image of jerusalem 2013

Mission of Peace! - Papal Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Is it not the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? - Al-Hussein bin Talal Mosque, Amman, 9 May 2009

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

I quite like this title to my second article on the recent papal pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Mind you, I must confess that it is not an original choice since it was used to great effect this week on the cover of The Tablet magazine. Also, my first article Happy Pilgrimage, Your Holiness! focused more acutely on the timeliness and relevance of the trip, whereas this second one oversteps those considerations to some extent by reflecting a little more on effect and a little less on cause.

But let me start off with a stark statement. This pilgrimage was not a failure despite the forensic scrutiny of this eight-day pilgrimage, and in spite of attempts by some members of the media to sensationalise various events almost to the point of willing the pontiff to blunder so they could claim that this German pope is unpredictable in terms of his recurrent public gaffes, or in his leadership and integrity in the face of the existential issues that faced him on his various stations. I had the privilege of being an analyst of this visit for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales (CBCEW) (you can log on here) to hear my seven pod-cast interviews) and I was at times struck by those people on varying sides of the political or religious fences feigning to be apolitical and yet nit-picking as to why the pope omitted a verb or a noun here, a pause or a comment there! Yet, all those leaders seemed to ignore that this pilgrimage should not have been viewed solely from their own respective lenses but from the Vatican lens as well.

It is clear that the least stressful segment of the trip occurred in Jordan. I stated in my first article that this kingdom will have been the dress rehearsal for the “real thing” in Israel and Palestine. Some people might have misconstrued this obiter as a belittlement of the role that Jordan plays in the faith-based and inter-religious dynamics of the region. That is quite inaccurate, as the Jordanian role has often been pivotal and the Hashemite kingdom is a model of conviviality between faiths when compared with other regional movers and shakers. In fact, the tiny Christian minority in Jordan enjoys full rights and good relations with the Muslim majority, and the hospitality and warmth that Jordan as a peacemaker nation offered the Pope were both moving and indelible. One key player was HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, HM King Abdullah II’s cousin and religious affairs adviser, who is also a leading global figure in Muslim dialogue efforts and one of the key figures behind the Common Word document. Indeed, the joint addresses by the Pope and Prince Ghazi on inter-religious relations to an audience of some two-hundred religious leaders, diplomats and university professors, let alone Prince Ghazi’s overall graciousness and respect during the papal visit, together helped overstep the sensitivities of the 2006 Regensburg address. Pope Benedict XVI himself also referred to the vast potential of human reason that was actually strengthened when it humbly allowed itself to be purified by faith. Nor did he duck the political realities of the region, even early on in the pilgrimage, as he praised King Abdullah II not only showing a firm foundation of religious tolerance but also for spearheading far-sighted political initiatives to build peace throughout the Middle East.

But as the Pope’s Royal Jordanian flight touched down at Ben Gurion airport in Israel, it was obvious that a shift in emphasis was ineluctable. After all, this was the more political - and therefore more delicate - chapter of the papal pilgrimage. Yet, I believe the Pope was extremely careful to show equanimity in his pronouncements in Israel and later in Palestine, reminding both sides that he was praying for peace and appealing repeatedly to the two sides to forgive each other and work for lasting reconciliation.

From the moment he arrived at the airport in Israel, Pope Benedict XVI forcefully condemned anti-Semitism. In fact, when he affirmed that Israel had a right to a type of security that was not just the absence of threat but one that instilled calmness and confidence, he somehow reminded me of Spinoza who had once stated that peace is not only the absence of war. The Pope went on to add that all religions could bear witness to the power of truth even if they had different ways of understanding and expressing such truth. He suggested that the will to be obedient to the truth would lead to tolerance and dialogue among cultures and religions.

Whilst in Israel, the Pope also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to honour the memory of the Jewish victims of the Shoah. I thought that those contemplative moments were emotive and sincere, despite the rather churlish comments from a few officials who stated unnecessarily and with a hint of solipsism that even more had been expected from this pontiff. Further on, his visit to the Western Wall was yet another remarkably inclusive stop as encapsulated by the prayer he placed in one of the cracks:

God of all the ages,
on my visit to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace”,
spiritual home to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike,
I bring before you the joys, the hopes and the aspirations,
the trials, the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world.

God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft;
send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East,
upon the entire human family;
stir the hearts of all who call upon your name,
to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion.

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him!” (Lam 3:25)

In Bethlehem in the West Bank, and later in Nazareth in the Galilee, the Pope was equally clear in his support for the local Christians whose numbers have been dwindling alarmingly over decades. However, despite clear political hazards, he showed his winning solidarity with the Palestinians as a people under the yoke of occupation. He was unequivocal in his support for the two-state solution, something that Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister find objectionable these days despite international support for it from the USA, the EU and the Arab League. Moreover, whether at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, surrounded by an ugly eight-metre separation wall, or during his homily in front of the largest crowd in Nazareth, or even upon his departure at the airport, he described the separation wall that Israel has been building across Palestinian lands as “a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached” and added that on both sides of it, “great courage is needed of fear and mistrust are to be overcome.” He was clearly trying to narrow the political chasm between both parties, something that has not been evident with many peripatetic negotiators or politicians over the past few years.

