Skip to content

Arab League ambassador: Patriarch Pizzaballa ‘not necessarily’ well received

An Arab League ambassador said this week that Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa has “not necessarily” been well-received by Arab Christians in the role that he has occupied since 2020.

“There are different opinions, but I think we would have preferred to have an Arab prelate,” said diplomat Malek Twal, the ambassador of the Arab League in Spain.

No photo description available.
Dr. Malek Eid Otalla Twal. public domain.

He told The Pillar that while Pizzaballa “tried at the very beginning” to serve as a mediator in the current conflict in the Middle East, his efforts were “without any concrete results.” 

Pizzaballa was appointed by Pope Francis as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem four years ago. The role, which serves Latin Rite Catholics in Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, had previously been held by Archbishop Fouad Twal, uncle of Malek Twal, who retired in 2016. 

Before his appointment as patriarch, Pizzaballa had spent years working in the Holy Land, including most recently as apostolic administrator of the patriarchate he currently heads.

Shortly after the mass-casualty terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7 last year, Pizzaballa made headlines by saying he was willing to take the place of Israeli hostages being held in Gaza by the Islamist group Hamas.

He has repeatedly called for a ceasefire since the conflict began, and has been praised among many Catholic and diplomatic observers for his efforts to secure regional peace. 

In recent months, Patriarch Pizzaballa has also been mentioned in some Catholic circles as a possibility to eventually succeed Pope Francis.

Twal, speaking with The Pillar this week during the Global Dialogue Forum held in Lisbon, Portugal, said he fears that “Gaza is becoming an unlivable place for 2.5 million people.” 

“In Gaza, I am worried about the future existence of the whole Palestinian population,” he said, stressing his view that Christians are not the only people to face a crisis in the area.

“The kind of difficulties that the Christians face in Gaza are equal to those of their Muslim brothers, so I would not distinguish them from the challenges faced by the whole Palestinian people, nor emphasize only the difficulties facing the Christian community specifically,” he said.

He added that the same is true in other parts of the Arab world.

“The emigration out of Iraq or out of Syria was not limited to the Christians. In their case it might be more visible, because they are a minority, but because of insecurity and war both Muslims and Christians were obliged to leave their countries, and some paid with their lives for seeking a better life.”

But despite Twal’s argument, the emigration of Christians from some Middle East countries has been stark.

In 2022, a U.S. State Department report flagged that the Christian population in Iraq had reportedly declined by 90% from its pre-2003 numbers, going from nearly 1.5 million Christians in the country to roughly 150,000, amid sharp persecution of Christians in the country.

And NGO Aid to the Church in Need estimates that the Christian population of Syria has reduced from 1.5 million in 2011 to less than 300,000 in 2022.

Leave a comment

Twal also voiced approval for the protests against the Israeli government’s military operations in Gaza, the most prominent of which have taken place on college campuses across the United States.

The protests have drawn significant criticism for their use of violence and damage to property. 

Twal said that in his view, the protestors are “wholeheartedly demonstrating and manifesting not only their feelings, but also their values: That war is not acceptable.” 

“I believe they are demonstrating to show their commitment to their principles and human values,” he said. 

Twal, who has served as ambassador of the Arab League in Spain since 2021, said that as a diplomat, he is still hopeful about the possibility of peace in the Holy Land — but suggested that Israel’s presence has sharpened conflict in the region.

“Christians and Muslims in Palestine have always lived in brotherhood and peace, and the same applied to Jews, before 1948 [when the modern state of Israel was established],” he said.

Twal said he has not faced obstacles because of his own Christian faith. 

Before becoming an ambassador, he said, he was selected by Jordan, a Muslim country, to advocate on behalf of Muslims at the United Nations.

“The Arab world is not composed only of Muslims,” he said.

“Within this huge community of 450 million people, in the 22 Arab states, there is a predominant majority of Muslims, but there are also important Christian and non-Christian minorities, and we are all Arabs. In Egypt you have the Copts, who are an important minority, in Lebanon Christians are in the majority, and in Jordan, Palestine and Syria we are, historically speaking, an important minority.” 

While Lebanon has the highest population proportion of Christians in the Middle East, they are not the majority: Christians constitute almost 40% of the population of Lebanon, while more than 60% of Lebanese people are Muslims.

Twal added that he does not worry about the future of Christians, specifically, in Arab countries. 

“Christians are very much attached to their homelands,” he said. “Christians have always played an important role in the construction of their countries, be it in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, or other parts of the Arab world.”

Rather, he said the ongoing conflict is a threat to humanity more broadly — and he pointed responsibility at Israel.

“You cannot attack a civilian population and cause so much death and destruction,” he said. 

Subscribe now

Comments 12