02 May Egypt, Syria and a New Presence in the Holy Land: Interview with the Minister General
Interview by GIUSEPPE CAFFULLI
Fr. Michael A. Perry, Minister General of the Friars Minor was in Lebanon and Syria from 4 to 7 April, visiting the Franciscan fraternities in those countries and the local Christian communities. The Order of Friars Minor, of which the Custody of the Holy Land is a part, follows the development of the Syrian crisis with particular apprehension, as it has great effects on the fate of the region’s Christians.
On his return from Syria, together with the Ministers General of the Franciscan family (Friars Minor Conventual, Capuchins and Third Order Regular) Fr. Perry was received by Pope Francis. The topics discussed at the meeting included the imminent visit by the Holy Father to Egypt (28 and 29 April), just a few days after the bloody attacks that sowed death (43 dead and more than 100 casualties) in the two attacks in Tanta and Alexandria.
«The Pope is convinced more than ever of travelling to Egypt, – explains Fr. Michael -. He wants to be close to the Christians at this particular time. He is convinced of the need for this visit, also as a sign of closeness and solidarity on the part of the Catholic Church towards the whole of Egyptian society, because everyone has been affected by the violence. I know that the friars in Egypt are also greatly tried spiritually and psychologically by the event. It was a shock for everyone. Pope Francis asked the whole of the Franciscan family to pray not only for the outcome of his visit, but also for all the needs of the Christians and of the Egyptian people. The Pope is worried about the violence going on every single day in the Middle East. He has told us that it is the time for Christians to stay united and to come together in prayer for the whole Church. He repeated the importance of his visit at this time to express his closeness and to encourage Christians not to lose the faith and hope in the capacity of men to find new paths to say no to war and violence and recover the dignity of every human being».
Egypt was the place of the historic meeting between St Francis and the Sultan Malik al-Kāmil. And this year marks 800 years of the presence of Franciscans in the Holy Land…
Of course, 1217 was the year of the foundation of the Overseas Province, which marks the start of the presence of the Friars Minor in the Middle East.
In the autumn, together with the vicar of the Order, I will go to the Holy Land for three days to take part in a celebration and a conference in commemoration of that event, which is at the origins of our missionary vocation. The second step is the memory of 1219-20, with the visit of St Francis to Egypt, Damietta. Our International Commission for Dialogue has already been working for six months on a programme. We do not want to hold an isolated celebration, only in Rome or only in Damietta. We want to involve the whole of the Franciscan family in a common project, which gives the meaning of that event. It must not be a look back at the past, but a moment that can help us look ahead. Essentially, we have to start again from the teaching of Damietta: our vocation for dialogue.
A topic that is certainly very close to the heart of Pope Francis…
We have informed the Pope of these projects of ours and he remarked on this specific Franciscan vocation. We wonder whether, in view of the double anniversary of 1217-1219, he may not want to write something on this, especially addressing the Custody of the Holy Land. In speaking about his imminent visit to Egypt, as the Franciscan family, we asked him to emphaize this dimension of the meeting in memory of the visit by Francis to the Sultan of Egypt.
You will certainly have spoken to the Holy Father at length about Syria as well.
It could not have been otherwise, I made the visit to Syria together with the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton and the Minister of the St Paul Region Fr. Rachid Mistrih. We left from Beirut, where we had the chance to meet the friars and see what they are doing for the Iraqi and Syrian refugees, who number well over one million. We spoke to the nuncio in Lebanon, Mons. Gabriele Giordano Caccia, with whom we also discussed the situation in the area.
Then from Beirut we went to Damascus, where we met the friars of our two communities and parishes. We saw the marvellous service that they are doing. I am really amazed by their commitment and the service they do, in dialogue with the Christians of all the Churches. Then there is the service for the Muslim families: food, water, healthcare. It is not only material assistance: for everyone there is a spiritual space, for listening and welcome, so very necessary in that context of violence.
How did you find the situation in Damascus?
