When extremists attacked a Catholic Church in Baghdad in 2010, killing 58 Iraqi Christians, Egyptian priest Yoannis Lahzi Gaid witnessed the bloodbath and the strain it put on interfaith relations in a region where Christians are the minority.
Gaid is now the closest Arab clergyman to Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics around the world. As a Vatican diplomat, Gaid is at the forefront of the pope’s global efforts to sow seeds of peace between Christians and Muslims, especially in the Middle East.
“The Vatican accords top priority to the Middle East, considering the religious and historical importance of the region. Personally, I think the Pope’s choice of me as his personal secretary is an affirmation of his special interest in the region,” said Gaid in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English.
At just 44 years old, Gaid is arguably the most visible Arab Christian in the world, serving as Pope Francis’ personal secretary and Arabic translator. Millions of Catholics watch Gaid translate Pope Francis’ remarks into Arabic every Wednesday, at the weekly televised general audience in Rome.
Gaid travels the Arab world with the pope, participating in historic interfaith initiatives to “foster friendship and brotherhood” between Catholic and Arab leaders.
The efforts, which include last year’s first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula, “hold the potential to rewrite the history of relations between the East and West, between the Pope of the Catholic Church and Islamic religious leaders,” said Gaid.
Landmark interreligious trip to the UAE
Gaid was at Pope Francis’ side during a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates last February, which culminated in the landmark “Document on Human Fraternity,” signed by the pope and Egypt’s Grand Imam of al-Azhar Dr. Ahmad al-Tayeb.
“We cannot forget the warm welcome and the historic moment of the signing of the Human Fraternity document - one of the most important agreements in history signed between the Christian and Muslim worlds,” said Gaid.
The UAE has made the “bold decision” to include the document in school curricula, according to Gaid, who said more interfaith initiatives are in the works and will be announced soon.
During the trip, UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan awarded Gaid the Order of Zayed II first class - one of the country’s highest civil decorations - in recognition of his efforts “to ensure followers of different religions live together in peace.”
Vatican calls for coexistence in Middle East
Born in Cairo, Gaid previously served as a Vatican diplomat in various Arab countries including Jordan and Iraq. The Vatican is closely monitoring developments in the Middle East, according to Gaid, and takes clear positions on ongoing events such as in Lebanon and Iraq, countries where anti-government demonstrations have been underway since October.
The Vatican conveys “its message of coexistence to the people of Lebanon, as maintained by Pope John Paul II, calling all conflicting sides to prioritize the welfare of the country. The same applies to Iraq,” said Gaid.
Gaid said the Christian persecution he saw firsthand in Iraq will continue “as long as terrorism is not reined in” and advocated for the country to find a way to embrace all its people, regardless of religion, race, or color.
Iraq’s Christian population has decreased 85 percent since 1987, following war and persecution at the hands of extremists, including ISIS. Experts warn that Christianity in Iraq is under threat of extinction after 2,000 years in the country.
“We all hope this gloom of darkness in Iraq and in all unstable countries will come to an end, and that a new dawn will rise, aided by the wise and the educated people who constitute the majority of the population,” said Gaid.