Santiago Agrelo is a Spanish-born priest who from 2007 to 2019 was Archbishop of Tanger, in Morocco. In this interview with Spanish paper El Confidencial, the Franciscan gives his refreshing takes on everything from the coronavirus (saying it’s “nonsense” to believe the pandemic is God’s punishment) to abortion (“there are abortions that have nothing immoral about them”) to the role of priests and bishops in applying Church dogma (“the pages of a book are not the pages of life”).

In this conversation, Agrelo also denounces the “deeply repugnant” way we in the West treat immigrants, and issues a stern warning to politicians who discriminate against refugees, denouncing that “there will be a lot of people that will find themselves in dire straits” before God at the Last Judgment “for what they are doing here with the poor”.

(Source: Javier Caraballo, El Confidencial; translation: Novena)

The world is living a pandemic that has brought humanity to its knees. Many believers, faced with this wave of death, of suffering, have come to ask themselves: where is God? I ask you that, because the Lord’s Prayer says ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

If we take it for granted that God, in Creation, kept his intervention on earth outside of earthly laws, we are inventing a world that does not exist, that has never existed. The world has its laws, its rules, its autonomy, and that does not take nnything away from God’s part.

When Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, and we say ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, he is referring to the children of God, to those who are already with him, in another dimension, and to those who are still here on earth, and we can choose between doing good and doing evil. And we ask him that his will be done on Earth, that is, to help us always to choose the good. That is what the Lord’s Prayer is about: not about God’s dominion over nature, but instead about our life being in harmony with what our Father wants from us.

When we ask ourselves these questions, what a Christian always remembers is that Jesus Christ was a victim of earthly evil, not of the evil of nature; human evil, of the human will to do evil. Before Jesus’ cross, we indeed have to ask ourselves that question [of doing God’s will]; Jesus himself asked it when he exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus does not question the existence of God, but is incapable of understanding his own situation at that moment.

The opposite may also exist: those who think that these evils that afflict humanity are not proof of the non-existence of God, but that if they happen it is because they are a punishment from God.

Please, who can think such nonsense… God does not intervene in the world in that way; God does not come here either to reward or to punish. The Son of God became a man to teach us to live our humanity, to teach us to accept our limits. That is the meaning of the Incarnation, that God himself takes the trouble to tell us what our path is.

In Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve is told in some chapters that are among the most beautiful and significant in Sacred Scripture, and yet they are not given proper attention. In Adam and Eve we have the figure of Humanity, of the man and the woman who seek to break out of their condition, to disown their limitations, to rise to the place of God.

Jesus Christ is the counter-figure of Adam and Eve; he is the one who, being God, renounces that divine power, in order to take on our limits. And he takes on the human condition, not on the throne of a king, not even on the chair of a president or a minister, but he descends to the condition of a slave and dies as a wretch.

These are the two paths that every man, every woman, must choose: that of climbing up to try to take God’s place or that of descending to take the place revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, giving one’s life for others.

In short, what interests me about this pandemic are the victims. In fact, for the Church, and I am referring to the Christian communities scattered throughout the world, it will be a challenge because we will have to accompany the victims of the increased poverty that will come after the virus.

You speak strongly of the pandemic having nothing to do with God, but not everyone thinks so. For example, Archbishop [of Valencia Cardinal Antonio] Cañizares said a few days ago that “the devil is in the pandemic”. He said this because of the use of human embryos from abortions in the search for a vaccine.

I have not heard Archbishop Cañizares’ words and I do not know the context. What I can guess at is what would go through my head if news came to me that they were experimenting for a vaccine with cultures of cells from aborted fetuses, and what I would not do is to make a leap and assume it was immoral.

I mean, some people might think that, if it is a question of abortions, it is immoral, when even an ignoramus like me knows that there are abortions that have nothing immoral about them. Therefore, to go from the fact of the research with these cells to the label of immoral is a leap that is not legitimate.

The representatives of the Church’s magisterium should always be very careful when saying certain things… This is true for everyone, naturally starting with myself. I don’t know what Archbishop Antonio [Cañizares] said, nor if his words were taken out of context, but I do think that we, if we want to make a moral judgment about certain things, must do so with knowledge of the cause, and not through rumors or the first news of it that we come across. It is a question of prudence, and an imprudent person is telling you that.

Abortion… Very few in the Church claim that not all abortions are immoral.

Yes, yes, but everyone in the Church knows that there are abortions on which, in no way, a negative moral judgment can be passed. In a nutshell, look, we are not, I am not allowed to think that any woman who has had an abortion did it in immoral conditions, that she had no right to do it. I cannot think that, ever, because that is a judgment that does not fall to me. Theoretically, I can condemn a woman, or her circle, who deliberately provokes or provoke an abortion. But that’s the theory: the pages of a book are not the pages of life, and therefore I cannot condemn it. Ever.

