• FEATURES \ Dec 24, 2005
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    O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie Giving his first interview to the Israeli media, in honor of the Christmas holiday, Pizzaballa talks about the precarious situation of the holy places, the tense relations between Christians and Muslims, and the tension within the Christian community itself. The holy places, he believes, should be administered internationally. The Italian-born Pizzaballa, a Franciscan friar, came to Jerusalem 15 years ago, immediately after his ordination to the priesthood. His first stop was the Studium Biblicum, the Franciscan study center in Jerusalem, where he studied Bible. From there, he moved on to the Bible department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to earn a doctorate in Bible studies. He had just completed his degree when a surprising communique arrived: The Church was appointing him "custos" of the Holy Land. "I was in shock," Pizzaballa recalls. "The appointment usually goes to someone on the verge of retirement. Choosing me was certainly an earth-shaking move on the Church?s part, but I couldn?t say no. As a priest, I had taken three vows - poverty, chastity and obedience. And you know, 'If there's no horse, a donkey will also do,' as they say."

Pizzaballa explains all this in excellent Hebrew, the product of his years of living here and attending university lectures. Behind the illustrious title of custodian of the Holy Land is an energetic and youthful man whose goal goes beyond safeguarding the status quo. Pizzaballa wants to reshape one of the most controversial and complex jobs in the Christian world. The holy places under his purview are divided between the Jewish state and the Arab world, in a region fraught with turmoil and conflict.

"To start something new or introduce change in such a situation, you need a dream. Or maybe you have a little craziness," laughs Pizzaballa. "When you?re 40, both of those things are in greater supply than when you?re old and gray. It?s scary, but there?s also a challenge involved. This is rough stuff."

Weakness and strength

The office of custos is traditionally filled by a Franciscan. St. Francis, for whom the order is named, was a member of the Italian bourgeoisie in the late 12th century. At some stage of his life, he became devout, decided to give up all his wealth, and dedicated his life to the poor. As a symbol of their humbleness, the Franciscans to this day wear a simple brown robe, tied with a knotted rope.

St. Francis insisted on embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He himself only got as far as Egypt, but the Franciscans have been here ever since. In 1342, Pope Clemens VI entrusted them with the guardianship of Christian shrines in the Holy Land. "Since then, we have been trying to recover or buy back the holy places," says Pizzaballa. "But protecting these monuments of stone is only part of the job. The other part is protecting the 'living stones' - the Christian believers. The Franciscans built a Christian school in Bethlehem in 1530. In the 19th century, our schools were the first to admit Muslim students. Later, we also accepted girls, although the Church was very much against it. Muslims were one things, but girls - that was really unthinkable in those days."

As the conversation shifts from history to current events, Pizzaballa grows much more cautious. He maneuvers with the skill of a tightrope walker as complicated issues come up, such as the joint ownership of the holy places by different Christian denominations. He is even more careful when he talks about the attitude of the State of Israel toward these Christian sites, not to mention how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects them. Responding to questions about Israel?s record on the Christian holy places, Pizzaballa's remarks are surprising: "I think an international presence is needed," he says. "Israel still doesn't understand how sensitive the issue is. Maybe it's our fault. Maybe we haven't done enough to make the Israelis understand. On the other hand, Israel has not always considered these sites as integral to its being. We need some kind of international authority to watch over them."

Does he think the current situation is due to any deliberate policy on the part of the Jewish state? "There are some people who say things are being done out of spite," says Pizzaballa, "but I think it's mainly due to ignorance about Christianity in general. Those who make the decisions don't realize what Mt. Tabor and Capernaum are for Christians. Maybe there is some cynicism involved, but mostly it's a cultural thing."

Among the affairs Israel has mishandled, Pizzaballa cites the debate about constructing a mosque opposite the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and Israel's failure to intervene in the clashes between Druze and Christians in the village of Maghar. He says the Christian world was horrified by the violence in Maghar, and cannot believe that no guilty parties have been arrested or indicted yet.

