The Patriarch of Jerusalem tells Ed West that the only thing that will keep the faithful in the Holy Land is a lasting peace
‘Thank you for this interview, I hope you can help us through your good influence on the news,” says the man opposite me, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Patriarch of Jerusalem.
It’s not often one meets a man just one rung below the Pope in the pecking order, or the man who leads the oldest Christian community on earth, so his modesty is touching, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem is a warm and charming man. But one with a depressing message.
“We were the first Christian community in the world. We were not converted to Islam, though lots of people were converted by force. And soon – and it is important – there will be a Christian population no more!” Indeed. At a speech in Westminster Cathedral this month he made this depressing prediction: “From limiting movement and ignoring housing needs to financial taxation burdens and infringing on residency rights, Palestinian Christians do not know where to turn. The number of Jerusalem Christians, for example, is expected to fall from 10,000 to 5,300 in the coming seven years, if these policies are carried out at the same pace.” Things are very bad for the oldest Christian community on earth – comprising 10 per cent of British Palestine in 1948, they make up just two per cent of the Israel/Palestine area today, and are continually leaving for Europe, Australia, the United States and Latin America.
Being disproportionately middle-class and highly skilled, Palestinian Christians are quite welcome in the West, where there are many large communities already there to help any newcomer.
As well as these strong pulls there are equally strong push factors: a 60-year-long conflict and the economic problems that come from endless violence and the restrictions that follow.
Today, the greatest source of daily inconvenience and resentment is the fence/wall, called by the Israelis “the separation barrier” and by the Arabs the “racial segregation wall”, from which it has become the “apartheid wall” in English. It was built to keep out suicide bombers travelling into Israel proper, and has succeeded, but it also divides towns and communities and forces people to wait for long periods to make their way through security checkpoints (priests included). The Patriarch calls it “the humiliation not just of people, but of a people”.
Before the Pope’s visit in May he even asked the Israeli authorities to make some “courtesy gestures”, but nothing happened.
The Holy Father’s visit was inevitably controversial, a diplomatic nightmare for a German-born pontiff visiting the Jewish state in conflict with predominantly Muslim enemies and a shrinking Christian minority, in a city claimed by all three Abrahamic religions. It’s not even ammunition for Richard Dawkins – more like artillery.
But the Pope, he says, did everything right. “His speech was very well-balanced. He came as a man of peace and dialogue, a good pastor about his flock, and he made a call for Christians to stay, stay, stay in their land. He made the link between the Church of Cavalry, the agony of our Lord, and our agony, our suffering.
“There were 350,000 Christians in Jerusalem before 1940, now there are 10,000 maximum. Israel needs to allow young people to work, and the reunification of families. In 1948 they [the Arab nations] said: ‘Go outside for some while and come back.’ But they never came back,” he shrugs.
The Palestinian Christian diaspora is quite enormous. Outside the Middle East itself there are 35,000 in Canada, 25,000 in Honduras, 5,000 in Mexico, 15,000 in Britain and almost 40,000 in America. Palestinian Christians, he says, are “everywhere”.
The Patriarch is fairly welltravelled himself. Born in October 1940 in Madaba, near the Jordan, he was one of five brothers and four sisters who between them have produced over 100 descendants. His family were Orthodox in the distant past but joined the “more dynamic” Latin Rite Church at some point.
“When the East separated from Rome we were already in the desert and no one asked us our opinion,” he jokes.
By the time of the First World War his nomadic ancestors had settled near Amman, which soon became the capital of the British-run Kingdom of Transjordan. Whereas Iraq’s royal family were overthrown by Arab nationalists not long after the British military left, the Hashemite rulers of Jordan, King Hussein and his son King Abdullah, have proved to be popular, well-respected and politically cunning rulers.
Unlike the citizens of other Arab nations Jordanians will praise their head of state off the record as well as in public, and His Beatitude’s affection is sincere. “We are in harmony with the Hashemite regime,” he says. “We are attached. We are proud to be his friend.” The young Fouad entered the seminary in 1959 and was ordained in 1966, becoming a priest in Ramallah in Jordanian-occupied Palestine before moving to Irbid, northern Jordan, in January 1967 (lucky for him. Later that year Ramallah would be fought over by Jordanians and Israelis, and won by the latter).
He entered the diplomatic service in 1977 and worked in Honduras, Egypt, Germany and Peru, before becoming Bishop of Tunis in 1992 and coadjutor Archbishop of Jerusalem in 2005 (and patriarch last year).
“It is a unique diocese,” he says of his current station, which covers Jordan, Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian territories.“Most have one state and many dioceses. We have many states and one diocese.” So his career began in the Holy Land and now it has reached its summit in the Holy Land. The story has a nice symmetry to it – all that’s missing is a solution to the endless haggling over land.
Strangely enough, while religion is at the heart of the conflict, and blamed even for aspects that are not religious but tribal, spiritual leaders have not been consulted enough in this war. This is why the Patriarch meets the Jewish Council for Jewish-Christian relations and other groups that bring together all three faiths.
“We have one important interfaith council, with Jews, Muslims and Christians, and our goal, as stated back in 2002 in Alexandria, is to see what religious leaders can do in this conflict.
“For many years we were forgotten,” he says. But the Americans have recently taken an interest and they now meet every three months, although there’s a long way to go. Education is actually a big problem.
“The books of religion with which children are being educated do not help for reconciliation, for peace culture, and I don’t know who is worst. It would be nice if we had the courage next year to change the books, and start from the beginning to create a new culture where people can live with the other.” Now what? Some solution must be found. The hard-line Palestinians, Hamas, would like to throw all the Jews into the sea, but overwhelmingly Christians side with more secular and moderate forces, and recognise Jewish concerns too, “We want normal life,” he says. “We want Israel to have security, we want Israel to live in peace, but at the same time we can’t say if they occupy territory we can have peace, because we cannot. That doesn’t work. We say to the Israelis: where do you want to go? Where do you want to go with the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Muslims? There must be another approach. You must cede some territory. I think peace is worth paying the price.
“We cannot throw out five million Israelis from Israel – we cannot and we must not. And they cannot do the same. So if we are condemned to live together, let us prepare to live together. Only peace can stop the Christians emigrating.” Despite all the hardship the surprising thing is just how many priests are ordained in this part of the world, at least two or three every year, despite the shrinking population and the difficulty involved. Most know they’ll end up in somewhere like Ramallah and entry rules mean they cannot go home for holidays. But they keep on coming. It’s the spiritual lure of Christ’s city.
“These places are holy for all the people, for the West as well as for Islam, and so this conflict does not concern only two people, Palestinians and Israelis, but people from here to Pakistan,” he says.
One could say that what’s illogical about the conflict over the area around Jerusalem, from a strictly practical and materialistic point, is that if both sides gave up a bit they could easily live off the tourism alone.
The Patriarch’s mornings are entirely taken up meeting the floods of visitors from Europe and America, hours of meeting and greeting pilgrims, and these are bad times. “All my mornings are – how do you say?” He struggles for the word. I suggest “occupied”, and he laughs.
Perhaps tourism may save the Holy City but it would be tragic if Jerusalem became only a Christian Disneyland for western visitors rather than a living Christian community that can date its faith back to the time of the apostles.
Pope Benedict XVI has asked Aid to the Church in Need to prioritise help for the suffering Church in the Middle East. For information and to make a donation, contact www.acnuk. org or telephone 020 8642 8668