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Interview with the Minister General

Posted on June 6, 2017 in Articles

Egypt, Syria and a New Presence in the Holy Land

Interview by Giuseppe Caffulli

Franciscan Father Michael A. Perry, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, OFM, was in Lebanon and Syria in April, visiting the Franciscans and the local Christian communities. On his return from Syria, Pope Francis received Father Michael.

Pope Francis, who recently traveled to Egypt, said that it is the time for Christians to stay united and to come together. He encouraged Christians to hope in the capacity 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 in Damietta, Egypt between St. Francis and the Sultan Malik al-Kamil. And this year marks 800 years of the presence of Franciscans in the Holy Land.
Yes, 1217 marks the start of the presence of the Friars Minor in the Middle East. Our International Commission for Dialogue has been working for six months on a program. We want to involve the whole Franciscan family in a common project. It must not be a look back at the past, but a moment to 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 and he remarked on this specific Franciscan vocation. In view of the double anniversary of 1217-1219, he may want to write something addressing the Custody of the Holy Land. In speaking about his imminent visit to Egypt, we asked him to emphasize this dimension of the meeting in memory of the visit by Francis to the Sultan of Egypt.

You certainly have spoken to the Holy Father at length about Syria.
It could not have been otherwise. I made the visit to Syria with the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Francesco Patton, and the Minister of the St. Paul Region, Father 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 also spoke to the nuncio in Lebanon, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia.

Then from Beirut, we went to Damascus, where we met the friars of our two communities and parishes. We saw the marvelous service that they are doing. I am really amazed by their commitment and the service, in dialogue with the Christians of all the churches. Then there is the service for the Muslim families: food, water, health care. 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 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 does 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 are the friars that have remained in Syria?
In both Damascus and Aleppo I wanted to spend time with the friars and 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 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 daily situation. 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 need today?
The first urgency is that the violence has to stop and safe spaces for the people need to be created. Then, a more lasting political solution has to be found. There are too many tensions inside Syria and outside Syria.

As Franciscans, we are trying to apply pressure at the international level so that the UN takes on the Syrian situation. The people cannot wait any longer. In the next few days I will go 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 elements can help to stimulate an effective search for peace – which is what Syria needs the most.

In these years of war, crimes have been carried out against civilians by both sides. There is undoubtedly a responsibility of the Christians and of the Church in relation to the truth.
On the part of the local Christians, there is a real thirst for the truth. But in this climate of confusion in the country – Islamic State, Turkey, Russia, Iran, loyalists, rebels, mercenary jihadists and Kurds  – the truth is obscured by the interests at stake. Tension is high and it is difficult for those in the country to have a precise picture. But 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 committed war crimes and how. 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, is needed. I am thinking of a space to create the conditions of dialogue.

Before Christmas, together with the Custos, an official appeal was made by the Holy Land Franciscans, 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. The appeal was also taken to the UN Security Council. We received hundreds of emails from religious communities that took our 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 now 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. There are various initiatives under study by the Franciscans. I can mention, for example, the 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, in a context of tension and difficulty in the occupied Palestinian territories, Franciscan friars 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.

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