AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY AL SEYASSAH/ARAB TIMES WITH THE APOSTOLIC NUNCIO TO KUWAIT
Question: What was His Holiness Pope Francis’ recommendation to you when he appointed you Apostolic Nuncio — Ambassador of the Holy See (Vatican) to Kuwait?
Answer: Actually, to tell you the truth, I didn’t meet Pope Francis before taking up my assignment in Kuwait! Normally we do stop off in Rome on our way to our new posting but since the pandemic was still very prevalent in Italy early on in the year, I came directly to Kuwait without visiting the Vatican. In the meantime, I have received recommendations from the Secretariat of State and the other Departments at the Vatican who have conveyed the Holy Father’s wishes in building on the excellent relations which we enjoy, to pursue dialogue with Muslim communities and to support the local Catholic Church in its pastoral work. As you probably know, there are about 350,000 Catholics in Kuwait, mostly from the Philippines, India, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.
The majority have been here many years and are well established. Among these are children who are attending school here. Working closely with the local churches in Kuwait, I hope I can consolidate and hopefully expand the religious services in our churches while enhancing the educational opportunities within our Catholic schools. I have been very impressed by the dedication of our priests and nuns in the pastoral and educational spheres, as well as the commitment of our catechists and parish staff. An outstanding issue is the teaching of Catholic doctrine in our schools as well as the public display of Christian symbols. In addition, between 50,000 and 100,000 Catholics left the country last year due to the Covid crisis. Following his visit to the UAE in 2019 and his recent visit to Iraq, the Holy Father hopes for closer collaboration and greater dialogue among faith leaders in building a more harmonious society, especially for the young generation. Fraternity, mutual respect and collaboration are the key words in this dynamic. The instructions I have received from the Holy See convey the Holy Father’s hopes and aspirations for my mission.
Q: What was your view when meeting His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad when presenting Credentials?
A: I presented my Credentials on Monday, 24th May along with 5 other Ambassadors. As I had been the first of the group to arrive in Kuwait, I had the privilege of being the first to present my Credentials to His Highness Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of Kuwait. He welcomed me very warmly to Kuwait, assuring me that whatever assistance I might need from the authorities in carrying out my mission would be forthcoming. He expressed his admiration for Pope Francis and for the role the Holy See has played and continues to play in the region in promoting peace and harmony. Of course, it was a solemn occasion but it was also very warm. I was very touched by his gracious welcome.
Q: What was your impression of Kuwait before coming to it? And what is it now after about 4 months of your stay here.
A: I arrived in Kuwait on February 26th last. To be honest, I didn’t know very much about the country beforehand except the striking images from the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and the burning of the oil wells. Since my arrival, I have been able to travel around a little and have seen some of the desert regions, the beautiful beaches and the impressive seaside promenade, the oil refineries and the industrial infrastructure. I have been impressed by the building projects underway, the cleanliness, the order and the security that people enjoy. Having spent six years in Haiti where it was impossible to go outside for a walk, it is a great relief to walk around the neighbourhood without fear of being robbed or kidnapped! I really feel at home here. As the country starts to re-open, I am looking forward to visiting some of the famous restaurants and taking part in the diwaniya, such an important part of Kuwaiti social life. Everybody has been very kind and welcoming. I would also like to put on record how warmly I was received by His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his colleagues. In the past few weeks I had the pleasure of paying courtesy calls on His Highness the Prime Minister, His Excellency the Minister of the Interior and His Excellency the Minister of Defence.
Q: How do you view the state of coexistence between different religions and nationalities in Kuwait.
A: Over the years, Kuwait has become a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Kuwait serves as a model for other countries in the region in welcoming people of other faiths, languages and nationalities. There are almost three million non Kuwaiti nationals living and working in the country. On the whole, the level of coexistence is excellent. Nonetheless, social cohesion is a work in progress and I have been told that, for example, there have been moments of tension and frustration which have been exacerbated by the economic fallout from Covid19. I know that the Kuwaiti authorities are working closely with the relevant Embassies/ Consular offices in addressing these issues. I am also aware of the political tensions in government. Every country has to find a modus vivendi to overcome individual/group interests in serving the common good.
As regards religious issues, I can only say that I have been very warmly welcomed by all the authorities since my arrival and they have all assured me of their openness and willingness to work together in enhancing our bilateral relations as well as promoting social harmony and coexistence. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that we share a common humanity and a common vulnerability. Religious leaders should play a greater role as catalysts in social cohesion and in promoting respect for others, especially those of other faiths. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kuwait were established in 1968. The relationship is long-standing and well established. I am looking forward to engaging further with the authorities in strengthening our bilateral relationship, as well as in the areas of interreligious dialogue, academic and cultural exchanges.
Q: What is the impact of the Pope’s visit to Iraq and the other countries in the region?
A: Pope Francis visited Iraq from 5-9 March last, bringing a message of hope and coexistence among peoples of different faiths. It is probably too early to say what the impact of the visit will be but I think one can safely say that the visit has helped to inspire the Iraqi people, especially the young, to see the urgent necessity to work together in rebuilding the country that has been torn by war and strife for so many years. Since arriving in Baghdad on Friday, 5th March, Pope Francis called for an end to violence and extremism and said that Iraq’s dwindling Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities. On Saturday, 6th March, in a highly symbolic meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, the Pope echoed this message, saying that Christians should be able to live in peace and security like all other Iraqis. On Sunday, 7th March, the third day of his historic trip to the country, the Pope visited Mosul and the areas once held by Islamic State (IS) militants.
