Pope Benedict in the Holy Land Seeking Peace

National Catholic Register

May 24-30, 2009 Issue

JERUSALEM — The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land was a modest success. There were satisfactory results, but nothing spectacular or memorable. The trip was often compared unfavorably to the epic visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000, the great Jubilee pilgrimage marking two millennia of Christian history.

Pope Benedict made a different choice for significantly different circumstances. He opted not for a sweeping Christian pilgrimage to the biblical sites, but an inter-religious and political venture set along a Christian itinerary.

John Paul focused on relations with Jews. Benedict focused on Muslims.

Circumstances have changed in nine years. A heavy spirit has settled over the Holy Land, with peace a distant prospect. This is not the year of the Lord’s favor.

Since John Paul’s visit in 2000, history has been moving at an accelerated pace, with major events falling one upon the other:

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the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon; the failure of the Camp David negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat;
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Arafat’s subsequent launching of the second intifada, this time marked by suicide bombings;
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the building of the security wall to stop the terrorists;
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a massive, ongoing security presence by the Israeli armed forces in the West Bank;
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the creation of a new Israeli political party, Kadima;
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the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005;
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the Palestinian parliamentary victory of Hamas in 2006;
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the second Lebanon war later that year, considered a failure in Israel;
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the Palestinian civil war that delivered Gaza to Hamas control in 2007;
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the daily rocket fire from Gaza into Israel; the establishment of Iranian proxies in both Lebanon and Gaza; the economic embargo of Gaza by Israel;
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and finally, the Gaza war earlier this year.

Israelis and Palestinians have experienced nearly a decade of constant violence and turmoil. Benedict arrived at a time when reserves of goodwill were depleted.

In response, the Holy Father chose to use his visit to advance two goals.

The first was to argue that cooperation between religions could prepare the ground for wider cooperation between peoples in the political order.

An important aspect of this was further advancing Benedict’s argument that reason must curb religious fundamentalism, especially in regard to Islam.

The second goal was to encourage and strengthen local Arab Christian communities who find themselves squeezed between Israeli security and Islamist extremism.

Those goals explain the curious itinerary for Benedict’s visit. He began with three days in Jordan, where there is only one site of great biblical significance: Mount Nebo. Yet in Jordan he was able to press his argument to a Muslim audience that Islam must rediscover the power of reason in order to curb religious extremism, hostility and violence.

He was able to spend considerable time with the Jordanian Catholic community, which provides most of the priests who serve in the Latin Patriarchate, which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. He was able to appeal for greater toleration for Christians by a Muslim majority — the happy case in Jordan but not always so in other Arab countries.

In Israel and the West Bank, Benedict gave less attention to Christian holy sites than Christian communities. Instead of offering Mass in places like the Cenacle and the Holy Sepulchre, he devoted his time to outdoor Masses in places of less Christian significance — the Kidron Valley and Nazareth’s Mount of the Precipice — where more Christians could gather.

He visited Orthodox and Armenian sites to strengthen other Christian communities. He devoted his visit to Bethlehem not so much to the Nativity Grotto as expressing his sympathy and solidarity with Palestinian suffering and political aspiration.  Benedict surprised everyone by skipping the Sea of Galilee altogether, dotted though it is with tranquil biblical shrines.

John Paul’s visit was principally a spiritual journey to the holy places — so much so that he wrote an entire apostolic letter on the significance of the pilgrimage. The historic encounter with Jews was the second major theme. Benedict reversed the priority — this was a visit about relations with Jews and Muslims, with greater attention being paid to the latter than the former.

Courting Islam

How then to assess the visit?

On the inter-religious dimension, Benedict’s gestures of esteem for Muslims — visiting a mosque in Amman and the Dome of the Rock — were genuinely appreciated. His addresses in both emphatically Muslim sites advanced his themes of religious liberty, cooperation and the essential role of reason for believers.

It is likely that such arguments from a Christian pastor have never been so precisely articulated before an attentive Muslim audience.

On the Jewish side, the Israeli press in general judged the visit a well-intentioned disappointment and a missed opportunity. Much was made of Benedict’s address at Yad Vashem, which many argued did not go far enough in expressing contrition for both German and Catholic responsibility for the Holocaust.

Though some important rabbis came to Benedict’s defense, they were principally the professional dialogue partners already disposed to look for positive rather than negative signs.

It is likely after this visit that the impression of Benedict’s policies as at least insensitive, if not mildly hostile, to Jewish concerns will settle as an enduring conclusion. After the Bishop Richard Williamson affair in January, it would have required a game-changing performance from the Holy Father to alter that storyline in the media narrative of his pontificate, and that was not accomplished here. It’s a shame, as even his critics acknowledge Benedict’s goodwill toward Jews.

Something deeper, though, is at hand. It was very clear from both the sites visited and the addresses given that the priority of attention was on Islam.

Whereas Catholic-Jewish relations dominated from the time of Vatican II through John Paul’s pontificate, Catholic-Muslim relations are now emerging from that shadow.

The shape of 21st-century geopolitics depends to a great degree on developments in the Islamic world. Two issues close to Benedict’s heart also depend more on Muslims than Jews. The religious liberty of Christians in the Middle East depends largely on Muslim toleration, save for those few Christian Arabs who live in Israel proper.

Benedict also sees Muslims as allies in the struggle against secularism, in contrast to the worldwide Jewish community, which is already largely secularized.

Local Christians responded enthusiastically to the visit. It is rare for Christians anywhere in the Middle East to be the focus of international attention, let alone to have large-scale festive occasions where they are a temporary majority. The Holy Father’s words of encouragement to persevere in a difficult environment were appreciated, even if their practical effect may be limited.

Yet, even at the end, many Christians here were ambivalent about the visit. At the level of the ordinary faithful, complaints were frequent that the Vatican had given the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu — deeply unpopular among Arab Christians — a propaganda victory only months after the Gaza war. At the level of the leadership, sources close to the Latin Patriarch have long confirmed his desire that any papal visit be contingent upon resolution of legal and financial issues left over from the 1993 establishment of Holy See-Israel diplomatic relations. The patriarch was overruled on that by Rome. The Pope came without such agreements achieved.

At 82, Benedict could not long delay a visit here without risking that he might not make it at all, despite his current good health.

Not to visit the Holy Land was not an option, so the visit went ahead, despite reservations and obstacles that remained, even at the end. In that light, and given the potential for disaster in this part of the world, a modest success is no small thing.

Father Raymond J. de Souza was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999 to 2003.