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from issue no. 06/07 - 2010

“The future belongs to God, there’s no point in worrying”

An interview with Monsignor Paul Youssef Matar, Archbishop of Beirut of the Maronites

Interview with Paul Youssef Matar by Davide Malacaria and Lorenzo Biondi

Archbishop Paul Youssef Matar was ordained priest in 1965 and in 1991 he was appointed Bishop of Tarsus of the Maronites, since 1996 he has been Archbishop of Beirut of the Maronites.

Archbishop Paul Youssef Matar <BR>[© Lorenzo Biondi]

Archbishop Paul Youssef Matar
[© Lorenzo Biondi]

Your country in the past has seen bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims. What is the situation now?
The history of the co-existence of Christians and Muslims in Lebanon is not just one of conflict, but of a life in common, of villages where Christians and Muslims have lived together since the birth of Islam. There have been disputes and they will continue to exist: there are conflicts within families, between father, mother and children. We know from the Gospel that children turn against their fathers and fathers against children, and that the redemption of the Lord will find a way to reconcile the generations. Something that will happen in our country also... In Lebanon there is an experience unknown in Europe. Among you Muslims are foreigners, while Christians are native to the place. Elsewhere, as in Saudi Arabia, Christians are foreigners and Muslims are at home. In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims are children of the same land. We are all at home, Christians and Muslims. We speak the same language, we have a common history, we have two different religions, but it is interesting to recall the history of how they mutually accepted each other. The difficulty is not in being together, but in governing: the conflicts are not religious but political. In Christian history there were the Crusades, in which the Christians wanted to impose themselves on the Muslims, just as at times in the past, the Muslims wanted to impose themselves on the Christians. There have been conflicts, but now we are trying to go beyond them and find ways of bearing together the responsibilities of power. We have written the first page, we hope to continue in that direction.
In your country Christians are ranked in two different parties, one in government and one with the opposition, both allied with Islamic parties...
In Italy some support the right, others the left, it’s the vitality of political life. It’s a good thing as long as nobody persecutes the Church. If there are different ideas, the essential thing is to accept and confront each other through elections. Unfortunately sometimes this mutual recognition has been forgotten: I’m thinking of what happened during the civil war. But there’s violence elsewhere also. The Germans are baptized Christians, yet they made war on Europe. And who was it that brought peace? Benedict XV... And I believe the current pope chose the name Benedict XVI for this reason: to remind Christian Europe of its responsibilities.
In recent years international events have been interpreted in the light of the ‘clash of civilizations’. What has that meant for the Christian Churches of the East?
We Christians of the East have suffered twice. We suffered because of the Crusades, in the reprisals after the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. And we have suffered from European and American imperialism, because the Muslims thought it was a Christian imperialism. The first French officer to have occupied Palestine exclaimed: “Saladin, we’re back”... We Eastern Christians are here to say that we are children of this land. We are the Eastern Churches, not the Trojan horse of the West. We have cultural and religious affinities with the West, but remain easterners. The Muslims are our brothers and together we are trying to solve the shared problems. If there is a ‘clash of civilizations’ it is a political ‘clash’, not religious. We must not ‘use’ religion, but strive to understand the religion of others. Islam does not invite crime and killing one’s neighbor, so much so that the Qur’an has many passages invoking mercy: we must enhance them and create a culture of mutual acceptance. It’s a task for the universities, public opinion... In reality, international history has gone in a different direction than that suggested by the ‘clash of civilizations’. The idea was of a world divided by nation and religion, but today the world is mixed. It’s a new world. And the Church in the third millennium, has not finished its task. I have the impression that if the first millennium was the time of the Church in the Middle East and Europe, the second millennium that of the Church in America and Africa, the third millennium may well be that of Asia, home to more than half of the world’s population. The Asia that does not know Christ, where Christians are a minority, but bear responsibilities. There is the China of the two Churches, the official one and underground one... However, the future belongs to God, there’s no point in worrying.
Palestine is facing a tragic situation...
It’s necessary to create two States, there’s no other solution. Israelis must accept to live with others. And as for that, it’s never been alone: since the time of King David there have been the Philistines and other peoples. A million Palestinians live in Israel, two or three million live in Gaza and the West Bank. I hope that the two peoples are ready for peace. At times the Arabs have not been ready: they aimed to drive the Israelis into the sea. At other times the Israelis have wanted to drive the Palestinians into the desert... The solution is for neither of the two peoples to drive off the other, but to manage to live together... Let’s hope...
Benedict XVI, especially in recent times, has been prodigal in conciliatory gestures towards Islam. Is his concern perceived in the Muslim world?
Undoubtedly. The most visible sign was the visit of the Saudi King to the Pope. The Saudi King is ‘the prince of believers’, the guardian of Mecca. Not just that: the Pope has sent a papal nuncio to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. Of course, priests have a difficult situation in Saudi Arabia, but work is being done to improve things, and we are waiting for the waters to become calmer. The difficulties of Muslims are not with the Pope, but with Christian politicians, who are Christians in name, but act against Christianity. Christianity takes people’s rights as a premiss... Think of the Palestinians, for example: their problem is unresolved and Muslims think that if the West were more determined everything would get resolved. I think there is a basic misunderstanding that needs dispelling: it isn’t Europe that’s Christian, Europe is a continent where some Christians live. Let’s hope that the Christians of the West also wake up to their responsibilities: if Western Christians do harm in these lands, it’s we who pay.
In October the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is to be held in Rome. What are your hopes?
We are hoping for some reflection on the part of the Eastern Churches, in particular on what their mission in the Middle East is, what their witness is. Christians in the East are a small number in the Muslim multitude. People sometimes say: we are the minority, why stay? Let’s go, to Europe or America. Or, if we stay, we run the risk of isolation. But our mission is to be the leaven in the dough, working for the whole of society. I hope that Christians understand, through the Synod, that the Lord asks them to bear in their hearts – even amid difficulties – the aspirations of Muslims: to work for the dignity and freedom of Muslims. I also hope that for Muslims the Synod will be an opportunity to recognize the Christian presence in the East as an asset. And understand that if Christians abandon the Middle East this will become a bit poorer humanly.

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