Pope Francis and the Holy Land: Is Religion the Pathway to Peace?

Thursday, June 12, 2014
Pope Francis and the Holy Land: Is Religion the Pathway to Peace?

This article originally appeared on ISLAMiCommentary at: http://islamicommentary.org/2014/06/pope-francis-and-the-holy-land-is-religion-the-pathway-to-peace/

“A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew walk into a… “

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s a serious refrain that’s become especially familiar over the last few weeks.

In May, the Pope makes a Holy Land pilgrimage to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem with Argentinian colleagues and friends Sheik Omar Abboud and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. And then this past Sunday the Pope hosts Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for prayer at the Vatican.

The Vatican uses the term ‘Holy Land‘ (Terra Sancta) to describe an area that encompasses all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River — and in some usages even parts of Egypt (for that is where the Holy Family fled from Herod).

The Pope, through his visit to the Holy Land, appeared to have acknowledged that the region is holy not just for the Catholic Church and Christians the world over, but that it’s also sacred to Jews and Muslims. And it is in this symbolic realm — in which holiness is shared rather than contested — that Pope Francis hopes to achieve some progress in bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together. And his visit was history-making; the first time that leaders of other faiths were part of an official papal delegation.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters that the decision to have Jewish and Muslim clergymen join the Pope on his three-day Middle Eastern visit was an “extremely strong and explicit signal” of the importance of interfaith dialogue and “the normality” of having friends of other religions.”

In retrospect the May visit could be seen as a prelude to Sunday’s Rome meeting — in which religious symbolism with a not-so-subtle political subtext prevailed.

The centerpiece of the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem may have been to improve the Vatican’s relationship with the Orthodox Christian churches by marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras that began the process of ending a 1000-year rift between the churches, but the reporting was all about symbolism of a different kind.

It was not the appearance of Pope Francis praying with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a gesture unparalleled since the Great Schism but nevertheless far from signifying a complete reconciliation), nor was it the Pope’s meeting with the Chief Rabbis of Israel’s Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities that grabbed headlines.

It was appearances of a different kind that made news — the Pope and friends at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount; at Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank; at an Israeli memorial to victims of terrorism; at the Western Wall; at the grave of Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist movement that led to Israel’s founding; and at the Yad Vashem Memorial to Holocaust victims.

The Pope also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “man of peace” Mahmoud Abbas (whom the Vatican called, in its official program, the president of the “State of Palestine” according to an AP report).

Speaking alongside Abbas, the Pope called for “the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”

(In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in the 1967 war — as a non-member observer.)

But as far as the Israeli government is concerned there is no State of Palestine — but rather a “Palestinan Authority” whose territory is directly or indirectly under Israeli military control. In contrast, the Palestinians presented the Pope’s visit as full recognition and affirmation of Palestinian statehood.

After the visit, came a flurry of questions for the analysts to answer:

Who had won the Holy Father over? Had anyone? What did his praying all over the place mean? Would the Pope’s symbolic gestures, happening in a region where radical change, revolution and re-alignments seem to be happening at warp speed, influence the decision makers?

Was the Pope picking up where John Kerry’s attempts at shuttle diplomacy left off — demonstrating that the power of religious symbols and ideas could succeed where Kerry’s ‘secularist’ approach had failed? Could it be that forward motion on the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict was on the horizon?

Not So Fast

Within Israel there were some important dissenting voices about the true value of the Pope’s interfaith gestures:

“So he brings an Argentinian rabbi and an Argentinian imam, that’s very nice, but there’s no event where he’s bringing together an imam or rabbi here,” noted Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs.

And there were dissenting voices with the Islamic leadership of Palestinian Israelis (or Israeli Arabs, as the Israeli government describes them). Some Muslim clerics in Israel were offended by the Pope’s visit to the ‘Western’ Wall.

As the Israel National News reported yesterday, Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the radical Islamic Movement in Israel, wrote an open letter to Pope Francis last Thursday, criticizing him for his visit to the Western Wall (Kotel) two weeks ago, claiming that the site is wholly Muslim.

“The Israeli occupation utilized the visit of the Pope in the most ugly fashion,” wrote Salah, going on to list the Pope’s actions he saw as being in Israel’s favor at the ‘Al-Buraq’ Wall, a name given by Muslims to the Kotel in the 1920s in an attempt to claim it.

The name refers to Mohammed’s “winged steed” that he supposedly rode to Jerusalem in his “night journey.” “You put a note in the ‘Al-Buraq’ Kotel which the Israeli occupation calls in deception and lies the Wailing (Western) Wall…as a result you give them approval that this Kotel is the Western Wall and not the ‘Al-Buraq’ Wall, and you permit them sovereignty on it,” charged Salah.

It was also revealed this past weekend that the Pope’s original plan was to have the Abbas-Peres ‘prayer meeting’ while he was in Jerusalem last month. But the logistic and symbolic problems that such a meeting entailed (In whose Sacred Space would such a meeting be held?) were overwhelming. Not willing to be deterred, the Pope proposed the meeting be held at the Vatican.

In contrast to volatile Jerusalem, the Vatican presented an environment in which all aspects of the encounter (including the security aspects) could be carefully controlled. And, in fact, the Rome meeting on Sunday was exquisitely planned and executed. In the shadow of St. Peter’s, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish clerics and diplomats read prayers and made hopeful speeches. (Though skeptics might have noted that the sight of Peres and Abbas praying — they were both at one time staunchly secularist —was itself noteworthy — and anomalous.)

More than a few political observers noted that Abbas, just by being there, looked like the leader of a Palestinian State rather than of a Palestinian Authority.

An old joke among Mideast pundits:

Despairing of diplomatic solutions to the world’s most intractable conflicts, the head of the UN invites groups of diplomats from regions embroiled in conflict to prayer meetings at the UN chapel in NYC. After weeks of meditation, fasting and prayer each group hears God’s ‘still small voice’ say: “There will be peace my children, but not in your lifetimes.”

The last group convened is composed of Israeli and Palestinian diplomats. This time meditation, fasting and prayer do not produce the desired results. The diplomats sequester themselves and renew their efforts. Finally, after months of intense effort, the diplomats hear a still small voice weakly whisper: “There will be peace my children — but not in My lifetime.”

Perhaps Pope Francis has heard this all-too–popular joke and is determined to prove that there will be peace ‘in God’s lifetime’ — and that the cynics and skeptics are wrong.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and core faculty of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His most recent book is “Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land” (UNC Press, January, 2010). He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.