Father Francesco Patton.

Vatican Custodian of the Holy Places in Israel: "When you mix religion and politics, it’s always dangerous"

Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land and Guardian of Mount Zion and a senior figure in the Catholic Church, gave a rare interview to Calcalist about his concerns regarding the increasing harassment and attacks towards Christians in Israel

In recent times, the Christian community in Israel has faced a disturbing surge in harassment and attacks. These incidents include the defacement of a monastery in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter, where the chilling message "Death to Christians" was spray-painted on its walls. Moreover, a Maronite monastery in Ma'alot experienced an act of vandalism, and another in Migdal HaEmek endured a barrage of stones thrown at it.
These disconcerting events are just a glimpse of the hostility directed towards the Christian community since the start of the year. Shockingly, this troubling trend isn't confined to Israel alone; it's part of a global phenomenon. Instances of such hostility have emerged in regions spanning Europe, the United States, and even Latin America.
Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land and Guardian of Mount Zion, usually refrains from giving interviews. However, from his residence near the New Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, Father Patton, originally from Trento, Italy, spoke to Calcalist to express his deep concern about the escalating violence in Israeli society since the new government took office.
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האב פרנצ'סקו פאטון
האב פרנצ'סקו פאטון
Father Francesco Patton.
(Credit: Alex Kolomoiski)
When you arrived in Jerusalem in 2016 what did you think your biggest challenge would be?
"My service is particularly related to the care of the Holy Sites of Christianity. For us, the Franciscan friars, this is a very important task entrusted to us by the Vatican since 1342. Another important issue for me was supporting the local Christian community. The local Christians are relatively few; there are about 200,000 in Israel and Palestine, and there are thousands of migrant workers who we are also responsible for. I expected to have an opportunity to bridge different religions and cultures."
These reconciliation efforts, Father Patton explains, take place at the Custodian's offices at the Monastery of St Saviour, a 16th-century Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem, where Christians and Muslims study together. The Custodian also organizes joint events for Jews and Christians, such as in Ein Karem.
He emphasizes the importance of education in combating violence and building a thriving and sustainable society. "Countries must overcome crises throughout their history, but not by pitting people against each other," he emphasizes. "We need to help people hold onto the same hope, the same vision. We need to find a way for people from different cultures and lifestyles to accept each other and avoid resorting to violence as a legitimate tool. Such things characterized past societies, but in a modern, multicultural, and multi-religious society, it is essential to instill this in schools and families."
In your first years in this role, did you experience violence like what we are now witnessing?
"In the seven years I've been here, I've seen an increase in the use of violent rhetoric, not only in civil society but also in the political arena. That is very dangerous because if leaders use violent language, their followers will also use it."
What is the reason for this escalation?
"The escalation is a product of a political need to create coalitions to maintain power, a goal for which you keep as many people as possible on your side. In this case, if there are violent people, you also form alliances with violent people. It is dangerous. Two years ago, during the Bennett-Lapid government, they began to explicitly say that there is a need to reduce violent language in the political sphere. I very much agree with that. It is essential to start with language because it reflects what is inside people. In the Bible, we read that speech comes from the murmurs of the heart, so what is in the heart will also be present in speech."
Do prospective pilgrims consult with you about whether to come here? Are they waiting for the government to change?
"Mostly, tourists from Italy, Spain, Latin America, and the United States inquire about safety here. We usually try to assure them that there is no danger to pilgrims here. However, of course, when they see acts of violence, they become apprehensive."
Do they cancel their trips?
"Some cancel, but generally, we manage to convince them that despite all of this, it is possible to make a pilgrimage safely. They are mostly angry. When they see the desecration of a holy place, it touches their deepest emotions and beliefs."
The documentation of these events, Father Patton says, whether it's spitting at nuns, desecration of holy sites, or attempts to take over Christian locations, spreads within the Christian world within minutes. "I received many emails from the United States with requests for articles dealing with the rise in violence against Christians," he says. "At the beginning of the year, especially between late January and early February, there was tension and there were several incidents: the desecration of a Maronite monastery in Ma'alot, the desecration of a Protestant cemetery in Jerusalem, slogans saying 'Death to Christians' at an Armenian monastery, incidents here at the New Gate, and the defilement of the statue of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre."
The defilement of the statue was done by an American Jewish tourist, but Father Patton emphasizes that such vandalism would not have been possible without the current toxic atmosphere in Israel. "When he did this, he accused us of worshiping idols. He defiled the statue with a hammer," Father Patton recounts. "Throughout the year, there were many incidents of this nature, including recently in Migdal HaEmek. For two nights, young people threw large stones at a church. Eventually, the police arrived, and we filed an official complaint, and I believe they arrested two young people. These were stones that could have killed someone.
"In the case of the desecration of the statue, we also received a lot of support. Local Jewish organizations came to the church, brought flowers, and there was also an initiative to document all acts of violence against Christians and holy places. So, we understand well that these acts do not represent the Jewish people. They represent certain groups, but these groups, in a certain sense, represent a trend, and that is dangerous."
Can you distinguish between the groups? Who is responsible for the most violent acts?
"Violence flourishes especially in an environment where there is a combination of religious and nationalist fundamentalism. When you mix religion and politics, it is always dangerous. We have seen throughout history that it is very dangerous when religious and political extremism go hand in hand. One of the best examples of this is Iran. We must always educate for the alternative approach."
Could we become like Iran?
"I hope not. But it is very important to maintain a separation between the political and religious dimensions. It is crucial to avoid using religious sentiment to fuel political conflicts."
Is the problem localized in a specific area, or is it widespread in Israel?
