More help needed from Europe to sustain Middle East Christians


By Clare Creegan and John Newton

THE head of the Middle East’s Franciscans said more help is needed to keep Christians in the region – as an international conference on Syria’s refugee crisis got underway in London.

Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa called on Europe to provide more support, as the continent is now affected by the exodus of refugees from the Middle East.

Fr Pizzaballa said: “I would tell the politicians in Europe, it would be better to help the refugees, including the Christians, here than in Europe.

“It would be better to invest the money required to assist the millions of refugees here. It is better for both the refugees and the region.”

At the London conference the UN has appealed for US$7.7bn to help Syria’s humanitarian situation – the UK government has already pledged the equivalent of US$1.7bn.

However, many Christian refugees in the region are not receiving any aid from the UN – one of the reasons ACN has so far given more than £11 million for projects in Iraq and more than £7 million for Syria.

Fr Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, said: “Under no circumstances would I encourage the Christians to emigrate.”

As Custos, Fr Pizzaballa oversees the Franciscan’s work looking after pilgrimage sites and carrying out pastoral work in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and parts of Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes.

He said: “We are doing everything in our power to make it possible for the Christians to stay.

“I would tell them: Go to a safe part of the country, but stay in Syria… They have a calling here. And Europe is not a paradise.”

ACN met the Custos in Jerusalem to discuss the prospects for Christians in Syria and the Middle East.

One of his Franciscan priests Fr Dhiya Aziz was recently freed after two weeks in captivity in Syria.

Fr Pizzaballa said he believed that the war in Syria will continue to have repercussions for Christians in the country, long after its end.

He said: “It is difficult to say whether there are reasons for hope.

“However, from a political and military standpoint, this year will doubtlessly be a decisive year. 2016 could be a turning point.

“In Syria, I detect a certain war-weariness among the parties concerned. Therefore, they will not be able to continue at this intensity for much longer.”

Fr Pizzaballa said it was unlikely that the Geneva talks on Syria would find an immediate political solution but added that it might be the beginning of a successful peace process.

The ongoing violence in the region has left millions in need of aid and 4.8 million are thought to remain in besieged areas.

The war has not only led to political and economic uncertainty but massive social repercussions for religious minority groups.

Speaking about the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria, Fr Pizzaballa said: “It has had a very distinct denominational, religious character from the very beginning.”

The Custos also said both Christian and Muslim communities would need to take responsibility for rebuilding trust between the two faiths.

He told ACN: “In order to make a future possible for Christians in their countries, you have to push through the concept of citizenship and civil equality.

“This is the decisive point and this is where the religious leaders have a part to play.”

Fr Pizzaballa called on Christian leaders to lead by example and forgive those who had persecuted them.

“After all, our faith was born on Mount Calvary. This means that forgiveness has been at the heart of Christianity from the very beginning.”

(Original interview by Oliver Maksan)