The Pope Faces Minefields in the Middle East
May 26, 2014
The Pope, a rabbi and an imam are traveling to the Middle East. It sounds like the start of a Henny Youngman joke, rather than international news. Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud are part of the traveling Papal Delegation. From Buenos Aires they are all friends from during the time when Pope Francis was a cardinal in Argentina.
Pope Francis Middle East visit coincides with the latest of failed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), involving the United States, Israel and the PLO (which morphed into the PA), and the unity pact with the PA and the terrorist group Hamas. These are pondered as a cause for the Pope’s visit, and there is speculation regarding his stance on statehood for the Palestinian Authority. However, a historic religious thrust tied to the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI meeting in Jerusalem with Patriarch Athenagoras of the Eastern Orthodox Church is very much in play.
Mahmoud Abbas has expectations that the Pope will speak about Palestinian Authority independence, and is encouraged by the Vatican’s use of the contested term “State of Palestine”. Palestinians claim that Pope Francis showed symbolic support for a sovereign Palestinian State because he helicoptered from his meetings in Amman with King Abdullah II to Bethlehem in the West Bank Territories, and did not fly into Tel Aviv. Palestinians refuse to appreciate that a helicopter is the expedient transport between the two cities. Before boarding the helicopter, Francis praised King Abdullah II for his efforts to seek lasting peace in the entire region; and called for urgent steps to end the three year old civil war in Syria.
Pope Francis laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. He is the first Vatican leader to do so, which enrages some Palestinians.
Christian presence in the Middle East dates back to Jesus during the Roman Empire. Much of the region was forced or voluntarily converted to Islam in the 7th & 8th Centuries. Christian populations are persecuted with various degrees of ferocity. The atmosphere in Arab towns is anti Christian, and they are fleeing. The Pope wants to bring hope to the regions dwindling Christian population.
Israeli President Shimon Peres invited Pope Francis to visit Israel; subsequently PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas invited him. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, invited Pope Francis to join him in Jerusalem. Francis accepted all invitations. “This is a purely religious trip. It is an ecumenical outreach,” Insists Francis. Should we doubt his word? A key moment in the papal journey is a joint public prayer with Francis and Bartholomew and of all Christian communities in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is extraordinarily historic.
The tragic split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church began in 866 under Pope Nicholas I. The Schism of the East severance from the Holy See was a complex and gradual process over many centuries, with a serious break in 1054 when Pope Leo IX of Rome and Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated each other. There were attempts at reinstating a formal union at the 2nd Council of Lyons, and another a couple of hundred years later at the Council of Florence. In 1472 the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, when Nicholas V was Pope, crystallized the definite separations which are still unraveling today.
The Pope may try to ease tensions in the Middle East. However, he will preside over a mass in Bethlehem because it is the birthplace of Jesus, not because it is in the disputed West Bank. Meetings are scheduled with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and also Israel’s Chief Rabbis. He will pray at the Western Wall and place a message in the wall and visit the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
Pope Benedict XVI was the last Pope to visit the Middle East in 2009. He told the Christians “You are an integral part of the fabric of the region and you need to remain here.” To the Muslims his message was “You have experienced an East in which the Christians have always been present.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Pope Benedict XVI a letter of appreciation on behalf of the State of Israel. Following is an excerpt:
"On behalf of the people of Israel, I want to thank you for all you have done as Pope to strengthen relations between Christians and Jews and between the Vatican and the Jewish State. I thank you also for courageously defending Judeo-Christian values and the roots of our common civilization during your time as pontiff. I have no doubt that these values, which were so essential to building the modern world, are no less critical to securing a future of security, prosperity and peace.”
We await messages regarding Pope Francis current visit as he treads through the religious, cultural and political minefields of the Middle East.