Pope Francis already established a position, shortly after his election. He said that the Church could not spend all its time talking about abortions, gays and condoms, that there are other issues that deserve its attention. I believe that you, archbishop, are in that line, but you go much further.

When we insist so much on a subject, we don’t get any benefit from it. Things are said once, and then we move on to action. I am going to tell you very clearly, exactly what I think: insisting so much on the subject of abortion has possibly caused an increase in the supporters of abortion.

If instead we had approached women in that situation, with the prospect of an abortion in their life, we would have already greatly reduced the number of abortions. Approaching the woman to understand her, to welcome her, to walk with her… In short, there are those who think that they must always be hammering on about abortion and the only thing they manage to do is to do damage. We must always be close to the people and if they are sinners, then even closert still.

I mentioned earlier the devil and the pandemic. Let me be clear: hasn’t the Church said that hell is not a place? Because once again there are those who speak of hell…

Are you really telling me that? Let me see, let me say it like this, even if someone is shocked: I don’t care about heaven and I don’t care about hell; that is, I don’t care about what there is after death. I do not care. I leave that to God, I leave that to my Lord, I do not have to worry about what comes after death: I have to worry about what there is before death. And what there is before death are men, women and children who in their lives have known nothing but suffering.

I have known many of them up close who have already died, and I know millions from afar who are there, even though no one wants to see them, and who, by the thousands, are dying of hunger every day. I know closely the homeless, those who have no work… That world i one I know closely and it is the one I have to worry about; the other will be taken care of by God our Lord.

This present that I am living has been given to me by God so that I can work on it; so that I can worry about his most unfortunate children. For this reason, he has given me eyes to see, hands to work and a heart to feel. It is this world that worries me, and it makes me laugh to see that there are people who worry about hell and heaven. May they leave that to God our Lord… To worry about these things is to have no faith.

What did you learn as Archbishop of Tanger?

The Lord has given me a very great grace throughout my life, and that is to have my eyes open whereever I am. When I went to Tanger I had no idea what it was like there, although I had been there a couple of times. I was confronted with languages that I did not know, with a culture, Islamic, that I also did not know and, finally, with the world of immigration, which I did not know at all…

I understand very well the people in Spain who see immigrants as strangers and almost as a nuisance; people who do not have the right to come to this world in which we are and which is our world. I understand them because that is the idea I had when I was here and only when I had them [immigrants] in front of me did I understand that there were fundamental rights being violated there. And I understood that those who were preventing the exercise of those rights were us, we who believed that we had the right to close our borders. You learn that in contact with reality.

Another thing that did me good to learn was to be a Church in a minority, something small in the midst of an immense Muslim world, and yet [Tanger] is a diocese that is full of life.

Let’s go into those things, separately. The idea we have is that the Catholic Church in the Muslim world is subject to harassment, aggression and permanent hostility. Did you experience that? In fact, there is Islamic terrorist fundamentalism…

Let’s see, the fundamentalist groups do not target Christians, but everyone, including Muslims who are not fundamentalists. One thing is fundamentalism, which exists in all ideologies – which also exists in Christianity – and another thing is the coexistence of Muslims and Christians.

We Franciscans have been in Morocco since the time of Saint Francis and we have always been in a minority and in holy peace. I would like to say that both the authorities and the Moroccan people have always welcomed the Christian community and the same has happened, as far as I know, with the Jewish community. What is normal, what is traditional, has always been solidarity, coexistence [and] familiarity.

Well, it’s true that there are fundamentalists everywhere, but it’s not fair to equate them with Islamic terrorist fundamentalism.

There are many armed confrontations in the world that have nothing to do with the Muslim world. And when it comes to talking about a fundamentalism that kills, just think of the deaths caused by the fundamentalism of those who close ports and let immigrants drown at sea.

We cannot wash our hands of that. This is a political, ideological and, supposedly, Christian fundamentalism. You will understand the irony I see in someone with the rosary in his hand saying that not absolutely nobody [ni dios – literally “not even God” – ed.] is allowed in here.

You may have heard that those who act in this way often think that the wave of immigration is a ‘Trojan horse’, an invasion that threatens Europe itself, its traditions and its culture.

I cannot under any circumstances admit that the poor person who is looking for a future could be considered a kind of soldier, hidden in a horse, looking to invade Europe. That is an image that distorts the hunger and suffering of immigrants and destroys their lives. It condemns thousands and thousands of people to death.

