A Christian boy from Mosul who now lives with his family in a camp for refugees in Erbil (Iraq). Traces

A "Redeemed" Gaze

Outlook on Syria, the lives of martyrs today and what we can contribute, from the perspective of a “redeemed gaze.” Published below are excerpts from a talk by Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land
Costantino Esposito

The faith of Christians in Syrian villages threatened by ISIS, farmers who are “simple [...] but know very well who they are and live that fully;” the weight of suffering that has crushed every family, without exception; the bombs and their unceasing destruction; the role of religion... and what this all elicits from him: Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, shortly after his return from Aleppo, spoke April 28th at the Cultural Center of Bari, Italy, at an event titled “A Redeemed Gaze: Witnesses of Hope in the Midst of War.”

After four years of war and casualties, there are currently 10 million refugees in Syria. What is the situation at the humanitarian level, and how are those who have remained trying to sustain general wellbeing?
The situation is definitely a dramatic one. Syria is now divided into three regions, not of political power, but of war. The northwest region, the Tartus governorate, is mostly Alawite and is relatively peaceful. The rest of the North is in the hands of rebel groups, divided between Jabhat al Nusra, a branch of Al Qaeda, and ISIS, the Islamic State. The South is spotted like a leopard: some regions in the hands of Bashar Assad’s government, others in the hands of opposition groups. Let’s look a little more closely at the situation. In Syria, lines of communication and transportation are blocked. The main roads are in the hands of rebels; big cities, for example, have a single access road. In regions controlled by Assad, they only have electricity for about six hours a day, while in other areas there is none. All of Aleppo is without water. The only way to get it is from private wells; but without electricity to draw it out, you have to have a generator. Gasoline is extremely hard to find and very expensive. This year, winter was long and harsh; you can imagine what that meant. Basic resources are now lacking; everything is now lacking. Worse than all this are the bombs: you don’t know who they are coming from, because everyone is attacking each other, and when you go out, you don’t know if you’ll return. Even at home you’re never safe, because the bombs hit homes as well. They fall day and night without ceasing: after sunset they begin, and one falls every five or six minutes. In Aleppo, which has a large Christian presence, most of the churches have been destroyed, along with some mosques.

Fr. Pizzaballa, what can one do in the face of all this?
I was there when the bombs fell in some of the working-class neighborhoods of Armenian Christians. We held their funerals, and I saw the immense weight of pain and powerlessness. An entire family was killed: mother, father, and two children. We’d have to multiply this by thousands of instances every day, without ceasing. In front of all this, you try to help as much as you can. The border with Turkey is wide open, and we get everything from there, of course through a black market; you have to have the money to buy things. Every neighborhood has its own committees to distribute necessities and collect money. Then, you try to identify areas where you can give shelter to those who are displaced. For example, when those missiles fell, about 200 people died, but many more families ended up homeless, because the shock wave is devastating. So, you have to find places to house those who are displaced: convents, schools... and you have to organize kitchens, mattresses, etc. There’s an organization set up to try to take care of all this. It’s all that you can do.

How much does religion have to do with what is happening?
In the Middle East, religion pervades everything. They don’t have the concept of secularism that Western countries have. Your religious affiliation is a big part of your identity. So, to say that religion has nothing to do with it and that it’s just a war between tribes is true, but it’s not the whole truth, because the religious element is like the lens through which you understand the element of your identity. A person could be an atheist, but they are a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sunni or Shiite atheist. The religious factor, then, is being instrumentalized, yes, but you can’t discount it. It’s above all a war within Islam, between Sunnis and Shiites. It’s between those from the United Arab Emirates, who are mostly Sunnis, and the Shiites who give their allegiance to Iran. Syria is at the heart of all this: there is a Sunni majority, but governed by Alawites, a Shiite minority group. Then you have Iran, Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon that are Shiite; the Sunnis refer to this as the “strip of evil” and want to break it so they can enter Syria. In addition, there’s the international dimension, because the UAE are leaders of the Western part of the region, while the Shiites are more influenced by Russia... but I don’t want to talk about politics here. I am not among those who are crying “clash of cultures.” There is no culture that corresponds to what is happening, and, more importantly, it would be dangerous to open these frameworks of the past up again in the West, as they will not bring about anything positive. As for the persecution of Christians, we can say that Christians are not the first target, but they are a target. When you want to homogenize a region to be like you, you have to get rid of everyone who is different. It’s a war against cultures: it’s an extreme reaction, outside of the times and of the history of a large part of Islam in how political, moral, ethical, social, and economic issues are treated. It also must be said that if there is a clear, as well as direct, intent to harm Christians, that doesn’t come from nowhere; there must be a certain formation, teaching, or system of thought that feeds it. It’s not that Islam is this, but there must be a cultural context that is the source of these mentalities, and which sustains them.

