Catholic official worried about Israel attacks

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 2:35 a.m. MDT

He pointed to the recent uproar in the Muslim world over a movie that mocked the Prophet Muhammad as an example of how explosive and hurtful religious hatred can be.

Pizzaballa's words carry extra weight because of his strong ties with Israel. Pizzaballa, 47, has lived in the country for two decades, speaks Hebrew and has been a faculty member at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is scheduled to complete his term as custos next year.

Jews and Catholics have had a fraught relationship over the centuries. It was only in 1965 that the Vatican rejected the long-held charge that the Jewish people were responsible for killing Jesus. The actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II still remain a sensitive diplomatic issue between Israel and the Vatican. Critics have long contended that Pius could have done more to stop the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. The Vatican says Pius used quiet diplomacy to save Jews.

Israel and the Vatican have made inroads in recent years. The late Pope John Paul II established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1994, and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has promoted interfaith dialogue.

Pizzaballa acknowledged the difficult past but said Israelis have little understanding about modern Christianity or "the reality of the Christians in the country."

While Christianity was born in the Holy Land, Christians' situation here is fragile. In Israel, the number of Christian citizens has remained about the same for 20 years, with the influx of Russian immigrants balancing out some emigration by Arab Christians.

The West Bank has seen its Christian population dwindle over the years to roughly 50,000 people today, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration in search of a better quality of life. Just one third of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ, is Christian today, down from 75 percent half a century ago.

In the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, the situation is even more precarious.

Fewer than 3,000 Christians live among 1.7 million Muslim residents, and their numbers have rapidly shrunk in recent years because of turmoil in the territory.

A Christian activist — who ran Gaza's only Christian bookstore — was stabbed to death after Hamas took power in 2007. The killer was never found. In recent years, several Christian institutions were attacked by suspected Muslim hardliners. In at least two cases, including the torching of the local YMCA, assailants were caught and sentenced to prison.

Pizzaballa said Hamas has ensured that local Christians can worship freely, but nonetheless the environment is uncomfortable.

"You feel the pressure in the society and the life of the Islamic regime," he said.

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