Situation of Catholics
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Cardinal John Foley, the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, about the recent Synod for Bishops of the Middle East concerning the situation of Catholics there.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – You were involved in the works of the last Synod for Bishops of the Middle East in a special way as the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and at the same time as the president of the information committee of the Synod. What can we say about the situation of the followers of Christ in this part of Asia where Christianity was born, analysing the speeches of the bishops?
Cardinal John Foley: – The situation of Christians in the Middle East is very hard. Christians are not accepted and are openly persecuted. And these are their family lands – some have lived there for two thousand years. This is the case in Iraq where Christians arrived before Muslims. The terrorist attack in the church in Baghdad, which happened just after the completion of the synodal works, illustrates best the dramatic fate of Christians. Fortunately, the situation in other countries is slightly better, for example in Syria and Jordan where the Iraqi refugees are accepted (however, their lives are not easy because they are allowed to work). The present wave of refugees is the next one in the history of the Middle East. In Lebanon I visited the camps of refugees of 1948 and 1967, who escaped from Israel during the former conflicts. The Christians’ problems are connected with the fact that everywhere – apart from Lebanon – they are minorities, minorities living among Muslims or Jews.
– Do you think that the Synod did its best to make the public opinion sensitive to the dramatic fate of Christians in the Middle East?
– I think and hope that it did. Unfortunately, in the West there are many people who know nothing about the existence of Christians in the Middle East since they associate it only with Islam.
– Ignoring the fact that it is the land of Jesus and early Christian communities, in a word – Holy Land…
– Exactly. That’s why we must remind all people of the existence of Christians in the Middle East as well as speak about their problems and needs.
– You have mentioned the needs of the local communities. What do the Catholics of the Middle East ask their brothers in faith about?
– First of all, they ask them to exert influence on the governments of our countries so that they demand respect for their rights and religious freedom. In a word, we should make governments sensitive to the problems of Christian minorities. Secondly, they are expecting financial help since they have problems fining jobs and they want to educate their children properly. However, our help can often let they survive. Catholics can help through special organisations, such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) or the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.
– You are the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem that originated in the land of Jesus and has been connected with the Holy Land. How do the members of the Order help Christians in the Middle East?
– The roots of our Order are in the Holy Land. It was created there in the 12th century. Therefore, we have been connected with the Churches of the Middle East in a special way. Since 2000 we have collected over 50 million dollars. As the number of our members grow constantly our offers also grow. That’s why this year, despite the economic crisis, we have collected 10 million dollars. Our financial help goes mainly to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which cares for Catholics in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus. We have also supported financially the organisers of the visits of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land and Cyprus.
I want to stress that we also help Orthodox Christians. People especially appreciate our educational efforts. I talked to the high officials of the three governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Autonomy, and they all agreed that the Catholic schools that were open to all pupils played crucial roles – they teach mutual understanding and respect for others and thus they contribute to building peace.
– How can the Polish Knights and Ladies help Christians in the Middle East?
– Pilgrimages to the Holy Land are very important forms as they let us experience the episodes of Jesus Christ’s life anew but at the same time they are signs of solidarity with the local Christians.
I have already mentioned that every country should exert pressure on their governments so that they show concern for respect for the natural rights of Christians in the Middle East. But first of all, we all should work for the cause of peace between the Israelites and the Palestinians since the cause of many problems in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think that the origin and development of the Islamic extremism results from the lack of solution of this conflict. It seems to me that the only way to solve the conflict is to create two states with fair borders. It is not easy, first of all because of the existence of Israeli colonies in the territories of the West Bank where the Palestinian state was to be created.
– Some synodal fathers criticised Israel for their actions to force their citizens to take an oath of fidelity to the State of Israel…
– The news about this proposal reached us at the very beginning of the Synod and that’s why some bishops treated this action of the Israeli authorities as a provocation. Any state should be neutral and the Israeli citizens confessing Islam or Christianity should not be forced to take an oath of fidelity to the Jewish State.
– The Italian MP Mario Mauro, former president of the European Parliament, proposed to use the economic negotiations between the European Union and Iraq and demand from Iraq guarantees of freedom for the Christian minorities. Is it a good idea?
– I think that every occasion is good to exert pressure on the Iraqi authorities to ensure rights for the local Christians – Iraq is their home; they have lived there for 2000 years.
Cardinal John P. Foley, American priest, the Head of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
John Patrick Foley was born in Darby, Pennsylvania (USA), in 1935, to a Catholic family of Irish background. He studied at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and then entered the local seminary (St. Charles Borromeo Seminary). On 19 May 1962, he was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, later Cardinal John J. Krol. Fr Foley combined his priestly work with journalism – in 1963 he was appointed assistant to the director of the Catholic paper ‘Catholic Standard and Times’. He was sent to continue his studies in Rome. He still collaborated with the diocesan paper as its Roman correspondent. In 1965 he defended his doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas and the next year he studied journalism at Columbia University in New York. With time he became the director of ‘Catholic Standard and Times’ and collaborated with the local radio station. He was active in the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. When John Paul II was looking for a priest who could replace Archbishop Andrzej Maria Descur, who was sick, he chose Fr Foley. On 5 April 1984 the Pope appointed him the President of the Pontifical Commission (now Council) for Social Communications and raised him to the dignity of archbishop. On 8 May 1984 Cardinal Krol ordained him a bishop (Foley was 48 then). Archbishop Foley dealt with the media in the Vatican for over 20 years, until 27 June 2007 when Benedict XVI made him the Grand Master of Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and cardinal during the consistory on 24 November 2010.
I got to know Archbishop Foley 26 years ago when he began his work in the Vatican. He was a very open and friendly man. He had a special sympathy for Poles. He was a friend of Archbishop Krol, American priest of Polish background. And he respected the ‘Polish’ Pope and Cardinal Deskur with whom he collaborated closely. For the first time he visited our country in 1965 and then in 1972 with Cardinal Krol. He accompanied Cardinal Krol during the first visit of John Paul II to his Homeland in 1979. Afterwards he visited Poland many times as a Vatican official. As he told me that during his visits to Poland he understood that the real strength of Poles was their faith, thanks to which the Polish nation endured the partitions and overcame communism. That’s why the Polish identity is so much connected with Christianity. Once I heard Cardinal Foley’s very meaningful words, ‘I think that Poland remains Catholic and it will disappear’ (WR).