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MIDDLE EAST/ Christians are Litmus Test for Understanding Effects of Arab Spring

The Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, predicts the possible outcome of the Pope’s incoming visit to Lebanon and depicts the general situation in the Middle East

Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, Custos of the Holy Land. (photo: G. Caffulli) Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, Custos of the Holy Land. (photo: G. Caffulli)

Pope Benedict XVI travels to Lebanon September 14-16 to deliver the apostolic exhortation, or final summary document, of the 2010 Synod on the Middle East. But the visit comes at a particularly delicate time in the region with the conflict in Syria and ongoing tensions between Israel and Iran in particular. In this Sept. 4 interview with Terrasanta.net, the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, predicts the possible outcome of the visit, the current situation in Lebanon, and why the effects of the conflict in Syria extend into the wider Middle East.

Is it safe and wise for the Pope to travel to the region at this time?

The Pope's trip is absolutely safe and does not pose any problems. All the different factions and movements see the Pope's visit with a positive attitude.

How important is it for the region that the Pope's visit and deliver the apostolic exhortation at this time?

I do not believe that the apostolic exhortation will effect immediate change. Like all documents, it will have its effect over time, little by little. There are documents, such as those from the Synod [on the Middle East in 2010], that bring their contribution slowly, as people become more aware of them, especially priests. The visit will still have a major impact on public opinion and in the media covering the visit: it will help create a more attitude towards Christians and the Church.

John Paul II called Lebanon a "message" of plurality and coexistence, but how true is this today?

As in all things, especially in the Middle East, it's never all black or all white. Lebanon has always been a small and complete model of the Middle East, although it has now changed very much. One cannot deny there are problems, dramatically shown in politics with its divisions, which seem to paralyze the country. You have to look at life in the area. This is very different and not so negative. It should, however, be said that the Lebanese Christian community is internally divided, making political dynamism difficult sometimes. In short, plurality and coexistence are factors still current in Lebanese life, sometimes lived peacefully, other times with tensions.

How much of a concern are the effects of the Arab Spring on Christians in the Middle East to you as Custos?