“There are aspects to Israeli policy and behaviour that do immense damage in the eyes of the international community”
One of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church in the UK, Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols, recently met with major business leaders in London to discuss the reputation of business in Britain and its relationship with society. During the meeting, the chief executive of one of the biggest corporations in London commented to the Cardinal: “We’ve got to get out and wash some feet. Like your Pope.”
It was a reference to Pope Francis’ connection to people and how he epitomises the best of humanity, explains Nichols. “The people who are the heartbeat of the church are the people who are praying in the cathedral at the moment; they’re the people that work in the soup kitchen, or the food bank; they are the people who say the rosary quietly at home because their child is sick or who light a candle, who reach out to God in the concrete circumstances of their lives.”
“[Pope Francis] calls it the faith of the people; the faithful people. He keeps going back and back and back and saying this should be our focus, this is the true criteria in our faith. If you want to see faith, don’t look in the grand halls of the Archbishop’s house or in the Vatican: look at people as they live their lives, with what he calls popular devotion. Where the heart is full of faith and expresses itself — that’s where you see some real greatness. And you could say that of the community in Gaza as well.”
The community in Gaza and the human dignity they possess is a subject Nichols returns to a number of times during the interview. We meet in the Archbishop’s house, next to Westminster Cathedral (notoriously mistaken for a mosque by UKIP), three months after the Cardinal returns from his first visit to the Strip. He recalls a bombed city with families who are surviving in the wreckages of buildings, their washing strung between concrete pillars. Hospitals had been destroyed and half the mosques targeted:
“We know the reasons, and the reasons I can’t dispute, but the effect is that there is a Muslim community that’s had half of its gathering places for prayer destroyed,” he reflects. “There was very little evidence of continuing economic activity that could support that population. It seemed to me, therefore, that Gaza as a society is being impoverished at a very radical level.”
As well as emphasising their “tenacity” and “tremendous spirit”, Nichols describes the people in Gaza as “collateral damage”. “There are influences in Gaza that see an agenda which makes them forget the actual state of people. So the desire to negotiate, the desire to find peaceful ways I think is questionable. But the tragedy is the people — the vast majority of people in Gaza are caught and they’re collateral damage.”
They have also been living under a land, sea and air blockade since 2007. As a Roman Catholic who believes in free will, how does Cardinal Vincent Nichols reconcile his faith with the fact that Palestinians effectively live in an open-air prison? As he points out, people can achieve a good level of education in Gaza but then have no means of expressing it. Belief in free will can, he says, can help people focus on what their situation denies them.
“Having a clear understanding of a human person includes free will and includes an understanding of God’s intention that we are imbued with a dignity that somehow reflects the dignity of God; and therefore we are people who should exercise free will and who should act by choice and conscience. Christianity is not a religion that concentrates on obedience and subservience to God. It is a religion that imbues human dignity with an immense capacity and I think this motivates the Christians there to keep trying. It is not an inshallah, it is a struggle. But it’s a struggle to be conducted according to the fundamental principles of how we understand ourselves to be.”
Pointing to a written statement lying on the table drawn up by Bishops who have recently visited Gaza, he adds: “There’s a lovely remark in that statement where there’s a student who was asked, ‘how can I help, can I give you food, can I give you books?’ He just said: ‘no just recognise my dignity as a person please.'”
Within Gaza, the Catholic parish runs a school, an orphanage and offers shelter not just for the Christian community. Nichols describes Gaza as a “pluralist” society, which should not be mistaken for being “a Muslim enclave surrounded by the state of Israel.”
In fact, across the Middle East the presence of the Christian community is essential, he says. “It stops that stark polarisation that so many people want to push onto the place. The driving out of the ancient Christian communities, it is a personal tragedy but it is also a big geopolitical risk because there are no cushions any more, there is no third dimension as it were. Arabic is not the language of Islam. It is not simply Islamic, it’s not. It’s Christian. And the state of Israel is not the land of the Jews; it’s the land of Christians and all sorts of people as well. And it has to be like that.”
When it comes to boycotting Israeli goods, however, Nichols says he follows the lead of The Patriarch and the Holy See, which is to take a persuasive position rather than a punitive one. This is based on their recognition of Israel’s right to exist, to be stable, prosperous and safe. But he says the Israeli leadership do have concerns about their international reputation, which has been tarnished.
“I think the issue that faces Israel is that it rightly is respected as being a democracy, as being a country that is based on the rule of law, but the issues that face it is that there are aspects to Israeli policy and behaviour that do immense damage in the eyes of the international community and they are things like the lockdown of Gaza, like the security barrier, like the settlements. These damage the reputation of Israel as a free, democratic society based on the rule of law.”
Closer to home, in London the Cardinal says that unlike his experience in Birmingham (where he was previously Archbishop) it is hard to find a coherent voice from the Muslim community in the capital. “I think that’s one of the challenges that we share at the moment, of trying to assist one another to be heard more clearly,” he says. Like the Pope, who has condemned “as an abomination any killing that claims to be done in the name of God,” many Muslim leaders have been unequivocal in their condemnation of ISIS and the violence in Syria and Iraq. But their voices have not always been heard.
As for the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoons and murders, Nichols is steadfast in his view. “Echoing Pope Francis, the murders are atrocities and deserve unequivocally to be condemned,” he says, as are the anti-Semitic attacks at the Jewish bakery on the eve of Shabbat.
That said, the “rallying cry” of freedom of speech does not necessarily carry enough subtlety and can risk deepening divisions: “I think whatever the law says we should not glory in insulting one another. Maybe the law permits insults, but I think there are moral standards by which humanity prospers which go beyond the law and we should repudiate the right to gratuitously insult. I don’t think it is a positive contribution, in fact, like many things, what it does is deliberately turns a blind eye to the human dignity of the people you’re insulting; and there’s a lot of circumstances, not least in the Middle East, where you can see people effectively denied the dignity that is innately theirs in the course of something else.”