Pope Francis and his Invitation for Peace

To try successfully to separate religion and politics in the Middle East is an illusion. You can’t have one without the other. The brief three-day visit of Pope Francis I to the Holy Land in May 2014 is the latest example of the inevitable interaction between the two. His “pilgrimage for prayer” had significant political overtones in his plea for revitalizing the peace process between Israel and Palestinians.

The official reason for the visit was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem in January 1964 of Pope Paul VI and the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras.  This occasion was a historic one aiming to heal the acrimonious rift and mutual excommunication in the Christian Catholic Church that started with the different theological and geopolitical disputes in the Great Schism of 1054.  The meeting opened the way to reconciliation after 900 years of separation and antagonism between East and West, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. As a result the mutual excommunication was ended in 1965. The meeting in Jerusalem on May 25, 2014 between Pope Francis and Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch continues the process of reconciliation.

The commemoration of the 50th anniversary and the continuation of the healing process between the two Catholic denominations reinforced the process of reconciliation. Though it was not outwardly political, the visit became significant as a symbolic gesture to encourage political as well as religious peace. The Pope’s visit after meetings in Jordan, where he observed the consequences of the brutal civil war in Syria, took him to areas inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians, areas that are holy to people of three faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Christian sects in the Holy Land have long been linked in a condition of what is called simultaneum, a form of religious tolerance, in which public worship in places is shared and conducted by adherents of two or more religious groups. It originated in German speaking areas after the Reformation, and led to churches as shared religious sites, used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. That link continues in the Holy Land.

There are three striking instances of simultaneum in the Holy Land, but the interaction among the religious groups involved has been acrimonious at times. For Christians, the most notable is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which Christians believe to be Golgotha or the Hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified and was buried.  Six different branches of Christian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism share the Church. In addition, the guardians of its main entrance are descendants of two Muslim families, the Nusseibah and Jouddeh families which have had that responsibility since the 12th century.

A short walk from the Church is the Temple Mount, or Haram Al-Sharif, where all three religions have prayed at different times. The Mount is the location of the First and Second Jewish Temples and also of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque.  Since 1187, control of the Mount, where non-Muslim prayers have now been forbidden, has been managed by the Islamic community, specifically the waqf, the Islamic trust. Pope Francis displayed empathy with the Jewish people as well as tact by praying at the Western Wall at foot of the Mount and leaving a note in Spanish in a crack in the stones.

The third site is the Cenacle, the legal and tax status of which is still disputed. Tradition holds that it was the place where Jesus had the Last Supper with his Apostles, that it is the burial place of King David, and that it contains the remains of a Byzantine Church. Under Ottoman rule the Cenacle became a mosque and Christians were not allowed into it until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Israel now owns the building, but Franciscans have administrative control over it.

Reminders of the interactions among the religions are therefore evident to all visitors. Pope Francis is not the first Pope to visit the Holy Land. Three Popes, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, have visited the area, and like them Francis has been anxious to avoid suggestions of bias against any group, though he has touched on political matters. To illustrate his political neutrality, the Pope was accompanied by a Rabbi, Abraham Skorka, and by a Muslim dignitary, Sheikh Omar Abboud, both from Argentina.

However, all actions and references have meaning and consequences. On one hand, Pope Francis laid a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader, and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.  He visited the memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism. On the other hand, he flew directly by helicopter from Jordan to Bethlehem in the West Bank, thus avoiding going through Israel, and refers, as is the Vatican habit, to the “State” of Palestine. While at Bethlehem, he leaned against, perhaps praying at, the fence, the wall that Israel had built for security reasons, and that has successfully prevented suicide bombers from attacking Israeli civilians. Photos of the occasion show graffiti in red paint on the wall: one read “Free Palestine,” and another “Bethlehem looks like the Warsaw ghetto.”

Like the other Popes who visited the Holy Land, his mission symbolically represents a call for peace in Middle Eastern countries, and for religious and political toleration.  While in Jordan, Pope Francis particularly highlighted the plight of the Syrian people, and rightfully praised Jordan for taking in 600,000 Syrians who have fled the civil war in Syria.

He called for a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two state solution in which both states would live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders. He called the stalemate “increasingly unacceptable,” and stressed the need for the parties to be generous and creative in the “service of the common good.” To aid this peace process, he invited Israeli President Shimon Peres, who is leaving office in July, and Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in the tenth year of his four year term as “President” of the Palestinian Authority, to the Vatican as the appropriate venue “for this encounter of prayer.” Both the Presidents have accepted the invitation, but the inherent problem is that they do not have equivalent powers. Both carry the same title but Peres is the head of the State of Israel, not the head of government, while Abbas occupies both positions. Thus, the Pope’s symbolic gesture may not have political reward.

One cannot help but admire Pope Francis’ skill in avoiding a potential political minefield in his emphasis on the need for peace and tolerance. But his very visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and to Jerusalem must have alerted him at first hand to the plight of Christians in areas ruled by Muslims. In 1947 the population of Bethlehem was 85 per cent Christian; in 2014 it is 18 per cent and still declining.  In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christians amount to 14,000 or 1.5 per cent of the total population, compared with 500,000 Jews and 288,000 Muslims. The Gaza Strip has about 3,000 Christians, less than 1 per cent of the population.  

All are now aware that two-thirds of the 1.4 million Christian population in Iraq has been driven out of the country after the 2003 war there. Furthermore, the Christian exodus from the brutal cruelty of both sides in the civil war in Syria is evident. The Vatican has long expressed concern that the 2000 year-old tradition of Christian presence in the Middle East is being eroded in Arab countries by the emigration of Christians. Israel is not only the one country in the area with free religious pluralism, but also the one in which the number, about 160,000, and proportion of Christians in the population, 2 per cent, has increased. There are now more Christians in Haifa and in Nazareth than in Bethlehem or Ramallah. Even more striking is the fact that more than 5,700 students affiliated with Christianity are enrolled in Israeli institutions of higher learning.

The visit of Pope Francis has to be seen as a resounding call for the resumption of peace negotiations. It is heartening that he informed Palestinians that violence was not the way to deal with problems. But he must have been disheartened by the comment of Mustafa Barghouti, general secretary of the Palestine National Initiative that he co-founded in 2002, on the meaning of his touching the wall in Bethlehem. The Pope, he said, had put his hand “on an apartheid system, on a system of separation, discrimination, and oppression.” The Pope had done no such thing, and all people interested in bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table recognize that the comment helps prevent the Pope’s hopes for peace from being fulfilled.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.