The Pope’s Visit to the Middle East

Press review – week from May 11 to 15, 2009

The Pope’s visit in three steps (Jordan, Israel, Palestinian Authority) was expected after the recent tensions between on the one hand a part of the Muslim world after Regensburg’s speech in 2006 and on the other hand the Jewish community following the scandal of the revisionist Bishop Williamson. The speeches of the Pope in the Middle East mainly dealt with the reaffirmation of his respect for Islam, his support to Christians in the region, the condemnation of any Holocaust denial but also the Catholic Church’s support to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian State as well as the condemnation of the separation wall and the embargo suffered by Gaza.

First step: Jordan

Rebuilding ties with Islam

« In Amman, Benedict XVI rejects the clash of civilizations » was Le Figaro’s main article’s title. For the French daily, the Pope came to support the thesis of an « anti-shock » of civilizations and to reject the inevitability of a conflict between Muslims and Christians. Upon arrival, the Pope expressed his « profound respect for the Muslim community”. He praised Jordan for its « decisive » role in « promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam. »

Besides meeting with the king of Jordan, the Pope has blessed the first stone of a future Catholic University. On that occasion he underlined that this building was a « sign of respect of Jordan to religion » before thanking the Hashemite Kingdom for its open-mindedness. The Holy Father recalled the « avant- gardist » specificity of Jordan regarding peace initiatives and the inter-religious dialogue. For the Jordanian monarch, the visit was an opportunity to renew a commitment to mutual respect, « to create a new global dialogue. » In the plane that took him to Amman, the pontiff said he wanted to develop « a trilateral dialogue between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Finally, the Pope condemned extremism, explaining that « religion is disfigured when it is placed at the service of ignorance and prejudice, contempt, violence and abuse. »

Supporting Middle Eastern Christians

Since his arrival in Jordan, the Pope addressed the Christians of the Middle East. The Jordan Times reported that he called on Christians to support reconciliation and praised their role in Jordanian society. For him, the Christian community is bound to promote dialogue and has to remain strong.

This concern of the Christians of the East has been present during the whole trip. The Israeli daily Haaretz stressed that during the Mass in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Benedict XVI has asked the authorities to support the Christian presence in the holy city.

The Turkish daily Huriyet reports that the Pope has asked the Christians of Middle East to show courage in a region devastated by the conflicts that have forced many of them to flee. »

For the New York Times, the call of the Pope takes place in a region that is now getting empty of its Christians, forced to leave because of political violence, lack of economic opportunities and the rise of radical Islam. The American newspaper reported that a hundred years ago the region was 20% Christian, while today only 5% of the region’s populations are Christian. While Christians had played an important role in nationalist struggles, they now feel excluded from the political scenes and are often considered as “allies of the West » and as having a foreign culture. Sarkis Naoum, a Lebanese journalist in Al-Nahar, believes that « unless the Arab world turns to secularism, there is no future for Christians in the region. »

« I fear the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East » had commented the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad. Even if he understands the Christians’ reasons for emigrating, Benedict XVI reminded them that these departures are causing cultural and spiritual losses, adding that on the Holy Land there is « a place for everyone. »
Second step: Israel

Second step of the journey of the Pope, Israel, where people expected an explanation or an apology from the Pope after the lifting of the excommunication on fundamentalist and the speeches of Bishop Williamson.

Condemnation of Holocaust denial

In Le Figaro, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau praised the Pope’s visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, highlighting that the Holy Father has said no « to the denial of the Holocaust, no to the forgetting, no to the minimization of the Holocaust’s magnitude”. The Pope said that the names of the Holocaust’s victims were « indelibly written in the memory of God. » From the moment he got off the plane in Jordan, Benedict XVI said that « all efforts should be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it was. »

The recent controversies were almost forgotten even if four Ministers from the Israeli ultra-Orthodox party Shas boycotted the reception of Benedict XVI with President Peres. This incident did not have any impact since a flyer signed by leading rabbis in Israel, welcoming the arrival of the Pope, was published Monday in major Israeli newspapers.

Some cases remain pending in the relations between Vatican and Israel: the negotiations on the status of the Church’s properties in the Holy Land, the ease of movement for religious and the tax exemptions for the Church are issues that have still not been resolved. In addition, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank deprives among others priests and believers from Palestinian communities to have an access to Jerusalem and places of worship.

While the Pope is still in the Holy Land, Israel, through its Interior Minister Eli Yishai, has rejected a request from the Vatican to grant multiple-entry visas to 500 Arab priests wishing to go in Israel.

On May 14th, the Pope met Prime Minister B. Netanyahu in Nazareth. The two men allegedly discussed the peace process, the Iranian issue but also on issues of the bilateral commission and the Agreement signed in 1993 by Israel and the Vatican that enabled the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two States, through their delegations, according to Le Point.

The AFP points out that the Israeli Prime Minister has asked the Pope on Thursday to strongly denounce the call of the Iranian president against Israel. But the image that many media, like L’Express, will keep in mind is the meeting bringing together Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze, which was attended by the Pope. Thanks to the spontaneous initiative of a rabbi, all participants gave hands and hummed a song for peace.
Third step: the Palestinian Authority

Papal support to a Palestinian state

Haaretz reports that the Pope called for a sovereign Palestinian state on his arrival in Bethlehem despite the opposition of the current Prime Minister of Israel. « The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian state in the land of your ancestors, secure and in peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders, » said Benedict XVI in the presidential palace of Mahmoud Abbas.

“I know how much you have suffered and how you continue to suffer due to the upheavals that have taken this land for decades » said Pope. L’Express points out that Benedict XVI recalled the words of his predecessor John Paul II at the latter’s visit to the Holy Land in 2000: « There can be no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness ».

« It was an excellent visit during which the pope gave political support to the Palestinian cause and to an agreement based on two states allowing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, » said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to AFP.

Condemnation of the separation wall and the embargo on Gaza

The Israeli daily Haaretz stressed that the Pope says he was praying for the end of the Israeli embargo on Gaza Strip. Benedict XVI assured the Palestinians of Gaza of his « solidarity. »

The Palestinian News Network said that if the Pope has not visited the Gaza Strip, he recalled his compassion at the press conference he gave along with Mahmoud Abbas, who declared that » there were those who are trying to build bridges instead of walls (…) « .

According to La Libre Belgique, the Palestinians wanted the Pope to give his speech next to the separation wall before deciding under pressure, to receive him in a school in Aida refugees camp. Benedict XVI, who walked along the wall, said he felt solidarity « with all the homeless Palestinians who yearn to return to where they were born or to live permanently in their homeland. » “The Wall is an inescapable reminder of the deadlock of the Israeli-Palestinian relations”, said the Holy Father before declaring that « walls can be knocked down. »
The Pope’s call not to succumb to terrorism

The New York Times exposed the Pope’s willingness to promote hope and fight against the temptation of terrorism urging the two populations to « keep the flame of hope » for peace and stability. He asked the young Palestinians to « have the courage to resist the temptation to take part in terrorist actions. »

Number of media have hailed the visit « without false note » of the Pope, despite the disappointment of Israel not having seen the Holy Father speak of « remorse » of the Church about the Holocaust.