But does all this mean that I am now exhibiting an almost Pauline conversion over this pilgrimage?

No, I have not entirely changed my mind. However, despite my initial reservations in the first article, and my empathy with his predecessor, I was won over by this successor of St Peter who struggled to inject a qualitative difference into the lives of the beleaguered Christian communities across the land as much as put down markers for inter-faith and inter-religious dialogues and for political progress in the midst of an otiose peace process that witnesses further challenges through political sclerosis and colonisation of land.

Today, I still maintain that Pope Benedict XVI should have visited Gaza irrespective of any political arm-twisting and met with its small Christian communities (mainly Greek Orthodox, but also including Latin-rite Catholics and Anglicans) and church-related organisations or institutes. A man of reconciliation should not have dodged this bullet; instead, he should have prayed with those small communities struggling for nothing more dramatic than sheer survival. And who knows, his visit might well have made a visible difference.

>I also note that this pilgrimage does not seem to have helped nudge forward the 15-year-long negotiations with the Israeli government over residency, tax and ownership legalities concerning existing church properties. Avoiding this issue (unless it was raised behind closed doors, but I am not privy to it) might have been one way that the Vatican thought it would help lessen Israeli irritation. But such a calculation will have been too generous: the churches of the Holy Land need clarity and a juridical foundation to their ministry. After all, years of genteel diplomacy and political niceties have not helped unlock negotiations with Israel.

In April 2000, when I was actively involved in planning the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II, I wrote an article entitled Veni, Vidi, Vici! in which I measured the successes of that pontifical trip. Today, taking this Latin maxim as my benchmark, I would suggest that it is still too early to decide the degree of success of this pilgrimage. I suppose one way of gauging it would be to observe how many of the seeds that the Holy Father sowed in the Holy Land fell on fertile ground (Lk 8:4) and whether we will witness the flourishing of peace shoots between Israel and the Palestinians, let alone between Arabs and Israelis. After all, peace is quintessential so that the Christian communities of the region could perhaps find a fresh breath. Peace generates optimism; it is the catalyst that defies religious radicalisation and extremism across the whole spectrum, when domestic realities and socio-economic conditions improve so people could earn their livelihoods and sustain their families. It is also the time when emigrant zeal to newer pastures drops down.

But is this paradigm possible? Frankly, the papal pilgrimage will neither produce miracles nor embarrass protagonists into huddling together and concluding peace. But it is a moral force and spiritual enzyme that might help facilitate the hopes and needs of two peoples in a region raddled with conflict, tension and wars.

Besides, peace is not only possible; its parameters are well-defined too. After all, the recent initiative by King Abdullah II of Jordan offers Israel normalisation of relations with all its Arab and Muslim neighbours (and there are fifty-seven of them) if it were to apply the Arab Initiative of 2002 (rebooted in 2007 and 2009) that provides security for Israel, dignity, freedom and sovereignty for Palestinians, as much as peace for all.

But this breakthrough requires bold statesmanship and irenic intent. It requires a conviction that peace is not only helpful but vital for all the peoples of the region. Sadly, in my own assessment, such conviction is wanting within the Israeli political establishment today. True, Palestinians are pitifully divided, with an unrepresentative new government in Ramallah and a ramshackle political house, but let us not forget that the occupier of lands - Palestinian lands, Arab lands - is Israel that holds most of the cards in this conflict. The Palestinians, weak as they have been across history, are a people under occupation and using their weakness as a pretext to divest them further of their legitimate rights is not only wrong but also immoral.

In a land of conflicting holies, host to an pre-eminent leader on a pilgrimage of peace, I am reminded of the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament reminding us, “For by ruses thou shalt make thy war” (Prov 24:6). As the intrepid peace-labourer Uri Avnery reminded his readers on the pages of Newropeans, ruses in modern-day Hebrew are translated as takhbulot - or tricks and ploys. I would contend that PM Netanyahu is now using new “ruses” to up the ante and make peace even more inaccessible. Confusing the Iranian nuclear issue with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or pawning immediate realities with future scenarios only muddies further the political waters. Besides, he is now demanding that the Palestinians - and other Arab countries - recognise Israel as “the State of the Jewish People” - mind you, not only as a “Jewish State” - so non-Jews could become personae non grata in the lands that are as much theirs by birthright as they are for Jews too.

Security, as much as dignity and justice, are the skeleton keys toward peace in the whole region, and accomplishing it would be the most tangible and concrete affirmation of Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage and his frequent prayers in the Middle East. But are we Jews, Christians and Muslims worthy of such prayers? More pertinently, are we truly capable of incarnating them into faithful hopes and substantive solutions?

Not only do we enrich culture but we shape it: lives of religious fidelity echo God’s irruptive presence and so form a culture not defined by boundaries of time or place but fundamentally shaped by the principles and actions that stem from belief.

Notre Dame Center, Jerusalem, 11 May 2009

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   21 May


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