ROME — Archbishop Maroun Lahham has been taking a leading role in preparations for Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, May 24-26.
The Palestinian archbishop, vicar in Jordan for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said, “We’re looking forward to him talking to us about our faith. We expect some words of faith, affirming us in our faith.”
In this April 29 interview during a break at a conference given by the Acton Institute on religious and economic freedom, the Jordanian prelate tells the Register about his hopes for the papal visit as well as concerns over persecution of Christians and rapid emigration of Christian communities from the Middle East.
What are your hopes for the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land?
In Jordan, we’re looking forward to him talking to us about our faith. You know, we’re 3% of the population and have the psychology of the minority. When you’re the minority, you seek protection — this is the psychology of every minority. So when we have a big thing like the Pope visiting, we expect some words of faith, affirming us in our faith.
Meanwhile, in Palestine and in Israel, we’re expecting him to offer some words of peace and justice. He will also visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem.
Does his friendship, good relations and reputation among both Jews and Palestinians put him in a strong position to help bring about peace?
John Paul II also had this, but I think there’s no critical goodwill on the part of our political leaders to make peace. What is lacking is not a solution. It’s clear that, after 64 or 65 years of conflict, everyone says the only solution is to have two states for two peoples.
In Palestine, there’s a place, geographically speaking, which all the Christians and all the Palestinians of the world and all the Jews of the world can recognize, but there is no place in the heart for others. So there’s no political goodwill. The Pope will come for one day in Jordan, one day in Palestine and one day in Israel. He will not work miracles; the politicians are hardheaded.
Is the organization of the trip going well?
Oh yes, we have meetings every hour. We have a committee to prepare his visit to Jordan. We’ll have three key moments: He’ll visit the king [Abdullah II] at the palace, he’ll celebrate a Mass in the stadium, and then he’ll have an encounter with refugees, orphans and disabled people at Christ’s baptism site in Jordan.
Many speak about the dangers of persecution and how it is increasing. How much is this a growing concern in the Middle East?
I don’t think it’s right to make “persecution of Christians in the Middle East” into a big headline. It depends on the countries. For instance, in the Middle East, there’s Jordan, Syria before these current events [internal conflict], Palestine, Israel — there’s been no persecution of Christians [in these countries]. In Jordan, we live very freely. In Syria, they used to live freely, without any persecution. Lebanon is half Christian, half Muslim. In Iraq, there’s no persecution, literally speaking, but there is political instability, which means Christians, Muslims, Iraqis suffer. Perhaps the only place where you can talk of persecution, but with a small p, is Egypt, despite them having the largest number of Christians in the Arab world. One out of two Christians in the Arab world is Egyptian. Out of 15-20 million Arab Christians, about 10 million are Egyptians.
Some argue that Egyptian Christians are more discriminated against than persecuted. Would you agree with that?
It is discrimination, yes, more than persecution. But here is some persecution, now, in Syria, where Islamic fundamentalism is taking over. They cut heads off, and say, "You all become Muslim or we kill you" — that’s all persecution.
Has Pope Francis and the Church in general been strong enough in speaking up in defense of persecuted Christians in such places as Syria?
The Pope, yes. I think he spoke more than once about Syria, and he was very clear on that. In his Easter message, he said “our beloved Syria.” But you know, all popes always speak against war and call for peace. I remember what St. John Paul II said during the Iraq War: He begged them to make peace. But you know politicians only have their own plans, their own choices, so you can pray, ask and beg them, but if they want war … Remember, that, with Bush and Saddam, the day before the war, the Pope phoned both of them. It’s important to say that there are places where people are more persecuted than others in the Arab world; in Saudi Arabia, for example.
There is talk of having a prayer for persecuted Christians said at the end of every Sunday Mass. Would you agree with this?
Yes, but not for the persecuted; I would not use that word. I would say for the suffering Christians, because you can be suffering from something that is not literally persecution, and I don’t like this psychology of victimization: “They’re killing us — please help.” There are some instances. In Syria, we saw on YouTube how they cut off heads and played football with them. This really is persecution, but this is one case out of a million.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako of Baghdad said recently that Iraq’s dwindling Christian community faces “disaster,” and if no action is taken, they will number just a few thousand in a decade. He said the daily migration of Christians from Iraq was “terrifying.” How much is this a concern of yours?
It’s not the case in Jordan, but the exodus of Christians depends very much on the political situation. If there’s an exodus, it’s not because of religious persecution. In Palestine — I’m a Palestinian, by the way — Christians are leaving, but they’re not persecuted for being Christian. Muslims aren’t leaving because they’re Muslims; Jews aren’t leaving because they’re Jews. It’s because of political instability, and they prefer to leave in order to have a better life for their children. So when there is political stability, there is still emigration, but in normal proportions. In Jordan, it’s not a problem.
But you have lots of refugees?
Yes, that’s a problem. Lately, I heard that Jordan used to have 6.5 million inhabitants. Now it’s 9 million. Three million are not Jordanians, but Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians. This is another question, politically, socially, morally, economically. It’s a big issue.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.