Help us to enter into the lives of the people. How could religion build a culture of dialogue, of peace?
Life is not good during war. Quality of life is bad. Then, you have to look to the future and read what signs of hope there are, because all wars create opportunities for dialogue and relationships. You have to recognize that almost every family in Syria has someone who has died or was wounded, or they have been displaced; entire families who had built their future there had to leave everything behind. Ten million Syrians no longer live where they did at the time the war began. They had to move. Moving didn’t mean simply relocating; they had to try to rebuild a life somewhere else. Work, home, school. Young people who had begun college in Aleppo had to follow their parents, interrupting their studies, and start working to bring home some money... potential thrown away. And on top of all this a suffering that touches so many, and the frustration that comes from the difficulty in envisioning the future: how will it all end? Everyone knows that it will end, but it’s hard to see how. The dynamics of the situation are slow and very dire; it will leave deep scars. Having said this, no such situation could last forever. When it does end, they’ll have to begin to rebuild. The Middle East will begin from where it is now. Starting now, we need to make sure that hate does not become the language, or criteria, to interpret things.

What do you mean when you say the Middle East will begin again from where it is now?
I have seen the displaced families in Aleppo: poor families who had homes like shacks made space for those who were homeless. Without knowing them. They recognized each other in their common need: “We don’t have anything, but four people with nothing or eight is still nothing. Somehow we’ll help sustain each other, or if nothing else we’ll be in it together.” This is happening among Christians and Muslims, so we can see everything is not lost. I think we need to begin from this. There are wars, and those fomenting them, because someone is providing the arms, and they are not giving them for free; there are surely complex interests that dominate the conflict. There’s ISIS, for instance, cutting off the heads of Christians and even of Muslims, of anyone who is not with them. What I know, as a religious, is that I can stay side by side with people, helping. Maybe I don’t always have something to give them, but I can stay there, with a word or an act of love. There’s nothing else you can do. They need food, water, and electricity, but there’s also the need of the heart: rebuilding, the future and life are all born from this. War cannot cancel it out; it’s impossible. There will always be someone who will continue to think with his head and love with his heart. We don’t have to think of great feats, but about daily realities; about the little Christian villages in northern Syria, where terrorists said, “You have to get rid of all crosses and statues, no more wine, no more liturgies,” and Christians obeyed, but continue to hold on to wine to celebrate the Mass, even though it’s risky, and they buried the crosses and are still praying, in carefully chosen spots because “one day we will retrieve them and we will love them even more, because they will be a sign of our life.” They are farmers who know very well, with complete clarity, who they are. They know. And they live it. You begin from there.

What does it mean, in a region where Christians are persecuted, to be the “custodian” of not only the historical sign of the presence of Christ, but also of the presence of Christian experience?
To be a custodian means to care for and to love that world. Safeguarding the Christian experience means making it your own. You can’t just protect the stones that remind you of Jesus, you have to safeguard the memory of Jesus. Safeguarding Calvary doesn’t just mean holding liturgies at Calvary, but safeguarding the meaning of Calvary. Calvary is Christ on the cross: it’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and the gift of self. To be a custodian is first and foremost to love: you cannot take care of something that you don’t love. To understand who the custodians are, you need to think of them more like a mother or father who care for their families because they love them, so they take care of them, they want to protect and nurture them in every aspect of life. Translated into the concrete reality of today, avoiding sentimentalism, it means to stay with people, to help, supporting schools and hospitals. If I think, for example, about Syria today, it means simply staying there. No one is making us stay. But just staying is important. A brother who was kidnapped later returned, saying, “If I leave, then my people will leave.” “But you’re alone.” “No, I’m not alone; my people are here.” “My”... In other words, it’s not just staying there to do various things, but staying with a certain attitude: one that is free and serene. I always use the word “redeemed” because it means that, before all else, you have been touched by redemption; you have had experience of your personal salvation, and this becomes the life and the criteria with which you look at everything. If you are in love, you see everything in a positive light. If you have strength–which you receive, it’s not something you had before–it allows you to see that even when things are difficult, you can have an outlook that is free and won’t allow you to demean yourself. In a way it forces you to see others as a beautiful reality, or at least as a reality with which you can do something, with which you can build something, always.

You have said that at the heart of your being there is “love: love not so that things will change, but because they exist.” Can you help us to understand this better?
For a Franciscan, knowledge always comes through experience; it’s never an intellectual exercise. I was sent to the Holy Land 25 years ago. I didn’t want to go, but my superior told me, “So long as I am the Provincial, you are the one who has to obey. So you obey.” And so I went there, because he was right... It was worth it! It is always worth it. There, I began to appreciate and above all came to know this world that I wasn’t familiar with before. I spoke only Italian; I didn’t know anything. I found myself in the midst of this place that was so strange, even a bit hostile. I was 25 years old and at 25 you want to change the world; you also need the world to feel useful. However, when I first arrived, there wasn’t much for me to do. The beginning wasn’t easy. My first question was: Who’s making me do it? Why am I here? Other people, especially the Jews, asked me, “Why are you here? Where in the Gospel does it say that you should be here? I was constantly wrestling with questions of faith. Little by little, you begin to appreciate the world in which you live: you begin to see, after the first hardships and difficulties, a lot of beauty and a radical way of life that strikes you. Little by little this interest becomes participation in a world that overtakes you and that you love, though you don’t like everything about it. In the Middle East, there are plenty of relationships of hate, but in the mix there is also a world that you love and that you feel belongs to you. That’s it: there aren’t many other explanations. You’d like to change things precisely because you love it there, but in the end you are always aware that when you love it, you love it and that’s it, you don’t even want to change it. You just love it. You always try to contribute something, but you are a part of it, and it’s a part of you. And that’s just fine.

