image of jerusalem 2013

Happy Pilgrimage, Your Holiness!
Let me take the reader for the space of a few short minutes to the heady and hopeful days of 2000 when our global village had ushered in a new millennium and had actually survived it without any major apocalyptic events despite all the pronouncements of impending gloom and doom...

7 May   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... I was still living in Jerusalem then, heading both the Jerusalem Liaison Office of the Middle East Council of Churches as well as the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee. The latter committee was the more hands-on instrument, a sort of an ecumenical task force, which dealt with existential issues impacting all four families of churches on a daily basis in the Holy Land.

One such issue of great import for the whole region was the process for peace (as distinct from a genuine peace process) between Israel and the Palestinians within the hopeful context of the Oslo negotiations. The churches were involved - and therefore I was involved - insofar as we strove to ensure that the Christian spiritual, moral, physical, financial and ultimately political interests of the Church of Jerusalem were not broadly squandered in the endless bargains between the negotiating sides under President Bill Clinton’s nerve-racking persistence. Together, we all left our fingerprints on policy-making by underlining our concerns - until the process collapsed under its own weight let alone the lack of good faith and good will. Again, the region was bereft of a timid opportunity for peace.

But another quite ambitious and admittedly exciting project that I was heading back in 2000 was the visit (it was euphemistically referred to as a pilgrimage to make it sound less political) of the hugely charismatic and media-savvy Pope John-Paul II to the Holy Land. I recall spending frantic hours upon hours organising the different dimensions of the pilgrimage with the Apostolic Delegate and the Latin Patriarch as well as with other ecumenical church leaders and members of my own Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee whose chair was the affable Anba Abraham from the Coptic Orthodox Church. I was also constantly liaising with Joaquim Navarro-Valls, the then official spokesperson of the Vatican, who was a consummate tactician and later became a helpful colleague and even friend.

I am peeling back the pages of my own little history by nine short years since the Holy Land is re-living in 2009 the last few exciting hours before another papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The euphemisms continue, as we refer again to a pilgrimage, not a state visit, and we call the land La Terra Sancta or the Holy Land rather than Jordan, Israel and Palestine or even the Occupied Palestinian Territories! Pope Benedict XVI arrives to Amman, in Jordan, on 8th May and it feels that some of the constants of 2000 have almost not changed over the past decade. There is no credible peace process, merely sound bites and tactical realignments, the Palestinians are far too divided in their own little dilapidated political house of cards to matter much at all at the moment as they ostensibly implement the orders of their political ‘allies’ in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia or the USA, whilst Israel has voted in a new hard-line government that spurns a two-state solution anyway and has chosen as foreign minister a man who incarnates [in the words of Uri Avnery, the erudite Jewish peace activist from Gush Shalom] the broader meaning of fascism in Israel today.

Circumstances in 2009 are unlike those in 2000, and I have very much less to do with it, but the week-long pilgrimage when the Pope prays for peace in the Middle East simply goes ahead. So what about it? Well, let me be candid.

Last month, I was chatting with a Catholic friend in Jerusalem and we were wondering together whether this was the most opportune moment for the visit to take place. After all, the invitation by the Israeli president Shimon Peres to the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco was extended last November, although it was kept under wraps until Ha'aretz, a leading Israeli daily newspaper, published the news earlier this year. Yet, the circumstances were somewhat less pressing at the time. In November, the controversy clouding the Catholic-Jewish relationship surrounded the late Pope Pius XII, with many Jews protesting against his canonisation - and ultimate beatification - since they felt that he had not spoken out strongly enough against the holocaust of the Jews by Hitler. However, that inherent problem was diplomatically dealt with when it was decided that the pope could visit Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial site, but side-step the museum that houses a contentious caption regarding this wartime pope.

Today, on the other hand, Palestinians and Israelis are bickering on both the political and community-based levels and many involved parties are voicing their deep-seated reservations about the visit. For instance, the location of the platform Pope Benedict XVI will stand on when he visits the Aida Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem on 13th May has become a bone of contention. Israel objects to the building of the platform and amphitheatre too close to the large cement wall that is part of the ugly separation wall. It claims that such proximity to the wall poses a security threat and that the Palestinians have not acquired the necessary permits to build those structures. Palestinians, on the other hand, wish to do exactly that in order to highlight the servile nature of their existence under occupation with a refugee camp, a wall and a watchtower of the Israeli army all pointing to the unresolved nature of the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict and the colonisation of one people by another.