Alternative pilgrimages

What seems to upset Pizzaballa most, however, is the idea of alternative pilgrimage sites for the Evangelists. "Bibi (MK Benjamin Netanyahu) is trying to set up an alternative site near Capernaum and build a major Evangelist center there," he says. "The Evangelist church has an eye on these places so it can spread its message about the battle of Armageddon."

Asked whether he thinks Israel's receptiveness to the Evangelists, who are open supporters of the Israeli right, is politically motivated, Pizzaballa says: "It could be political, but it's definitely fueled by money. Israel wants to bring millions of Evangelical pilgrims here, and our sites are much more modest. What bothers me in this whole business is the fact that it gives the Christian world, which is already dwindling in the Holy Land, another reason to feel uncomfortable, if not confused."

Another issue that has landed in Pizzaballa's lap because of his job is the great "culture war" raging today between Christians and Muslims. Pizzaballa doesn't fall into the trap. "This is a conflict we try to avoid," he notes. "Secular Christians don't represent our religious views. When U.S. President George W. Bush talks, our Palestinian friends sometimes jump up and say: 'See what the Christians think?' But Bush is not our spokesman.

"On occasion, the Catholic Church has been quite critical of the war in Iraq. The Palestinian Authority knows this, but the people don't always know it. Sometimes this breeds misunderstandings. Franciscans come in all shapes and sizes - European, Eastern, Palestinian - t we all agree that these hurtful issues can't be allowed to seep in. Sometimes we're not sure what to say or how to say it. We're priests, after all - not diplomats. But in principle, there is no separation fence in our house, metaphoric or physical."

That Pizzaballa uses this metaphor is not coincidental. Israel's separation fence is one of the most daunting physical obstacles faced by the local Christian community. Many people have been left stranded on one side or the other. The fence has been a major blow to Bethlehem, the town that millions of Christian believers have uppermost in their minds on Christmas.

"Bethlehem is now the Church?s biggest problem," says Pizzaballa. "Bethlehem and its Christian residents have always been linked to Jerusalem. The fence and the roadblock have severed this natural connection. Christianity is unimaginable without Bethlehem. But now the town is closed off, the pressures are mounting and the economy is in shambles."

One of the chief problems of the fence, says Pizzaballa, is that it scares the tourists away. Going in and out of Bethlehem, Christian pilgrims are often held up for an hour or two. As they wait, they grow increasingly frustrated and angry, and sometimes decide to skip the visit altogether.

Pizzaballa prefers to avoid political land mines. In his talks with the Palestinian minister of tourism, they did not discuss the implications of the separation fence, but only how to ease entry and exit procedures. Pizzaballa has had similar talks with the Israeli authorities, meeting with representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry.

"I don't discuss security issues," he explains, "although I do draw attention to the end result. Christian pilgrims who are treated this way don't say: 'Look what the soldiers are doing.' They say: 'Look what the Jews are doing.'"

Denominational strain

Within the Catholic Church, relations between different denominations are also strained. "Nearly every day I host a group of pilgrims who wonder why different sects are fighting with each other in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity," admits Pizzaballa, when mention is made of the "broom wars" that erupt there nearly every Christmas. "The truth is, I hardly understand it either. But nowhere else in the world do you find all the Christian denominations under a single roof. This is not some abstract, philosophical dialogue between the churches of Rome, Moscow and Byzantium. Here we are dealing with the real world. Every little decision we reach has an effect on the daily lives of us all.

"These petty wars in the churches are not an indication that we're any worse than other Christians. They're an indication that Christians in Moscow, for instance, don't face these kinds of challenges. We represent not only different Christian denominations, but totally different cultures. We're talking about a meeting and a source of friction between East and West. What is dirty in my eyes is clean in his. What is beautiful in my eyes is ugly in his. My idea of a moving ritual is pure theater to him. Considering the complexity involved, the very fact that we live under one roof is a miracle."

Now, in the midst of the maze, the Franciscans are trying to help the large numbers of Christians whose homes have been relegated to the other side of the separation fence. Pizzaballa says there are plans to purchase property in northern Jerusalem to keep the community together. This is no simple task. Since the fence went up, the price of land within Jerusalem?s municipal boundaries has spiraled.

Thus it seems that in 2005, the traditional role of the custos has taken on a whole new look.