Friday, 8 May 2009

The Pope between Israel and the Arabs

The Pope, Israel, the Palestinians and the Holy Land

The Vatican has announced a papal visit to the Holy Land: neither a country, nor a group of countries but a loose definition of an area, which includes sites that are holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims. The decision to include Amman, a city that surely is not part of the Holy Land, is somewhat curious and suggests politics. But politically and, above all, morally, this papal trip is likely to be a missed opportunity.

Why is he going? What does he want? What do they expect? Israel, currently rather unloved, craves the world’s love. To that end, a good visit by the Pope can be useful. Whereas Jewish holy sites are instrumental in establishing Israel’s right to a Jewish state in that part of the world, Israel accepts that its land is holy to Christianity and Islam as well. Any visit by a foreign dignitary, let alone the Pope, to a Christian holy site within Israel serves to validate Israel as the legitimate and responsible keeper of the Holy Land. Israel also hopes to profit economically from increased pilgrimage and a boost to the country’s tourism income as a result of the visit. The Palestinians, even more than the Israelis, crave recognition. A visit of a head of state or dignitary of any other sort serves the purpose of raising international awareness of the Palestinian problem as well as legitimising Palestinian leadership and institutions.

During his visit, Pope Benedict will meet the King of Jordan, the President as well as the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the Palestinian Authority. Yet, the Apostolic Nuncio tells us that “The Holy Father’s journey to the Holy Land is not in any way political.” Why, in God’s name, is the Pope visiting Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories? Unlike most papal visits, this is not a pastoral affair. There are not many Christians living in the territories that the Pope will visit; many have left in the last forty years. This emptying of the Holy Land of Christians is a worry to all Christian denominations and one of the Pope’s aims is to support the continued existence of a Christian presence in the Holy Land. But Israeli rule is hard on the Palestinians and the Muslim-led Palestinian administration has made it hard on Christians. The Vatican’s website defines the trip as a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, even a pope’s, is a personal affair. The Apostolic Nuncio clarified that “this will be a pilgrimage of prayer for peace and unity in the Middle East and the rest of the world.” Is this enough? Should not the head of Christianity’s largest Church be more forward than just praying for peace, apropos his visit to Christianity’s holy sites? Should the Pope not be on record demanding with all his moral authority an end to the continued war and atrocities carried out in the “Holy Land”? An end to a war that is often nourished by religious, albeit non-Christian, fanatics.

The trouble is that the Pope will not be considered an undisputed and unbiased referee; at least not by Israel. The Church’s history with Judaism and Jews is tarnished. Although, she denies culpability, some consider the holocaust to be the result of almost two thousand years of anti-Judaic teaching and preaching by the Church. The latest incident, in January of this year, the Pope’s reinstating of Bishop Williamson, a holocaust denier, caused a furore and much bad blood. The problematic stance of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the Jews has been much written about. Less well known is the Church’s antagonistic approach to the Jewish State. At their meeting in 1904, Pope Pius X, who was approached for support by Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, made it abundantly clear that the Church did not want Jerusalem, at the time under Turkish rule, to be placed in Jewish hands. On the question of Jews settling in Palestine, the Church and the Arabs shared the same objective: neither wanted Jews to settle in the land that Jews, Christians and Muslims consider holy. Later, in the post-holocaust period, the Vatican actively tried to prevent the founding of a homeland for Jews. Only in 1993, forty-five years after the establishment of Israel, and only after the PLO itself had recognised Israel, did the Vatican conclude an agreement with the Jewish State. The relationship between Israel and the Vatican continues to be difficult and concentrates on issues connected to Church properties and taxation. If Christian guilt feelings about the holocaust did indeed play a role in the world’s consent to the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, Arabs would be right in begrudging their having to pay the price for what was perpetrated by Christians in Europe. Thus, whatever the Pope will say about the Israeli-Arab conflict is likely to be attacked by at least one of the parties.

And yet, for a person of the Pope’s stature, to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories without employing all the weight of his office for change is morally unacceptable. Instead of a silent prayer for peace, the Pope could borrow Isaiah’s words “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” In a theatrical and, for this Pope, untypical act the Pope could loudly cry out to God and appeal to men to put an end to the dispute, which has caused so much bloodshed. He must call for compromise and insist that this is the only moral solution, whatever is claimed by religious fanatics on either side. This Pope, who is more theologian than charismatic, should put some charisma into this effort.

Simply to satisfy his personal need for a pilgrimage cannot be enough.


  1. This is spot on. The Pope is not really going to listen to you, will he?

  2. Not really, unless he read your book.

  3. This is a thoughtful, balanced and humane call for the Pope to play a genuinely Christian role in the Middle East. Would that he would read it.

  4. The pope is coming for his agenda, and considering the Catholic church's track record, it's bad for the Jews.

  5. The Pope, naturally, has his own agenda but this is not necessarily 'bad for the Jews.'

    However, 'good for the Jews' and 'bad for the Jews' is also a matter of opinion.

  6. It seems that the Israeli/Jewish desire to be accepted by the church blocked their judgment about the importance and role of the Pope. Israelies should not look for acceptance nor ask for approval for their life and prosperity in the country.

  7. brilliant balanced call for papal action.