There are other internecine discords too. There has been a lot of squabbling, for instance, as to whether the outdoor mass on 14th May should take place in Nazareth (at the Basilica of the Annunciation) or in Haifa - with Nazareth winning this round, as it did with John-Paul II in 2000. Or even whether the Pope should be driven around the venue in his glass-covered ‘pope-mobile’ due to perceived security threats against his person. Besides, the large Greek Catholic (Melkite) community in the Galilee whose Archbishop is the well-known and charismatic Fr Elias Chacour is not too happy at what it perceives as its marginalisation during this visit in favour of the smaller Latin-rite Catholics.

>Not to be outdone when it comes to prevarications, the Israeli Jerusalem City Council have called upon the mayor not to attend any of the receptions in the capital as a protest over the participation by the Vatican last month in the UN human rights’ Durban 2 conference in Geneva that the Pope qualified as “an important initiative” but where Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a vitriolic keynote address against Israel. Moreover, residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem are also planning a sit-in protest at the Western Wall over the decision by the police to close the shrine for twelve hours during the papal visit.

Conversely, the Islamist Movement that consists of the largest Muslim group in Israel and is viewed by some as an advocate of Hamas announced that it too would boycott the papal visit due to the Pope’s Regensburg address in 2006 where they believe he impugned Islam and its holy prophet. Readers might well recall this was one of the so-called papal public “gaffes” and caused a huge hiccough in relations between the Catholic Church and Muslims at the time.

However, all this constitutes no more than an interesting background chatter to the mosaic of ecumenical, inter-faith and inter-religious issues in the Holy Land (and here I am re-using the same euphemism) that any reader of The Tablet or other magazines and web-sites could find out. I too lived them, breathed them and grappled with them for years when I was living in Jerusalem. Yet, in my view, they do not constitute serious objections to the pilgrimage. They are diplomatic headaches that could be glossed over with some wisdom and patience for the sake of a much greater good.

The least controversial part of the pilgrimage will be to Jordan. It is always good to start with this kingdom as a precursor for the more challenging stations and political minefields ahead. Christian and Muslim Jordanians get on quite well, and as HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal indicated recently in an interview, the papal visit provides an opportunity to improve relations between the monotheistic religions. But at the end of the day, the stop in Jordan is the safe option - a bit like Moses coming to the edge of a promised land, gazing at it, but not actually crossing into it.

Further onto Israel and the Palestinian territories, there are two clear difficulties with this pilgrimage. Is the Pope going to the region to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the indigenous Christian communities? If so, my first preoccupation centres on Gaza that witnessed in December 2008 a violent war violating many normative laws and I am left wondering about its moral subtext upon the Holy See. My second preoccupation centres on Benyamin Netanyahu’s prime-ministerial portfolio in Israel as it complicates manifold any concrete hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Yet, I suppose that even those two events could have been explained away with a postponement, but I would also concede that any such adjournment became virtually impossible when the Pope lifted the excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops, including the Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson, on 21st January - four short days after the Gaza ceasefire. This decision - no matter how pastoral the Pope wished it to be in terms of healing intra-Catholic fissures - created such a storm that the cancellation of the journey to the Jewish state (for that is what the Israeli government thinks of the State of Israel) became simply unimaginable. Or else the repercussions would have been quite unhelpful.

So it is almost inevitable that political capital will be made from this pilgrimage. Israel would use it to the fullest extent to show the world its acceptable new-old face, whereas the Palestinian Authority which includes the Fateh faction of Mahmoud Abbas but excludes the Islamist Hamas movement will strive to bolster its legitimacy by hosting a prominent world shepherd par excellence who visits Bethlehem - the spiritual capital of a virtual Palestinian state.

All this being equal, and given the futility of my mooting for or against this pilgrimage, I would have suggested two principal amendments at the planning stages of this journey in order to make it even more powerful and meaningful.