He prayed among ruined churches in Mosul, the former IS stronghold, before meeting Christians and Muslims. Celebrating Mass at a stadium in Irbil, the last big celebration of his visit, he said Iraq would remain in his heart. Thousands of people attended the service despite Covid-19 concerns. The four-day trip was the Pontiff’s first international excursion since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the firstever papal visit to the country. Referring to the historic region of Mesopotamia, which covered much of modern Iraq including Mosul, Pope Francis said: “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people — Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others — forcibly displaced or killed. Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
Q: How do you see the role of the Vatican in resolving matters in Lebanon? And what about the Pope Francis’ invitation to the heads of churches in Lebanon for a day of prayer and reflection for Lebanon on the first of July?
A: Like all countries, the Holy See is very concerned about the situation in Lebanon which has deteriorated significantly over the past year with the huge explosion that rocked Beirut, the economic crisis, the Covid pandemic and the overall political situation which is very fragile. For many years, Lebanon has been beset by mismanagement, corruption, bad governance and a lack of accountability in public administration. Unfortunately, these problems have become systemic and are a serious threat to the very future of the country. Now, with an economic/financial crisis affecting Lebanon, with high levels of unemployment, a devaluation of the currency and rising inflation, young people, especially, see no future and want to emigrate.
The fact that many Christians have already left and many others are planning to leave Lebanon is a major concern for the Church because if the country loses its Christian component it will have major repercussions on the delicate political balance that has been observed there since the foundation of the country. This would also affect the demographic and religious balance in the wider region. This is why the Holy Father has called a meeting of Catholic and Christian religious leaders at the Vatican this coming Thursday; firstly to pray for the country and secondly to see how the Christian churches in the region can help maintain a Christian presence in Lebanon and stem the exodus of the young. Of course it is not expected that this meeting will solve all the problems. At the end of the day, it will be up to the Lebanese people to find creative solutions to the crisis. What is hoped is that the upcoming Vatican meeting will send a clear message that the Churches are actively engaged and working together in a constructive manner to bring hope and relief to the suffering people of that beautiful country. From what I know, there will not be a press conference or a joint statement at the end of the meeting. Rather, following concluding prayers, the Pope will give a summary of the day’s deliberations and that will serve as a synthesis of what was discussed.
Q: What is your vision for the status of Jerusalem and the solution of the Palestinian issue?
A: I lived and worked in Jerusalem for four years from 1996-2000. Sadly, the situation has not improved since then. If anything, it has only worsened with the building of the Wall dividing East and West Jerusalem and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Holy See has always held the position that both Israel and Palestine have the right to exist, and to live in peace within internationally recognized borders. We encourage the Parties to do everything possible to reopen the process of direct negotiation, on the basis of the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations, and aided by measures that can reestablish reciprocal confidence, so that, in the words of Pope Francis, they may have “the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation; yes to sincerity and no to duplicity.”
Q: Where does the Vatican stand regarding the situation in Syria?
A: On 15 March last, Syria marked ten years of hostilities, in which an untold number have died and several million have been displaced, creating a humanitarian crisis that has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 health emergency. In the decade-long conflict in Syria, the Church has emphasized the response to the humanitarian needs of the population. More than 80 Catholic institutions are working in various sectors in solidarity with multiple actors and institutions in Syria and in neighbouring countries, employing roughly 6,000 professionals and more than 8,000 volunteers, who join the network of priests and religious present in the various territories. In parallel with the humanitarian effort, over the years, the Holy See has been engaged with the international community in trying to mobilize a comprehensive and credible political solution to the conflict in line with resolutions of the UN Security Council. Recently, Pope Francis made an appeal for a renewed commitment by the international community, so that those in conflict would lay down their arms and “allow for the social fabric in Syria to be mended and for reconstruction and economic recovery to begin in earnest.”
Q: There are dialogue committees between the Vatican and Islamic institutions, including Al- Azhar. How do you see the role of these committees.
A: In many countries Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. However, we are also burdened by the baggage of history: religious wars, persecutions, intolerance, bigotry and discrimination on both sides. As the world emerges from the Covid19 pandemic, we realize the need to emphasise fraternity, reconciliation, solidarity, collaboration and friendship. There are also the pressing issues of the environment, climate warming, refugees, migration, human trafficking, human rights, the dignity of women and the threats to the stability of the family, the bedrock of society.
Islamo-Christian dialogue has advanced enormously over the past fifty years and I sincerely hope that the various efforts underway will enhance this process further while respecting differences. The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed jointly by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, in Abu Dhabi on 4 February 2019 is a significant milestone on this journey. This is the roadmap we have to follow! Allow me to suggest that political leaders, universities and religious institutes need to study this document carefully. In spite of our differences, we have so much in common – not least our faith in God! These committees on interreligious dialogue bring people together, sharing their religious faith and learning from each other. We are brothers and sisters, children of the one God! May Almighty God bless you and the beloved people of Kuwait! Thank you! Archbishop Eugene M. Nugent, Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of the Holy See – Vatican)
By Shawky Mahmoud
Al-Seyassah, Arab Times Staff