Margaret Karram © CSC Audiovisivi

Unconditional love

It is not forgetfulness but “looking reality in the face”. Even pain for her homeland. A dialogue on forgiveness with Margaret Karram, of Palestinian origin and the new president of the Focolare Movement. From the June issue of Tracce.
Alessandra Stoppa

"I believe that our world needs it more than ever. It is the key, for each of our lives and for society, if we want to live today's challenges, all challenges. If we want to solve our problems.” Margaret Karram talks about forgiveness in this dialogue with Tracce, in the days when her beloved land is once again in flames. Of Palestinian origin, she was born in Israel, in Haifa, Galilee. "My DNA is special: these two peoples exist within me.” Her own biography is full of wounds and forgiveness, and this has “stamped upon her soul” the certainty of what the only path is to build.

Since the first of February this year, she has been the third president of the Focolare, the ecclesial movement - founded in 1943 by Chiara Lubich, Servant of God - spread in 180 countries around the world with about two million members. Today she lives in Rocca di Papa, on the outskirts of Rome. When she talks about the rekindling of tensions between Israel and Palestine, she is moved, and her thoughts immediately go to Lubich: "Forgiveness", said Chiara, "is not forgetfulness".

You are an Arab Catholic Christian, who grew up in a Jewish context, in one of the most wounded places in the world...
My identity is special, being Palestinian and born in Israel. I have always had all the rights of citizens living there, but I have experienced exclusion and sometimes offence because I belong to a people that can be considered an enemy. Our home was on Mount Carmel: when I was a child – five or six years old – I played in the yard and there were also children from the neighbourhood who insulted us. It was very painful for me. I felt like reacting, but because of my parents' upbringing I did not do it. Once I felt so bad that I ran home crying: “I will never play with them again”. On that day, my mother told me: "Now dry your tears, go outside, call these children and invite them here.” Even though I was young, at that moment I felt that I had to "get over myself". I felt that something inside me was breaking. I did not understand how I could forgive them, but out of love for my mother, I said yes. I went out and called them. She was baking Arabic bread and gave each of them some to take home. Because of this small act, their parents wanted to meet our family, they came to say thank you, and from there a friendship slowly developed. This episode - a small gesture - taught me what is worth doing: if I had fought for my rights, I would have gained nothing. Thus I gained a friendship.

Where does forgiveness come from?
From mercy, from being loved in an extreme way. Forgiveness is the ultimate expression of charity. It is unconditional, it is extreme love because it has no measure. To be forgiven for me is to receive this love of God through my neighbour. And this mercy received opens up in me the desire to give it back. I think of when I lived in Jerusalem. I lived in a community of the Focolare, we were of various nationalities and a Jewish neighbour wanted to invite us to her home. We were talking to get to know each other and, after a while, the woman asked me where I was from: "I am Arab". She stood up and said: "I cannot welcome Arabs in my house". You can imagine how I felt. I thought: now I will get up and leave. But at that moment I realised that if I left I would never go "further".

And what did you do?
I remained silent for a while, then I told her: "Even though I am Arab, I would like to be friends with you". I told her that I studied Judaism for this reason, because if we do not get to know each other, we cannot build peace in our countries. I studied it so that I could love more. She melted. And she said to me: "This is the first time that an Arab person has come into my home, but your attitude helps me to think that, if you are here and you love, then maybe there are others like you who want to build peace". A beautiful relationship was born, for her it was like discovering something new in her city. Forgiveness touches us intimately. If we have a certain attitude, it is because each of us has suffered so much... But the thing that has helped me most over the years is Chiara's words.

Which ones?
Her commentary on the Gospel, from October 1981, on Jesus' words to Peter: "I do not say no to you seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Mt 18,22). What Chiara said has remained for me a beacon in my life, because there are situations in which you say "enough"... you feel injustice so strongly that you want to react, so that the other person understands that you have your dignity, that you want to be respected. Here, Chiara says: "Forgiveness is not forgetfulness, which often means not wanting to look reality in the face", and we had many realities to look at in the Holy Land. Even now, this conflict continues to be a cause of pain and death... Chiara continues: "Forgiveness is not weakness, a failure to take account of a wrong for fear of the stronger perpetrator. It does not consist in ignoring what is serious, or good what is bad. Nor is it indifference. Forgiveness is an act of will and lucidity and, therefore, of freedom. Forgiveness consists in accepting one's brother as he is, despite the evil he has done to us, just as God accepts us sinners despite our faults. It is living what St. Paul says: do not let evil overcome you, but overcome evil with good.” This is what forgiveness is for me: opening up and giving in to the possibility of a new relationship, of starting life anew.

How can this possibility, which is so personal, affect more complex reasoning, the conflicts that affect the world?
What my homeland has imprinted upon my soul is the certainty that change can only come from visual dialogue. It is the only thing that can build real peace, everywhere. Dialogue with the other person makes you discover that they are like you. When you stop talking, it is because you are afraid. But there is no other way. Now people talk about all the evil in the Holy Land, but they do not talk about all the good there is. I can testify to the extent to which dialogue between the two peoples brings about change.

For example?
I am thinking of Parent's Circle-Families Forum, a group of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost brothers, fathers, mothers and sons in recent years. More than 600 families have chosen to seek reconciliation. It is a long road, because it is not easy to rebuild certain relationships. But it is a path of courage and hope. As the Focolare community, together with an association that works on inter-religious dialogue, we have set up a project for boys and girls, aged 14 to 16, of the three religions. They live in different quarters, separated by checkpoints, go to different schools, get on different buses.... We gave them the chance to be together to get to know each other for a whole year. And they discovered, as one Palestinian boy said: “a Jew is human like me. He is not just a soldier..." When we went to ask the parents for permission, we met a lot of resistance. One father told me: "You are asking for my blood. I will never let any of my family take part.” I understood his deep sorrow and did not want to force it, because it has to be done freely. But then he joined the initiative, because he wanted to build a better future for his children.

Read also - Holy Land: forgiveness on the other side of the wall

What did meeting the Focolare change in you?
My parents went to Mass every day, and they also took us before school, because their relationship with Jesus was important to them. They witnessed to Him in everything. Then we studied with the Carmelite nuns, who made us fall in love with Jesus in an incredible way. But when I was 14 years old, some young people who had got to know the Focolare in Nazareth came to the school to invite us to a three-day meeting. I had never heard of the movement before. I went and was struck by the atmosphere. I did not understand the topics, but I hoped for great inner peace. I said to myself: “There is something here”. I later discovered that it was the presence of Jesus among people who loved each other: it was this prayer that gave me a greater love. So I wanted to know more about the charism. I wanted to give my life for my country, for justice, respect for human rights... I was an adolescent and I felt a strong desire to change. When I met Chiara I understood that this revolution was the Gospel: to love others as myself. And that is where my journey with the movement began, which is an adventure... Above all, I discovered that Chiara Lubich's charism was to live for unity, it was centred on that prayer of Jesus: “that all of them may be one”. And I wanted to give my life for this.

What does the new responsibility and living Chiara's charism mean for you today?
What I said to the Pope at our General Assembly on 6 February: “I do not feel that I am president of a great work of the Church. I feel myself to be a servant of the Church and at its service.” This is what I live with, knowing that it is God's work and that He is carrying it out. I want to return more and more to the source of what Chiara gave us, to the freshness of the charism, but I want us to incarnate it by responding to the cry of today, which we see all over the world, in so many ways. To be attentive, with eyes wide open, listening, with hearts open to welcome what God is calling us to now, attentive to how he is calling us to live the spirit of unity.