My first pre-condition (for that is a word that applies here) would have been that Israel finally sign, seal and deliver without any additional prevarication the Fundamental Agreement that would manage the relationship between the State of Israel and the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. I know a thing or two about this non-agreement, as I was legal adviser at the initial stages, but it has been going on for so long that something needs to be done to have it finalised - and that includes endorsement by the Israeli Knesset [parliament] so the local churches could at long last have a legal frame of reference for their rights and responsibilities - such as work permits or property management - vis à vis Israel. This is quintessential for a local church establishment - be it Catholic, Orthodox or Reform - that feels overwhelmed, harried and tussled because no legal structures predicate the relationship inter partes. What better gift for the Pope to have brought with him to the Church of Jerusalem and therefore to the Christian living stones - his foremost and most important constituency during this visit after all. Or are they not the primary subjects of this pilgrimage?

>My second pre-condition (and I still use of this word) would have been for the Pope to visit Gaza and meet with the miniscule Christian community and some church-related institutions or organisations as well as to witness the ravages that the strip has sustained as a result of the recent war or the unending economic and political boycott against its ordinary residents - though not necessarily its political cadres. After all, many EU delegates have been there already, as have the Secretary-General of the UN and US Senator John Kerry, so the presence of the Pope would not have been a political mishap but rather a welcome gesture of solidarity with an isolated and oft-forgotten Gaza whose story even figures in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. In this respect, a petition organised by academics and students from the Postgraduate Theological Union at the University of San Francisco, as well as other irenic groups, was sent to the Vatican. The petition - - asserted, inter alia, that ‘as in all times, the way of reconciliation exemplified by Jesus calls us to initiate social healing by visiting, eating with, listening to, and risking our safety in solidarity with the “least among us” - in this case the people of Gaza.’ This would have laid an emphasis upon our Christian ministry for reconciliation. Or is this not the theme of the pilgrimage either?

In my humble opinion, Pope Benedict XVI is a truly remarkable man with an ineradicably robust faith. However, he follows in the steps of a Polish star, and part of the problem with this cerebral pope (as one writer suggested) is that he has a track record of blurring his compelling arguments. Indeed, when he visited Auschwitz in May 2006, he offended some Jews by asserting that the Nazis tried to destroy Christianity too. Four months later, he set off a firestorm among Muslims with a lecture at the University of Regensburg by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in that the prophet Mohammed brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” In Brazil last May, he incensed indigenous people in Latin America by suggesting that Christianity was not imposed on them, and in Cameroon he raised many heckles with his misconstrued comment about prophylactics.

Yet, as learned commentators have argued at some length, Pope Benedict was actually trying in each case to make a deeper point. In Auschwitz, his contention was that objective truth grounded in God is the only bulwark against the blind will to power. His Regensburg address was devoted to reason and faith, arguing that reason shorn of faith becomes nihilism, while faith without reason ends in fanaticism and violence. In Brazil, he argued that since Christ embraces all humanity, he cannot be foreign to anyone’s spiritual experience. And in Africa, he was suggesting that condoms are not - and in fact cannot be - the answer to a permissive lifestyle devoid of personal responsibility.

Only last week, I was driving through Jdeideh, north of Dora in Beirut, when I came across a huge poster encouraging Lebanese Christians to travel to Jordan to meet the Pope. Mind you, I do hope he visits Lebanon and Syria too, since the Christian tradition is quite fertile in these lands too, and St Paul has something to say about it! Besides, the multi-confessional population of both countries could do with some encouragement and cheer. But this poster also told me how effective and eloquent the papal message could become as it oversteps cultures and frontiers. This is why in the final analysis I wish the Holy Father - a holy father after all - ample serenity in his demanding pilgrimage. I also pray that his pilgrimage will not limit itself to smiles, speeches, meetings, political encounters and occasional mea culpas, but that it will truly liberate and lift up the life, presence and witness of the Christian communities in the Holy Land.

Pope Benedict XVI often alludes to his concerns about an anaemic European Christianity. I trust he will introduce a qualitative difference to the lives of Middle Eastern Christians too - in this case for those in Jordan, Israel and Palestine - and that he would help affirm the rightful sense of belonging of local Christians to the larger inter-faith and inter-religious jigsaw of the region. I hope - and pray - that this will indeed occur as I say happy pilgrimage, your holiness.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   7 May


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