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Patriarch Pizzaballa: Appointment as cardinal strengthens Holy Land

Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, greets people after celebrating Easter Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, April 9, 2023. He was one of 21 new cardinals Pope Francis appointed July 9. (OSV News photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters)

(OSV News) — For Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, being elevated to the College of Cardinals is a sign of Pope Francis’ desire to strengthen the Middle East region — and Jerusalem in particular.

“We know that Pope Francis is very close to the peripheries and to trouble spots: We are both,” Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa told German Catholic news agency KNA on July 13 in the shrine of Deir Rafat in central Israel.

The Holy Land and Jerusalem are at “the heart of the problem of the Middle East as a whole,” he said. Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa sees the office of cardinal — which he will formally be elevated to on Sept. 30 — as “a sign of affection, friendship and love for this country and this church,” he told KNA.

The time is particularly difficult for Christians in the Holy Land, where attacks on Christians in Jerusalem are rapidly increasing, and police are reluctant to track down the perpetrators, most of whom are Jews.

Polish Sisters of St. Elizabeth run the pilgrim house located in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, populated mainly by Orthodox Jews.

“The sisters have never had an easy relationship with their neighbors, but recent weeks have brought a marked escalation of aggression. The inner yard behind the convent gate has been repeatedly pelted from the street with stones, eggs or spoiled fruit,” Franciscan Father Jerzy Kraj wrote in the Polish section of Vatican News.

Most recently, young aggressors broke into the sisters’ private property at night, smashed pots and destroyed the front door. Sister Roza Pacocha, the superior of the house, declared that the sisters, despite being harassed and intimidated, will persist faithfully in the mission entrusted to them, Vatican News reported.

Police said that two men have been detained for questioning on charges of vandalism and aggression against the private property of Jerusalem’s “Polish House”: “We take acts of aggression against institutions and religious sites very seriously,” Israeli police said in a statement, as quoted by Vatican News.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog condemned growing attacks against Christians in Israel on July 9, calling them “a true disgrace,” The Times of Israel reported.

“I utterly condemn violence, in all its forms, directed by a small and extreme group, towards the holy places of the Christian faith, and against Christian clergy in Israel,” Herzog said at a state memorial ceremony according to The Times of Israel.

“This includes spitting, and the desecration of graves and churches,” Herzog added, noting that the wave of violence has been on the rise “in the last weeks and months especially.”

“According to statistics we have received since the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline was established a month ago, we can say there is a spitting attack every day,” Yisca Harani, an independent researcher, lecturer and interfaith activist who initiated the conference named “Why Do (Some) Jews Spit on Gentiles,” told OSV News on June 16.

Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa and Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, have spoken out about the increasing incidents and lack of response from the current government. Elected last November, it is Israel’s most extreme right-wing and religious government in history.

On July 19, the abbot of Jerusalem’s German-speaking Benedictine Dormition Abbey, Nicodemus Schnabel, refused a request to cover his pectoral cross while visiting the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the most holy site for Jews in the world.
In a video clip distributed on Twitter, KNA reported, an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for the Jewish site, can be heard addressing Father Schnabel. She said she respected his religion, but the cross is “really big and inappropriate for this place.”
The clergyman objected and, according to eyewitnesses, left the site without covering his cross, KNA reported. He said the warden’s behavior did not show respect, but prevented him from exercising a human right. “I am an abbot, this is my dress,” Father Schnabel told the woman.
“Aggressions against Christians are not new. What is new is the frequency with which they happen — and the fact that they are almost a ‘normal’ phenomenon,” Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 13.
Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa recently expressed the need to also respect and protect the life and dignity of Palestinians during a July 10 visit to the Palestine city of Jenin, following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the city July 5.

“I see another face of resilience. I see people suffering, people experiencing the consequences of the occupation, but at the same time I see people who don’t want to leave, who don’t give up, who don’t let anyone break down their will to live with dignity in their homeland,” said the cardinal-designate in an interview with Franciscan Christian Media Center July 10, a day after being named a cardinal by Pope Francis.

On July 3, the Israeli military launched a major assault on the Jenin refugee camp located in the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin in a two-day operation that they said was meant to destroy militant infrastructure and weapons, cracking down on a hotbed of Palestinian militant activity. “At the height of pain. Our suffering has become normality,” residents told the patriarch during his visit.

Speaking to young Christians who had gathered in Deir Rafat at the invitation of the Patriarchate, Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa told KNA he did not yet know what the new title would mean for his life, as, after all, it was “the first time” it had been bestowed upon him.

He stressed he would continue his work for the church in the Holy Land in the same way, probably “with more responsibility.”

With Archbishop Pizzaballa’s appointment as cardinal, two members of the clergy from the Middle East will be represented in the circle of papal electors. In addition to Cardinal-designate Pizzaballa, Chaldean patriarch in Iraq, Cardinal Louis Sako, has been among the papal electors since 2018.

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