An announcement on Sunday, on the appointment by Pope Francis of Pierbattista Pizzaballa as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, is a dramatic move with significant political implications for the Catholic Church. This is the first time in history that the role of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has been elevated to the rank of Cardinal, and is considered an honorary status upgrade.
This appointment emphasizes the importance that the Catholic Church places on its presence in the Holy Land. Pizzaballa's appointment sends a message from the Vatican to Israel, indicating its concern for the situation of Christians in Israel amid increasing attacks on members of the church and the desecration of churches and cemeteries, by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Pizzaballa was not chosen by chance - from the Vatican's perspective, he is just the right person in the right place. He is fluent in spoken Hebrew, familiar with Israeli politicians, and has many Israeli friends. He has lived in Israel for nearly 20 consecutive years. and served as Custos,- the custodian of the Holy Places, from 2004 to 2016. In other words, Pizzaballa was responsible for the Catholic Church's properties in the country. in 2016 and until 2020, he served as the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and has since been the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Sources from the Vatican said that the Pope appoints and promotes clergy based on callings in places that are perceived as sensitive junctions for the Church. Thus, this appointment is not just because of the insults directed at the Church and the clergy, it also sends a message that the Vatican considers Israel a central place from a religious perspective. After all, it is the only place where Jesus lived and worked.
Israel is indeed a complex place in terms of living conditions for Christians. Attacks on Christians in Jerusalem and in Israel as a whole are on the rise. Jerusalem police on Monday, arrested three young men on suspicion that they spat on a priest in the Old City. In light of this trend, about two weeks ago Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana met with Pizzaballa at the recommendation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the meeting, Ohana condemned the recent incidents of violence against religious figures and Christian citizens, throughout the country and particularly in Jerusalem. "This is something that we are not willing to accept, neither in the Knesset nor as a country," Ohana said. "We want you to feel safe and free here. Such cases are considered an attack on the State of Israel, which was founded on the values of freedom of religion and worship for all its citizens. We will ensure that they continue to be preserved."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Pizzaballa said that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community has come under increasing attack, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history emboldening extremists who have harassed clergy and vandalized religious property at a quickening pace. “These people feel they are protected … that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians,” he said.
On Sunday, before announcing the names of the new cardinals, Pope Francis expressed his hopes that Israel and the Palestinians would engage in dialogue to end the violence, referring to the most recent operation in Jenin.
Pizzaballa's appointment serves additional interests of the Church: the Vatican wants to increase its involvement in the region, including in the peace process. The Palestinians pay more attention to the Vatican than Israel does, and the Vatican seeks to garner the Israelis' attention as well, especially as the Pope calls for calm in the region.
The Vatican also wants to advance negotiations for an initial economic agreement with Israel that would grant the Catholic Church exemption from property taxes, as the Joint Committee that discussed the issue has not convened since 2018. Furthermore, the issue of access rights to The Cenacle (the Room of the Last Supper) on Mount Zion is important to the Pope.
A senior Israeli figure familiar with the matter said that Jerusalem sees Pizzaballa's appointment as an attempt to protect the Christian presence in the Holy Land and promote issues that interest the Vatican. His appointment may also mean the Pope's next visit to the Holy Land is closer than we imagined.
The Pope visited in 2014 and was scheduled to come last year for a meeting with the head of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. After a team was sent to plan the visit, which was supposed to include meetings with then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog, the visit was canceled due to the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.