], but no problems,” Pizzaballa said. “The only problem is identity.” He worried that Christians might assimilate too readily to Israeli society and lose their distinct character. 

For Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, on the other hand, “the [Israeli] occupation is a problem,” according to the Franciscan. But he also saw a “problematic attitude toward Israel” that made the Jewish state a scapegoat for all Palestinian problems. “If the weather is not good, the cause is the occupation,” Pizzaballa quipped.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Pizzaballa observed that Christians were “almost always cold to the Arab Spring,” because they perceived previous dictatorships as “the only alternative” to frequently intolerant Islamist movements. “We know the future is with the Islamic movements,” he conceded, and so “we [the church] have to be very prudent in what we say.” It is important “to have dialogue with moderate Islamic institutions” such as al-Azhar University in Cairo. 

Syria was the worst case that Pizzaballa discussed. Syrian Christians were divided in their responses to the civil war between the Assad dictatorship and an opposition with a large Islamist component. There had been “massacres on both sides,” the Custos reported, but lately “a lot of foreign fighters” had entered with a “very anti-Christian” attitude. Earlier in the conflict, Syrian Christians had not been particularly targeted; however, now there were almost daily anti-Christian attacks. 

“We don’t have a solution” for Middle Eastern Christians, Pizzaballa admitted. “We don’t know what to do.” He asserted that the church “cannot accept emigration as an option.” But he did not have a comprehensive strategy for preserving and strengthening the 2,000-year-old Christian communities of the region. 

Naoum, the Anglican dean, stated that most Palestinians would regard the Israeli presence in the West Bank as an unwelcome “occupation.” Christian Palestinians suffer the resulting hardships alongside their Muslim compatriots. Nevertheless, Naoum said he could understand the security concerns about terrorism that drove some of Israel’s policies. He recognized that it would be hard for Jews to give up some of their historical attachments in the West Bank, as they would have to do in any likely peace agreement.

On the other side, the Anglican dean saw prospects for peace complicated by the rise of Islamist movements, such as Hamas in Gaza, and the weakening of Arab nationalist movements, such as Fatah in the West Bank. He was “not sure that Hamas can be part of negotiations” with Israel, because the Islamist movement “does not accept Israel’s existence.” 

Naoum suggested that the United States and Israel had themselves at least partially to blame for this situation. In earlier years they had often used Islamist movements to undermine the then-dominant forces of Arab nationalism. Now the U.S. and Israel are reaping the results of those earlier choices as they have to deal with the more militant and intransigent Islamist movements that have gained power.