Last week in Rome, Pope Francis elevated the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa (58), to the status of cardinal during a religious ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
“I was surprised by Pope Francis’ appointment, but even more surprising was the enthusiastic reaction of the entire community,” new Cardinal Pizzaballa said in an interview with Vatican News. “My appointment as cardinal has raised the voice of Jerusalem within the Church and on the international stage.”
This morning Pierbattista Pizzaballa became the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in 200 years to be created a Cardinal pic.twitter.com/3eiibCBdJk
— Catholic Sat (@CatholicSat) September 30, 2023
According to Pizzaballa, Jerusalem is the heart of life in the world. “So, from this heart, we should receive life from all over the world. But also this heart, Jerusalem, wants to bring the perspective and desire of life from Jerusalem to all over the world.” These are beautiful words that bring hope, but in practice they are often empty.
The question is, why do the new cardinal’s sweet words seem unworkable? Because of Israel. In an interview with the Associated Press back in April, Pizzaballa said the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community was increasingly under attack. “Because the most right-wing government in Israel’s history is encouraging extremists to harass clergy and destroy religious property at an ever-increasing pace in the Holy Land,” the Italian cardinal said in Jerusalem.
What was not mentioned in the Israeli reports was the participation of members of the PLO in the ceremony at the Vatican. Their presence was of course highly hyped by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. Some participants in the ceremony carried the Palestinian flag and emphasized the importance of the appointment of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem as a cardinal to raise the voice of the Holy City throughout the world and highlight the suffering of the Palestinian people due to the Israeli “occupation.” “It is necessary to highlight how Israel violates the Islamic and Christian holy sites and the clergy, as well as the Palestinian people, in the face of the separation wall, the racist wall and the military barriers that surround the city, as well as denying the right of free access to the Holy places in Jerusalem.”
In July, Cathedral Radio reported that the appointment of Pizzaballa as a cardinal was a “sign of love for the Holy Land.” “The Pope sees the heart of the problem of the Middle East conflict in the Holy Land,” the then-Latin patriarch told the Catholic news agency KNA in July on the sidelines of a Christian youth festival in the Catholic monastery of Deir Rafat.
As a side not, let me point out that this monastery has one of the best wineries in the Judean Hills. Although the Mony winery belongs to the monastery, this wine is kosher. This means that Orthodox Jews drink and love the monastery wine, and because the winery belongs to Palestinian Christians, they are allowed to open their kosher wine cellar on Holy Shabbat. A brilliant trick or twist, but it brings Christians and Jews together, warmly, over the wine. Mony has delicious red wines from the biblical area of Samson and Delilah, and for this reason two of their red wines bear these names. You just have to come to Deir Rafat on the weekend and see with your own eyes how many people enjoy the monastic wine of the Palestinian Christians. We are often in Deir Rafat and enjoy the beautiful vineyard with a view of the green valleys and vineyards with friends.
The Christian winery is not suffering at the hands of Jewish extremists, as church leaders repeatedly claim. On the contrary, on Friday the vineyards are full of religious and Orthodox Jews right up to the start of Shabbat. They rave about the monastery wine. On Shabbat, every table is filled with secular Jews. The real enemies of Arab Christians are not the Jews, as often portrayed by the Palestinian churches, but Islam in the Middle East.
But church leaders don’t dare to criticize Islam, and I don’t need to explain why. To preserve the Christian faithful in an Islamic region, such as the Palestinian territories and Jordan, every patriarch, cardinal and other church officials must take precautions. I know of no church leader who has ever publicly and directly criticized the PLO or Palestinian leadership. It can’t be that the Palestinian Christians are universally embraced by their Muslim brothers and sisters.
The proportion of Christians among the Palestinian population in the territories of Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, is between 1 and 2 percent, no more. That’s around 50,000 people; today only about 1,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of Palestinian Christians currently live in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, with a few in Ramallah, Taybeh and near Nablus. About 50 percent of Palestinian Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, one of the 15 churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, according to surveys and estimates, the proportion of Palestinian Christians was between 8 and 11 percent of the total Palestinian population.
Many of them left the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria and emigrated to Latin American countries, while others headed to the United States and Canada. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published statistical data on the Christian population in Israel at the end of 2022. In Israel, there are 185,000 Christians, making up 1.9 percent of the Jewish state’s total population. Statistics show that 76 percent of Christians in Israel identify as Palestinians. In recent years we have often written about the emigration of Palestinian Christians and Bethlehem and have quoted many Christians who long for Israeli rule in Bethlehem again.
Nevertheless, we wish the new Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa wisdom, courage and love to really do the right thing for his Christian communities in Zion. It’s not easy, but he’s been chosen. Maybe he should learn more from the unique Mony winery in the Catholic monastery. Things probably work better with a glass of wine.
PROFILE: Pizzaballa was born on April 21, 1965 in Bergamo, Italy. He entered the Order of Friars Minor in 1984 and was ordained a priest on September 15, 1990 in the Cathedral Church of Bologna before moving to Jerusalem in October of the same year. After his philosophical and theological studies, he earned a degree in Biblical Theology at the Franciscan Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. In July 1999 he formally entered the service of the Custody of the Holy Land and also served as Patriarchal Vicar in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In May 2004 he was elected Custodian of the Holy Land for the first time for a six-year term.
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