Every 20 minutes, day and night, we heard explosions very close by… It is a sign that unfortunately the war continues and that people are living constantly in insecurity. There is a psychologically very difficult climate. I admire the courage and the determination of the Christians who do not want to leave their country. This is a strong Christian testimony.
Then we took the road for Homs, to reach Aleppo. We crossed the country, village after village, in total destruction.
It appears that there is no longer any fighting in the city, but according to the humanitarian agencies, a large part of the population do not have basic necessities…
In Aleppo the situation is shocking. In my lifetime I have visited other war zones, especially in Africa, but what I saw in Aleppo exceeds anything you can imagine. I have never seen anything like it. The eastern part is completely destroyed and empty. Streets, houses, buildings: everything has been destroyed and razed to the ground. Many people are in serious difficulty: the elementary things are lacking: water, food, fuel. In this, the Latin parish tries to offer help, as far as possible.
How did you find the Friars Minor that have remained in Syria?
Both in Damascus and Aleppo I found friars with a great faith. I wanted to spend time with them to listen to and understand the burdens they carry on their shoulders. The spiritual burden and the psychological weight of a war which has lasted for six years and which does not seem to have an end. I was able to see that the friars are united, they pray together and work together, although they are tired and worn out by the situation and the daily urgencies. This is already a great testimony of hope, a visible sign that it is possible to build up brotherhood between men. Then I listened to the local Christians, who spoke to us of the presence of the friars in their midst like real men of God, people capable of love and welcome. Thanks to this spiritual aid, many have been able to withstand great ordeals and suffering.
What does Syria mainly need today?
The first urgency is that the violence has to stop and safe spaces are created for the people. Then a more lasting political solution has to be found. There are too many tensions at several levels, inside Syria and outside Syria.
As Franciscans, we are trying to apply pressure at international level so that the UN makes a decision and takes on the Syrian situation. The people cannot wait any longer. I think I will go in the next few days to the Secretary of State’s office in the Vatican to communicate what I saw and what the friars and the representatives of the local Churches told me. I think these are elements that can help to stimulate the parties at stake in an effective search for peace – which is what Syria needs the most.
In these years of war, hearing the humanitarian organizations, crimes have been carried out against civilians by both sides… There is undoubtedly a responsibility of the Christians and of the men of the Church in relation to the truth.
I think that on the part of the local Christians there is a real thirst for the truth. But in this climate confusion in the country –Islamic State, Turkey, Russia, Iran, loyalists, rebels, mercenary jihadists and Kurds – the truth has a hard job of making a way ahead, obscured by the interests at stake. The tension is high and it is difficult for those in the country to have a precise picture. But in any case the truth will have to come out. We have to listen to the witnesses who live in Syria or who have left the country and who have seen the horror of this war. Procedures will also be needed to understand what happened; who and how committed war crimes. In this sense, the International Court of Justice will have to take steps.
What is most important today is stopping the violence and reconstructing a minimum of security in the country. A real truce, not a time to let them rearm themselves but a space to create the conditions of dialogue.
Before Christmas, together with the Custos, an official appeal was made by the Order for peace in Syria. Are you thinking of repeating this initiative?
We had a great reaction in various parts of the world, from the Christian Churches of the various confessions. The appeal was also taken to the UN Security Council. We received hundreds of emails from religious communities that took out appeal for peace seriously and made a commitment, first of all with prayer. Returning from this trip, however, we have given ourselves a period of reflection, to see what can be useful at the present time. And to see which message to share with the world.
Regarding sharing and testimony, there is the project of a new presence in the Holy Land.
Yes. The various initiatives under study by the Franciscan families – I can mention for example the process of unification in the management of the Antonianum Pontifical University of Rome, include the now imminent birth of an inter-obediential fraternity in the Holy Land. Between September and October, some Friars Minor and Friars Conventual will start this new community, which will be based in Emmaus. There as well, in a context of particular tension and difficulty such as the occupied Palestinian territories, as Franciscan friars we want to put ourselves at the service of the poorest in a dimension of listening, to offer above all a testimony of unity and fraternity.