Pope Francis in the Holy Land - a political pilgrimage?
Was Pope Francis's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories the purely spiritual event intended?
The visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Pope Francis this weekend was historic for many reasons. Sadly some of them are negative.
Francis, the Roman Catholic Church’s first non-European Pope for over 1,200 years, has shown himself to be a truly humble and spiritual man. From his refusal to start his “reign” in the lavish quarters provided for him, to his rebukes to cardinals over their extravagant spending, to his reputed night visits to feed the poor of Rome, he has given the faithful many surprises.
That he should visit the “Holy Land” during his first year in office is not in itself a surprise, but, despite claiming he wanted this to be a purely spiritual pilgrimage, Francis’s visit also made some blatant political points.
Historically, going back centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has not been a friend to the Jewish people. A commentator in the Jerusalem Post reminded his readers that, “This entire newspaper would not suffice to recap the anti-Jewish doctrines promulgated by Church Fathers which guided Catholic theology and practice down to the middle of the last century.”
In recent years, however, while there has been a massive improvement in official church attitudes towards the Jewish people, this has not always been reflected in positive attitudes towards the State of Israel. The Vatican did not rush to recognise the infant Jewish state in 1948; one pope warmly embraced Yassir Arafat; and diplomatic relations between Rome and Jerusalem only began in the 90s.
Traditional Catholic theology could not reconcile the concept of a national home for the Jewish people with its teaching that the Jews were condemned to eternal wandering for their treatment of Jesus. For this reason, the Vatican supported the idea of Jerusalem being held under international control – a condition the Church believed would prevent Jewish control over their holy places and sites.
One of the tensions between Rome and Jerusalem is ownership of some of the holiest sites in Christendom, including the “Cenacle” where Pope Francis celebrated mass on Sunday. This building on Mount Zion is holy to Christians as the site of the “last supper” and to Jews as the tomb of King David. Consequently, upstairs is a church while downstairs is a yeshiva.
The Vatican did not enter into full diplomatic relations with Israel until December 1993, having spent decades avoiding the theological issues. Since then, there has been a fruitful and lively theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and Judaism, which continues today.
In the arena of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, however, the Holy See has shown a consistent and unbalanced support for the Palestinians, condemning Israel on a number of occasions for its responses to terrorism and violence (not least in the Second Intifada) without holding the Palestinians to account for their own actions.
While statements from Rome have been encouraging in overall Christian-Jewish relations, at a local (Middle Eastern) level, church representatives have shown a wholehearted support for the anti-Israel BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.
The infamous 2009 “Kairos” document issued by Palestinian Christian leaders encourages Western churches to support boycotts against Israel and has spawned several national supportive “Kairos” organisations around the world. This unbalanced and blatantly anti-Israel document was signed by the heads of all the branches of Catholicism in the region.
The Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land has fully imbibed the “occupation rhetoric” of the PLO and PA, partly in the mistaken belief that this support will somehow inoculate Catholic Christians against persecution by Muslims. Far from this being the case, there are many and repeated examples of brutal persecution of Christians within the PA-controlled areas.
All the traditional Christian denominations prefer to ignore both what is happening to their own people at the hands of Muslims and the inconvenient fact that Jewish Israel is the only Middle Eastern state where Christians can freely exercise their religious beliefs and practices.
Against this background, last weekend’s visit by Pope Francis revealed political bias in every step of the programme. Take a look at his convoluted travel arrangements, for example.
After visiting Jordan, including meeting Syrian refugee children, the Pope flew to Bethlehem, making this the first papal visit there not to travel via Israel. The official website for the tour shows his first appointment as being with “the President of the State of Palestine” and elsewhere refers to “Palestine as one of four countries he has visited”. This flies in the face of reality, since there is no true country or state of “Palestine”; overt references to it by the Pope in his speech will not bring it into existence.
From Bethlehem to Jerusalem is but a ten minute hop for a helicopter, but as if to make a political point the Pope’s programme had him leave “Palestine” to enter Israel formally at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv before flying back East to Jerusalem – a totally unnecessary and expensive “dog-leg”.
One could almost suspect the programme of being created by the Palestinians themselves, since the Pope’s first engagement in Jerusalem was with the Mufti of the city on the Temple Mount, placing his short prayer at the Western Wall second.
No doubt the programme for his visit was arranged by officials of the Church living in the region. One could argue that giving priority to the Palestinians could only help ameliorate the persecution of Christians living there, but Francis made no calls for an end to this mistreatment of his own followers by the Muslims they live among; neither did he address the reasons as to why Bethlehem no longer has a Christian majority population. A plea to “…intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace…” will not make the lives of Bethlehem’s Christians any more peaceful.
I have the greatest respect for Pope Francis. In the relatively short time of his papacy to date he has shown himself to be unafraid of standing up for the most important values of the faith in the face of tradition and self-interest within his own ranks.
I suspect the laudable aim of his pilgrimage, to mark a historic meeting of Eastern and Western Catholicism, was at least in part hi-jacked by his own local factional leaders, who lost no opportunity to make political points out of spiritual occasions.
And yet, even though “Palestine” has been elevated in the international community to the same level in the UN as the Vatican, the Holy See should make a stand for reality instead of supporting the fantasy of the “State of Palestine”. This does nothing for spiritual reconciliation and nothing for the lives of individual Roman Catholics struggling to exist in a hostile Muslim Palestinian environment.
Nick Gray is Director, Christian Middle East Watch, a British organisation dedicated to objective and factual discussion of Middle Eastern issues, especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nick, who is a regular contributor to The Commentator, blogs at cmewonline.com
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