In pursuit of peace and reconciliation

Last week was not Pope Francis’ first visit to the Holy Land. Fr Jorge Bergoglio was in Israel in October 1973, when he was provincial of the Jesuits.

May 29, 2014

By Edward Kessler
Last week was not Pope Francis’ first visit to the Holy Land. Fr Jorge Bergoglio was in Israel in October 1973, when he was provincial of the Jesuits. But then the Yom Kippur War obliged him to stay in his hotel, so he spent most of his time reading the Bible, and did not have much opportunity to tour. It will be different this time.

The Pope arrived in Jordan on May 24, accompanied by his friends from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and Omar Abboud, the Muslim director of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue. The highlight of his trip was a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, whom he met in private followed by a joint declaration at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is tempting to think that with talks between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority stalled, if not moribund, a papal visit will breathe new life into the peace process. Vera Baboun, the first female mayor of Bethlehem, hopes so. The peace process, she said, has been hampered by a lack of courageous leadership. “How many courageous hearts do we have in the world? Francis has a courageous heart,” said Baboun, 50, a Roman Catholic in a city where most Christians are Orthodox and the Christian population has dropped to 15 per cent from a high of 85 per cent in 1947.

Yet the Vatican is downplaying the political symbolism of the visit, as Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the papal nuncio to Israel, explained: “The Holy Father is coming to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. That is the main purpose of the visit.”

Francis’ meeting with the ecumenical patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the historic 1964 meeting in Jerusalem between their two predecessors, at which the leaders lifted a mutual excommunication that had been in place since 1054. Bartholomew, who is recognised as “first among equals” by 250 million Orthodox Christians, attended Francis’ inauguration as Pope in March last year, the first time in more than 1,000 years that a leader of the Orthodox Church had attended the papal enthronement.

After their addresses in Jerusalem, they will say an ecumenical prayer together. According to Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s press secretary, this represents “the great ecumenical novelty of the trip; it has never happened before. In other words, [it will be] an historic and extraordinary event”.

But the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew was just a portion of the Pope’s three-day itinerary. In Bethlehem, he had lunch with Palestinian families at Casa Nova, a Franciscan convent, and greet children at Dheisheh, one of the refugee camps visited by St John Paul II. The political situation will never be far away.

There is no doubt that of the choices in the region, Israel is by far the best place to be a Christian these days. Israelis like to remind visitors that while their neighbours are oppressing Christians in places such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Israel can be proud of the religious freedoms and safety it affords its minority religions. Indeed, the Christian population is growing, while elsewhere in the Middle East it is diminishing.

Yet, there are an increasing number of hate crimes – so-called “price tag” attacks, which consist of vandalising Muslim and Christian sites with graffiti – that are carried out by right-wing Jewish extremists. Carmi Gillon, who headed the Israeli internal security services, has said that not only are the young people who commit these acts well known to the security services, so are the rabbis who incite them. Meanwhile, Israeli author Amos Oz has called the assailants “Hebrew neo-Nazis”, and Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the Holy Land, stated that “the unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere”, and “are a blight on Israeli democracy”.

Sporadic acts of vandalism have been taking place since 2009 when a mosque was struck in the West Bank. The actions have drawn condemnation by Israeli leaders but few arrests.

The argument that the situation for Christians in Israel is not as bad as it is in Syria or Iraq is hardly adequate. As Rabbi Ron Kronish, a leader in interfaith dialogue in Israel, stated: “We must ask ourselves time and time again, what kind of country do we envision for our children? It is time for the silent majority to wake up and demand action from its Government.”

Another source of tension is the ownership of the Cenacle on Mount Zion, the reputed Upper Room of the Last Supper and Pentecost. Sovereignty over the Cenacle, which was renovated by Franciscans in the fourteenth century, is a highly sensitive issue, for the same building also houses the Tomb of King David. This has resulted in a fierce response from ultra-Orthodox Jews opposing ongoing negotiation between Israel and the Vatican. Adding to the complexity of ownership is that on top of the building is a sixteenth-century Ottoman mosque.

While no official announcement has been made, negotiations between Israel and the Vatican are continuing, and President Shimon Peres told an Italian newspaper during a visit to the Vatican in April 2013 that a compromise had been reached on the Cenacle site. The president said that “99 per cent” of the issues concerning the site had been addressed.

As Pope Francis’ visit approached, the situation has heated up. While Israel may not transfer the site to the Vatican outright, it seems likely that it will allow more Christian control over the site. A careful observer of the papal visit may like to pay special attention to the publicity surrounding the Mass that is being celebrated by the Pope there and whether an official agreement is formally announced.

Pope Francis will come to the region with a message of peace, to be achieved through dialogue. Benedict XVI and St John Paul II did this too. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims need it, more than ever before. -- The Tablet

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