Yes, of course I have heard it; I have heard high representatives of the Catholic Church saying that immigrants are the ‘Trojan horse’ of Islam to Islamise Europe… The hungry have a right to bread where there is any, and we have bread, so they will come here. End of story.

What do I care if the hungry are Islamists, Protestants or Anglicans. It doesn’t matter to me at all. There is a verse in one of the Letters of St. Paul that should be imprinted in one’s mind: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither free nor slave, there is neither male nor female, we are all one in Christ Jesus’.

Poverty, need, is what counts, not labels. And if what is of concern is the birth rate of non-Christian immigrants, then what can I say, we can’t think of shielding a Christian and infertile Europe. As I was about to say to a cardinal, ‘You should have children!’ Thank God I only thought about it, ha, ha, ha, I didn’t say that to him, ha, ha, ha…

Yes, yes, thank goodness. Anyway, what seems obvious is that hunger in Africa cannot be solved by letting everyone into Europe, because that is impossible. It’s like thinking that Europe is to blame for hunger in Africa.

What is clear is that Europe has a very great deal to do with hunger in Africa. If you look at the map of Africa a century ago, you find only European flags. Decolonisation left a map of African flags, but there are no African economies, only economies that depend on the same masters and natural resources that are always exploited by the same exploiters.

Europeans, North Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Russians, Indians… Africa continues to be the continent to which everyone goes to pull out resources and no one lets the African people live off their resources. We dispossess them, we impoverish them and then we mean for them to stay there to enjoy their poverty and that they do not come to bother us in our rich world, rich thanks to the riches that were taken from Africa.

Ok, but that doesn’t answer what I was saying: that it is not possible to just open borders and try to solve the hunger in Africa by bringing everyone to Europe.

How many sub-Saharan immigrants have knocked on Europe’s doors? Look at the numbers and you will see that it is possible… They would all fit in Galicia, come on. How many abandoned villages are there in the Castillas? Tell me how the reality of a depopulated Spain fits with the reasoning that there is no room for immigrants in Europe. Of course there is room, but we don’t want them, which is something very different.

The government of Pedro Sánchez promised to remove the razor wire from the border fences, but what is overlooked in Spain is that it did so after ensuring that Morocco would build a second, even more aggressive razor wire fence on its own territory. Did you think that was hypocritical?

I will never tire of denouncing that, even though I am far away now. The decision of the Spanish government to take down the razor wire, which I don’t even know if it has already been fully carried out, was not taken until Morocco had its razor wire fence up on the other side of the border. It is all empty words, nothing more. There is no more respect for the rights of these people to emigrate or for theie right to their own physical security.

Those rights are being continually violated. And not only by the knives [on the border fence – ed.], by the ditches, by the fences… Also by the actions of the forces of law and order because, systematically, every time a group of immigrants tries to cross the border, they are accused of violence when the only violence they commit is to try and get over a wall that has been built in front of them. And they are accused of being violent!

This is deeply repugnant to me, because it is we who, from their birth to their death, perpetrate tremendous violence against these people. We force them to suffer every day of their lives and then they are condemned.

It is pure hypocrisy: now there are higher fences, deeper ditches, blades and barbed wire; millions and millions of euros invested in building walls against the poor.

Look, going back to what we were talking about before, that is what we will have answer for before God after death. And I am telling you that there will be a lot of people that will find themselves in dire straits for what they are doing here with the poor.

That is the vision that, as you told me before, has changed you radically after your time in the Archbishopric of Tanger…

It is as straightforward as calling things by their name. Look, for example, at the way we talk about borders: there are no children who go hungry, there are no women who are subjected, day after day, to rape, there are no children who do not know what a family home is… At the borders there are undocumented, irregular, illegal people… They are spoken of as if they were ghosts, who do not suffer.

All this is a great hypocrisy in which governments play a part but also the media, which rarely dare to give rigorous and reliable information about the borders.

One of the problems of this society is that it does not know what is at the borders, or in the paths of the immigrants. If people knew, if they could see it, they would not tolerate it.

This society that does not tolerate the mistreatment of a dog, how can it tolerate the killing of thousands of immigrants. A fortnight ago, fifty people drowned off the coast of Tunisia, most of them women… This is unacceptable bloodshed, not just hypocrisy, which is, as someone said, the homage that lies pay to the truth. No, rather, this is a crime against humanity.

More wisdom on Novena from Archbishop Agrelo:

Spanish-African bishops insist: “No Christian should have a negative attitude towards immigrants”

Spanish bishop blasts Francis critic Cardinal Sarah for living “easy” Christianity


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.