Olivier Poquillon: “There is only one possible side, that of humanity”

Olivier Poquillon: “There is only one possible side, that of humanity”

Why did you become religious?

Because I accepted a call. After starting my professional life in a multinational, I returned to study (in international law, Editor’s note) and worked for the United Nations on the electoral process in Haiti, then on ending the crisis in Cambodia. At one point, I questioned myself. Was I going to do this my whole life? We only have one. You might as well choose who you give it to. I felt that God was calling me but I was slowing down. I’ve never been so scared! But because God trusted me, I took the plunge.

What are you afraid of ?

I clearly saw that the choice to live poverty, chastity, obedience is absurd, even bad, if God is not at the heart of this commitment. Entering religious life is anything but a promotion. I had to let go of everything without knowing if I understood what it was about. It was trusting to the point of giving one’s life.

What led you to the Dominicans?

An obvious fact that is difficult to explain. When I was a teenager, while sailing on old rigging, I met the figure of a Dominican friar. He did not preach the Gospel learnedly, but by giving us the opportunity to live it, united in diversity. After this experience, I didn’t think about it anymore. Much later, when God caught up with me, I discovered the Constitutions of the order, astonishing for a jurist, where each brother has a role to play; also discovered prayer sung in polyphony in which each voice in its singularity enriches the common prayer. Finally, the motto of the order: “Contemplate and transmit what one has contemplated.” » Contemplate Christ who is the truth, without seeking to possess or impose him. Search, together, with brothers, step by step. Receive, share, transmit the gifts entrusted by God to humanity. A risky choice, but what a promise!

“Without seeing it coming, the hatred of those who threaten, who persecute, takes precedence over fear. »

You spent several years in Iraq, confronted with violence. How did you experience it?

In 2003 and 2004, a first stay in Mosul plunged me into the war. There was gunfire day and night around the Notre-Dame-de-l’Heure convent. People were dying: young people, old people, men and women of all religions. Neighbors and strangers. Children too… So, we take precautions, we learn to survive, day by day. Then, without us seeing it coming, the hatred of those who threaten, who persecute, takes precedence over fear. Hate creeps in sneakily, like at home. It ends up waking you up at night with the desire to kill those who kill. One day I realized that if I gave in to the hatred they had put in me, they would have won. The seed of death would have grown on its own, without them even having to worry about it. It was therefore not a question of fighting the assassin, who was also created in the image of God, but of fighting this hatred of others that he was trying to sow in me. In this struggle, the Psalms have been a powerful weapon.

Have the Psalms saved you from the desire for revenge?

The Psalms are full of violence and joy. They give us the awful words, the words of love, the true words to cry out to God. They take up all the emotions of human life and allow us to entrust them to him who became man to save us. We can entrust them to him gently but also throw them in his face, full of distress, suffering or rage. God takes them as they come and welcomes us as we are. That’s love. By taking all this upon himself, God frees us from death and makes us human.

Today, you find violence in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land…

It’s a challenge. Where is the Promised Land of the Bible, where milk and honey flow? On the morning of October 7, I was in Rome for the synod. Hearing the news of the Hamas attack on Israel, I thought of Jewish friends, of their thirst for a country, a place where, after the Shoah, Jews could live in safety. Their hope was crumbling. Today, faced with this limitless explosion of violence and hatred, we are asked to take sides with one side or the other. However, for Christians, there is only one possible side, that of humanity. To remain human ourselves, we must recognize the other, every other and all others in their humanity. It’s a tough fight.

Since October, you have headed the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, a research institution. How can it contribute to this testimony of humanity?

Our mission is located at the crossroads of faith and reason – this is the DNA of the Bible School founded by Father Lagrange in 1890. Geographically, we are located in East Jerusalem, at the junction of the Palestinian territories annexed and the State of Israel. Researchers, believers and non-believers, come together, Westerners, Jews and Arabs. They can define themselves as Christians but also Israelis or Palestinians. Without irenicism, we strive to keep the door open to all those who, through prayer or intellectual work, seek to understand this God who gives himself to save humanity.

“For us Christians, peace undoubtedly comes through personal and community conversion. »

Do you see a connection between the personal search to live peace, justice, and peace between nations?

It’s linked. Humanity is one. There is no solution for me without a solution for my neighbors. This must come from within, from conscience, and materialize in a commitment with others. On the restoration site of Notre-Dame-de-l’Heure, in Mosul (Iraq), we came from all communities: Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis… It was by facing each other together with the relentless rigors of the climate, illness or the hazards of the construction site that we have little by little overcome mistrust and re-weave a certain fraternity. When he came to Iraq, Pope Francis reminded us of this reality: we have a common origin and, therefore, a shared responsibility.

But wounded memories are passed on from generation to generation: that of the Nakba* for the Palestinians, that of the Shoah for the Jews. How to overcome this negative legacy?

We lead by example first, not by speech. For us Christians, the dynamic of peace undoubtedly involves a personal and community conversion: turning to God, as we are, to try to see him as he is. At our level, let’s try not to provoke our neighbors. It’s not win. In our neighborhood near the Damascus Gate, everything can go wrong one way or another. Today, beyond memory, technologies are inflaming our conflicts by putting what shocks and divides first.

How ?

Technology allows the instantaneous and viral diffusion of images of atrocities, injustices and violence. To generate more traffic and therefore more income, the algorithms of social networks amplify their echo: if I click once on such a document, other images of violence will be offered to me, manipulating my emotions to make me click again and even. The technological revolution is leading us to detach ourselves from the major references common to Jews, Muslims and Christians, such as respect for dignity and human life, to lock us into a self-referential system. An individualist drift thus takes precedence over a personalist logic where the human being holds a central place.

Aren’t the diverse populations of the Holy Land required to coexist?

One study reports that a woman gives birth on average to seven children among ultra-Orthodox Jews, three among liberal Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank, seven among Palestinians in Gaza. What is the future of the Holy Land in these conditions? Choosing to live in a mixed state? Opt for a viable two-state solution? Today, in many areas, from currency to health including security, education, access to water, energy and of course the economy, Israel and the Palestinian territories are very interdependent. Here again, it is difficult to see how there could be a solution for some without a solution for others.

In this context, what is your hope?

My hope is in God. We celebrate Christmas at the time of the winter solstice, in the darkest of the night, and it’s not for nothing. God did not choose this place at random to save the world. It is in distress and cold that he becomes God with us. It is not in the power of a deafening thunder that he comes to save us but in the wailing of a newborn baby. May we let our humanity speak and take care of this little flame of life entrusted to us.

This word only holds from a believing perspective?

“You’re lucky to have faith,” a soldier once told me. I answered him: “I don’t have faith, I believe that God has faith in us and that he expects something from us. If, in the eyes of God, you do something useful once in your life, you will not have wasted your time. ”

* The Nakba, “catastrophe” in Arabic, designates the displacement of almost 800,000 Palestinians during the creation of the Hebrew state (1948).


December 12, 1966 Born in Paris.

1994 Enters the Dominican order after studying international law.

2001 Ordained priest.

2003-2004 Joined the Dominican convent of Mosul (Iraq).

2005-2006 Auditor of the Institute of Advanced National Defense Studies. Appointed expert of the Holy See to the Council of Europe.

2008-2013 Permanent representative of the Dominican order to the United Nations.

2016 Secretary General of the Commission of Episcopates of the EU.

2019-2023 Supervises the restoration of the Notre-Dame-de-l’Heure convent, in Mosul (Iraq).

1st October 2023 Director of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.

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