What allows you to “just love it”?
Love makes no presumptions. When you love a person, you love them for what they are. Not because it’s useful for something or because you get something out of it or because there is an answer to “why.” You love them and that’s it. That’s my experience. A little at a time, maturing there, in that world, I was able to get to know it, enter into it and love it. Then there are the individual experiences, encounters, relations and relationships that reality brings about. You don’t make reality on your own. For me, there were plenty of failed relationships, but others–they are few, but very rich and intense–that gave me a lot; they changed my life. I will always be indebted to those Jews and Christians who encouraged me, helped me to grow, helped me to read by giving me different perspectives and ways of looking at things. Without being aware [of the change], you realize that you are already part of that world. Of course, there are plenty of things that you’d like to change or that you’ve changed a little bit, but if they don’t change you don’t get frustrated, because those relationships still nourish you and give you life. It’s not the prospect of the result but the relationship that nourishes you, however shaky it can be. For me, as a religious, all of this becomes part of the experience of faith; it’s within a wider relationship. My faith life, after those relationships, changed radically, because their questions become mine as well. All of this has created an environment that’s neither perfect nor ideal, that always has room for growth, but that nourishes you; that you love and that–even though it’s incomplete, even though you want it to change–satisfies you.

What can we do?
Concretely, you can’t do much. With regard to Syria, you can give financial support to the select organizations that have managed to continue their work. For those who have faith, however, certainly pray. And one other thing: I think it’s important to talk about it. Media plays a very important role today. After the first reports in the newspapers, after the first few weeks, everyone stopped talking about [the violence]. As if it didn’t exist. These days, what’s real is dictated by what’s in the newspapers, not by what happens. We need to get the media to understand that what’s happening is real. Even if they don’t write about it. It’s important, then, to talk about [the crisis], from the media to the political scene, to the international community. Still, the constant sense that people have is one of powerlessness.

What relationships are there with other Christian communities?
In the Middle East, as you know, relations between Christian communities have not always been ideal. However, Pope Francis uses this expression, “an ecumenism of blood.” These barbarians, when they murder Christians, don’t distinguish a Catholic from an Orthodox; they kill them because they are Christian. This has helped the Churches to associate with one another. They come together much more easily, they try to work together as much as they can. The brother I spoke about earlier was left alone. In that area, his is the only Catholic village–all the others are Orthodox–but he goes to celebrate Mass even there, because they ask him: come bury our dead, come do baptisms, come celebrate the Mass. In war, no one cares if you’re Catholic or Orthodox. The war has broken down a lot of barriers.

What keeps them getting up out of bed every morning and doing daily tasks, knowing that it’s not likely that they will finish what they’re planning? Then, what can help us, who are comfortable, to live out the faith?
I’ll answer both questions together. Everything comes through experience. No matter what it is. The faith that you received as a child is not a lived faith until it becomes an experience of life for you. It sits there as something that’s perhaps beautiful, but never becomes an experience that touches you at the depths of your being, that overtakes you. This is true for everything. For you who are here, as well as for us who are there. In comfort or in war, in good times or bad, what gives you strength–strength comes from within–doesn’t come from other people. Certainly, the circumstances of those who give their lives for the Lord are rare, unique; but what matters, in any circumstance, is experience. Your life changes, so long as faith has sunk down into your experience, if it doesn’t stay at the level of an idea, something abstract that you don’t assimilate and that doesn’t “bother” you–in other words, if it doesn’t push you out of yourself. It’s the same for us and for you: you know things won’t change all that much, but you feel the desire to live. That desire prevails over everything. And then, who said that things won’t change? Maybe I can’t change the course of the war in Syria, but I will change that little that I can do: I will have something to cook for that woman who ran out of gas, or that family that has nothing left to eat. Something changes. There is no circumstance that can keep me from living my life in its fullness. Circumstances can get in my way, I can even be in prison without seeing anyone, but they can’t take away the desire to dream. There is always that something inside of you that no one can take away. That is, if you have it inside of you. This comes from experience, it’s something inside of you that helps you to look at everything outside of you with a gaze that isn’t already dead. Someone who has quit dreaming, who has quit looking and believing that they can do something, is dead inside. As long as you are alive inside, nothing can stop you.