“We must not disappoint the christians here”

For a week, Vatican Ecumenical Minister Walter Kasper visited the Holy Land. He met with the Israeli president, representatives of all Christian churches, and representatives of Jewish organizations. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA) Thursday in Jerusalem, he commented on the situation of Christians, current problems with visas and ecumenism.

KNA: The situation of Christians in the Holy Land was the topic and concern of your trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. What is your impression after the meetings and talks?Kasper: Christians are a small but important minority in the Holy Land, present here since the beginnings of the Church, and today they want to play an important role for peace.And they can do that, especially since they have the world church behind them. Christians are remarkably active. I was very impressed by how many young Palestinians participated in the festive mass of "Mary – Patroness of Palestine" at the Deir Rafat Shrine on Sunday. That was a deeply moving experience for me.Of course, the Christians in the occupied territories, like their compatriots, are suffering from the current political conditions, unemployment, economic crisis, limited opportunities for movement. It is a bleak situation. The Church plays a very important role for many Christians in the Holy Land. We must not disappoint them, but make it clear to them that we stand up for them. I was surprised how, during my visit to the Catholic University of Bethlehem, the young people, women and men, Muslims and Christians of different denominations, were united in friendship with one another. This gives us hope for the future and for a better coexistence.KNA: For a year now, the Holy Land has been experiencing an influx of pilgrims and tourists, which brings foreign currency into the country and also benefits Christians.Kasper: I was very happy to see how many pilgrims there are at the moment. The Christians feel the visits of their confreres as a great support – economically as well as spiritually – which encourages them. Conversely, the encounter with the Holy Places also opens up a profound spiritual experience for the visitor. We can only hope that there will not be new setbacks, political or terrorist. That would immediately stop this positive development. One cannot deny, of course, that in addition to religious longing, tourist interests from many sides also play a role in the pilgrimage rush.KNA: Can the improved economic situation stop the exodus of Christians in the Holy Land??Kasper: The exodus is one of the very great concerns of the Pope and the Vatican – and should be for all Christians.Christians have lived here since the first century. And when we visit the Holy Places, we don't want to see dead stones, but we want to meet living communities. It can be stopped by improving the economic conditions in the Palestinian territories. But there must also be a political improvement with prospects for the future. We as a church and as Christians must help as much as we can. Much is happening through the Catholic school system. The Christians here maintain numerous schools of recognized quality.President Shimon Peres also confirmed to me once again that the Christian schools are the best ones.KNA: How was your first meeting with the new president? ?Kasper: The President made a very good impression on all of us. It is a president who is very matter-of-fact above the parties, who has a vision; a man who has become wise, who understands very quickly the problems. We have presented some of our problems to him, and he has expressed great understanding. He is not responsible for the administration, but he has promised to help us, especially in the difficult question of visas. And he ared – that was very important for me: Christians belong here; they are welcome. Jerusalem must be an open city for all religions, especially for the three monotheistic religions.KNA: You mentioned the problem of visas for clergy. It seemed to be solved in the meantime, but has broken out again.Kasper: For about a year, new restrictive regulations have been in force for the clergy, those of the Catholics as well as of other churches. Clergy from Arab countries recently stopped getting multiple-entry visas. After leaving Israel or the occupied territories, they have to restart the tedious procedure for re-entry. This creates enormous problems – especially since the Latin Patriarchate includes not only Israel and the Palestinian territories but also Jordan and Cyprus. And the local clergy of the Patriarchate also includes several priests from other Arab countries. In addition to the bureaucratic obstacles, there are the sometimes humiliating experiences that the clergy have at the checkpoints.Of course, we understand and respect Israel's need for security. But these are people for whom the Catholic Church as an institution is answerable. They are not assassins. Incidentally, Israel has guaranteed the Vatican support in the pastoral care of the communities in the basic treaty. This treaty was concluded in 1993, before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. Thus, the measures violate this basic treaty. We will try everything to persuade Israel to improve the situation.KNA: You had ecumenical contacts here. What were your meetings now in Jerusalem with the representatives of the other churches like??Kasper: Traditionally, ecumenical encounters in the Holy Land are not easy – just think of the disputes over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Nativity. This has changed decisively. I could now sit at the same table with representatives of the Old Orientals, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans to discuss upcoming problems together and openly. I was very encouraged by that. Apparently, the impression has now prevailed on all sides that Christians can only win or lose together in the current situation. Another aspect is that everyone expects a lot from Rome, from the Holy See – as a body that has the ability to speak for everyone. It is generally the line of the Holy See that we do not make politics for ourselves alone, but that we work for all Holy Land Christians.KNA: What are the chances of a papal visit??Kasper: The Holy Father is invited to the Holy Land, and he has a great desire to come here and meet the Christians. But as long as conditions are as tense as they are at the moment, that's not possible. Detente is also necessary in the visa question or in the still open negotiations between Israel and the Holy See. And of course, when the Pope comes here, he also wants to meet the Christians who live in the Palestinian territories. That is, they must have access to Jerusalem. Otherwise it cannot come, because that would be a great disappointment for the faithful. If these conditions are met, the Pope will certainly travel to the Holy Land, just as his predecessor did. But there is no date yet.Interview: Johannes Schidelko (KNA)

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