"I can say that it is easier for this phenomenon to occur in Jerusalem. Spitting, for example, towards nuns."
Why is it easier in Jerusalem?
"Because there are many people who, in my opinion, are not properly educated. They do not understand that all human beings are created in the image of God - not just certain individuals. It is essential to understand, as we read at the beginning of the Bible, that the image of God exists in all human beings. I must give respect to all human beings, regardless of race, religion, status, skin color, political beliefs, etc.
“For me, [education] is my true religious mission. I am a Franciscan. For us, brotherhood is a fundamental value. God has no favorite children or lesser children - only children. For me, the children of all religions are my brothers in the same way."
Would it be possible to educate civil society under a different government?
"It is very important to include civics education in the curriculum. That is, to educate people to live in coexistence because there is no other way. This is essential everywhere. Even in Europe today, there is a strong movement against migrants. At the same time, in Poland, they have taken in 3 million refugees from Ukraine, and in Italy, we receive over 100,000 people a year who come from Africa at great personal risk. The government's role is to manage the situation, but at times, to emphasize the importance of human dignity. If society is multinational, multicultural, and multi-religious, it is even more vital to educate for mutual acceptance.
“It is crucial that a Christian understands, for example, what it means to be Jewish or Muslim, and the same is true for Muslims and Jews. It is important to get to know the other - this is the first stage. The second stage is trying to cooperate. There are so many things on which we can agree. For example, in sports, we do not consider skin color, religion, or culture. The Israeli national football team, which has recently achieved great success, is a mixed team, with Jews and Muslims playing together. In music, it is the same - in art, you focus on harmony, not differences."
Is Israel, in your opinion, a violent society?
"I think that in Israeli society, there are violent groups, of course. In recent years, the situation has worsened. In the past, there were other phenomena like intifadas, etc., but there could be a different approach now. Violence is the result of fear and anger towards others. I’ve seen in my own country that when political organizations want to gain easy popularity, they immediately express opposition to migrants."
If you could sit down with our Prime Minister, what advice would you give him? What message would you convey to him?
"When you have the responsibility of leading a country, it's important to listen to all sides. You cannot just listen to half of the nation, but to everyone. And it's very important to think about the common good, above personal interests. For me, education should be the top priority for any government. Everything depends on education, including the economy. There is no good economy in a country without good schools and good education."
Among all the harassment experienced by the Christian community in recent months, was there anything that particularly shocked you?
"I was shocked by the fact that so many Christian communities became targets in such a short period of time; Lutherans, Maronites, Armenians, Greek Orthodox - all of us became targets."
How are you preparing practically for the current wave of violence?
"We are trying to explain our experience. We met with the heads of the police here in Jerusalem to ask them to address the violent events. They acknowledged that intervention is essential and have started to intervene, but I hope it becomes a policy. We are not asking for special action or status, we just want the law to be enforced. It's crucial that acts of violence are recognized as such and are dealt with accordingly. We have also started to raise awareness of these incidents with the media, which has led to changes and wider awareness."
Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews have been protesting every Saturday night for the past nine months. What are your thoughts on the protest movement?
"It's a positive sign of a democratic approach to solving local problems and evidence that the Israeli public wants to achieve its goals through peaceful means. I appreciate that."
Some members of the government have labeled the protesters as anarchists.
"It's the complete opposite. When you impose your views through violence, it's not democratic. When you try to make your voice heard through peaceful means - that's the way of democracy."
Does this give you hope that the crisis will be resolved?
"It gives me hope that there is social awareness in Israeli society, and that's important. The argument that is often used, that a democratic vote is enough to enforce an idea, is not truly democratic. All of the dictators throughout the 20th century came to power using the democratic vote. Typically, in a democratic country, there is a clear separation of powers between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. In different countries, there is a constitution designed to prevent a situation where, through democratic voting, a country becomes undemocratic. You don't have a constitution, but you have a mechanism designed to ensure that separation. In countries without democracy, dissent is suppressed through violence, like in Iran today. Some years ago, we saw it in China, in Tiananmen Square. It was the same in Belarus. In these countries, when it comes time to vote, they vote."
Patton emphasizes the significant damage being done to Israel's reputation, as he hears from diplomats, politicians, and the media. The major danger, he emphasizes, is the fueling of anti-Semitism. "The image of the vandalized statue of Jesus has been published worldwide. I saw articles from the USA, Spain, Italy, and other Western countries. Within days, this image was all over the world. The short video that documented the spitting on the nuns gives a negative image of Israel, but it's also something that can fuel anti-Semitism, and that's very dangerous. We need to fight against anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. The negative messages coming from the government resonate within society, spread worldwide, and contribute to the strengthening of anti-Semitism."
So, we are trapped in a vicious cycle of violence.
"Violence is always a boomerang. In the Book of Genesis, one of Cain's descendants, Lamech, says, 'If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.' In other words, when you start using violence, violence begets violence. To stop violence, you need the courage and strength of ordinary people because the strongest people are not the violent ones, but those who refuse to use violence. It's easy to talk when you’re wielding a gun."
Are you concerned about Israel's future?
"I am concerned on the one hand, and on the other hand, I have hope. I am concerned when I see leaders acting violently and using violent rhetoric. I have hope when I see many people expressing their views through peaceful means. It's the first time in Israel's history that so many people, over a long period, have gone out into the streets just to express their opinions through peaceful means. In my country, it would be impossible to continue like this, going out every week for months in the rain and heat. It's amazing."