Exclusive interview with the Jesuit Henri Boulad: First of all, you have to save your family, then your culture, then your identity, and after that you can open the doors!

Henri Boulad

Why does an 85-year-old Syriac Jesuit who lives in Egypt want to be a Hungarian citizen?
How does he see the future of the Church and Europe?
What made him write a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and later to Pope Francis?
What is his opinion about the migration crisis?
And last but not least:  what is his message for young people?
Interview of 777

First of all, on behalf of 777,  let me congratulate you on your Hungarian citizenship. When will you receive it officially?

Thank you so much! I will get it on Thursday the 16th of  March, in person, from the Prime Minister, Orbán Viktor, who has also invited me for dinner. To be honest,  it was not my idea to apply for citizenship. 

Why? Where did the idea come from?

Semjén Zsolt, the vice-Prime Minister visited me in Alexandria informing me that Hungary would like to cooperate with us. That was the moment when he asked me if there was anything I really needed. It was then that I mentioned Hungarian citizenship. 

Why was your request for citizenship so important ?

I had three reasons. First of all, I admire the insistence  of Hungary regarding the protection of Christian values, and the standpoint that your nation takes on the question of migration. I think it is essential to save Europe’s physical, mental and spiritual identity. Secondly, because I have visited Hungary several times, and I really like the country and the Hungarian people.
Today, everywhere in Europe people talk about Christianity as if it were something terrible. In Hungary, there are still many people who keep their faith and take it seriously, and they are brave enough to go against the opinions of the masses.  This is what I appreciate in the Hungarian people.

My third reason was of a more practical nature. As a citizen of the EU, I can do my job more easily. I can travel freely in the whole world.

Your identity is very colourful: you are member of the Melkite, Byzantine  Church ( an independent Church inside the Roman Catholic Church), and at the same time a Jesuit monk. Your father is a Syrian from Damascus, and your mother is Italian. Over and above that, you grew up in Egypt, where you spoke  French at home. And now you have become a Hungarian citizen too. Do you have any preferences?

For me, identity does not depend on our origins but on our future.
The world is in  perpetual movement. Our whole life is in continuous change,  a progression. I used to say that the intelligent man can change his ideas easily. My own identity is like this. It changes easily.

With what nation do you identify with?

I suppose, I am a cosmopolitan, perhaps because I have already travelled to many countries, and every new place became part of my identity. We can not take our personality- or our Christianity- as a fixed constant state. It would be a trap! Our personality is a road, which we have to go on.  We do not have to be someone, we have to become someone! For example, when we talk about identity we come up against problems because of globalisation. What does it mean being European, Hungarian, Egyptian, Christian, or Muslim?

On the 11th of March you talked about globalisation’s relationship with Christianity in the Párbeszéd Háza. The central theme of your discourse was the comparison of the present, false globalisation with Christian globalisation. What do these expressions mean, and what  problem do you have with the globalisation of today?

Without a doubt, actual globalisation is bad because it wants to abolish identity for economic and financial reasons. These games are played out between nations who do not care about the individual. They do not care about the life of hundreds of people, whether it is about a new oil field, or something really valuable. This tendancy makes the world impersonal. And promising it all in the name of democracy and human rights is a lie, mere hypocrisy. You can have freedom of speech while you have liberal convictions or views. If you have a different opinion, you are no longer treated as an equal partner. The expression ‘Islamophobia’ is a good example of this inequality.

In the western world, it is not acceptable to criticise the religion of Islam, and many people are accused of being Islamophobic if they do not hold a favourable opinion about this religion. On the other hand, they dare not be uncritical of the Christian Church without censure. Why is it? What do you think  are the reasons of this difference between the treatment of these two religions?

There is a new ideology in the western world, that has -unfortunately- affected the Church too. What we call “political correctness”, is nothing more than a system, where the foreigner, and multiculturalism are overrated. The motive of this system is to make the western citizens lose their identity. It is a pity! Because we can only have healthy relationships, if we have our own personality, and the other person also. If this balance tilts, we cannot talk about a fair conversation any more.

Then, let us talk about the Church. What should the Church be doing in order to be effectively present in the 20th century without losing its original mission?

Ten years ago, I wrote a six-page letter to Pope Benedict XVI. In this letter, I proposed three reforms: theological, ministerial, and spiritual. The Church is in a crisis now. Why? First of all, because we still refuse to recognise that we are in a crisis. We should be more humble. On the other hand, there are still many people, who do not understand what modernity means. Modernity requires a shift in perspective. The majority of the clergy cannot adapt to this new worldview.

Could you mention some  examples? What do we really need?

For example, the notion of redemption. Jesus liberated us from our sins by his blood. He did it to liberate us from original sin. The modern human does not understand it, because it is not well explained. From Egypt to France, I met various teachers, catechists, who cannot explain it to modern people.  Our notions have not been rethought or rewritten. This theological reform is urgent! I think the Church is afraid that such a  reform would cause a disintegration of the faith. Nothing of the sort would happen! 

And in the other two areas?

There is the ministerial aspect. Before, the priest lived in a village of about hundred families. They knew the people well and the people knew them. But  now? We have, not a hundred families, but more than ten thousand families belonging to the same parish. Is this a real community? How can we expect a priest in France to celebrate Masses and hear confessions  in dozens of churches? We cannot rethink a medieval structure. And there are less and less priests. And we try to pretend that everything is all right. It is like the sinking Titanic where people continued to dance after the accident.

In your opinion, what should be the first step be from  the Church to stop the “sinking of this boat”?

The first condition of healing, is recognising that you are ill. We should start by this, and start to talk about the problems. 

In your discourse you said that after your letter to Benedict XVI, you wrote a letter to Pope Francis too. But I could not find it on the internet.

You could not find it, because they are not online yet.

They? How many letters did you write for the actual Pope, and why?

Yes, six months ago I sent a letter in French, and later, a month ago, the same letter in Spanish. I wanted to be sure that he would get it and he would understand my message. I wrote that I respect him as Pope. However, there are some questions what we do not agree about, like his opinion about  Islam. He does not understand this religion because he has never lived in a Muslim country. I asked him to listen to those who live in Islamic countries and who understand their interior workings.

What is your problem with the Pope’s opinion about  Islam?

As do  most people of the western world, he approaches the topic scientifically.  Those people who talk the most about the Islamic world, and form their own opinion, don’t know it from the inside. And they do not like to listen to those  who lived there and know their system better.

That is why they advised Europeans to open their doors to the refugees. They do not know what they are doing giving this advice. First of all, you have to save your family, your culture, your identity, and after that you can open your doors. Europe has always been an open country, but in this case, we cannot let the invasion in. 

Islam is already present in our continent, and around it. We know that authentic Islam is not equal to  Islamic extremism. But there is the real question. Actually, what is Islam really?

Islam is both political and radical. Historically, there are two types of  Islam: the Meccan one and the Islam from  Medina. This second one is the origin of future Islam. Europe does not want to understand what Islam is. They build a favourable image, and say, that is the real Islam. But that isn’t the case . Do not listen to professors from Paris, Berlin or  England. Rather listen to your Christian brothers and sisters who used to be Muslims, who used to live in Muslim countries.  

Unfortunately, we have no more time but just one  last question. What is your message for  young Hungarians? What do they have to do to follow God in this modern world?

Do not lose your identity, your heritage, and your past! Keep your faith and your values. Be strong, and don’t be afraid! You are still a minority, but you will be a majority soon. 
I, personally, I am not afraid of the future, because I have faith, and I know, Christ won. This is a turning point of the history, and I do not know what does the future holds, but who believes and hopes, they are going to win.

Péter Heltai
Photo: Anna Forintos

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