Pope: in the Holy Land to speak of reconciliation in the midst of political and religious tensions

Vatican City – Next Friday May 8th, Benedict XVI leaves for the Holy Land: Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He will be the third pope to go to the Holy Land after Paul VI (1964) and John Paul II (2000). It will be his fourth time there: he was there in 1964, 1992 and 1994, when, among other things, he made an important speech about relations between Israel the Church and the Vatican.

It is a deeply desired voyage taking place during a very delicate moment in the history of the Middle East. “An important, interesting and complex journey”, is how the Vatican Press Office director Fr Federico Lombardi described it. “The Pope will be in a glass-house of sorts, with the hidden danger of being exploited” says Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Sites of the Holy Land. Everyone “is waiting to grab a slice of the cake, that this visit represents….”, was the comment of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal.

Politically speaking, on one hand there is the increate tension caused by the newly formed government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Heavily influenced by the extreme right, it has more or less blocked all indirect dialogue with Syria; amplified division with the Palestinians – even Fatah “moderates”- disillusioned the expectations of many Arabs who had hoped that peace was finally in sight and finally left new space for the fanatical supporters of the extremist Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And US envoy George Mitchell’s visit to the region two weeks ago further highlighted the divergence between Obama and the new Israeli leadership over the two state solutions.

The Arab world too, is more divided then ever. Trials in Egypt and Jordan of men accused of being part of Shiite extremism come only months ahead of the June elections in Lebanon, a key nation, and the election of a new Iranian President.

Of course these are not the reasons behind the Pope’s journey; he’s going as a pilgrim. But it would be unrealistic not to recognise the political expectations that he brings with him. He said it himself, last Sunday, when he asked the faithful to pray for the success of his visit: “With my visit I propose to confirm and encourage the Christians of the Holy Land, who must daily confront many difficulties”. “Moreover - ha added - I will be a pilgrim of peace, in the name of the one God, Father of all. I will give witness to the Catholic Church's commitment in favour of those who work to practice dialogue and reconciliation, to arrive to a stable and lasting peace in justice and mutual respect”. “In a special way” he also asked for special prayers for the Palestinian people “who have endured great hardship and suffering”. Recently the Palestinians had the issue over Gaza not being on the trips agenda. Security concerns was the answer they were given. A hundred Christians from Gaza will however, be present at the mass that the pope will celebrate in Bethlehem on Wednesday 13th, and political exponents from the Gaza Strip should take part in a meeting with the Palestinian Authorities at the end of the visit to the town of Christ’s birth.

If it is taken for certain that the Pope will speak of the Middle East situation with the King of Jordan, the Israeli President and Prime Minister and the Palestinian President, already “gestures” that indicate a “use” of his presence can be noted, such as the decision to build the papal stage in Nazareth right in front of the Israeli security barrier or the news, attributed to the Israeli Secret Service, Shin Bet, of security concerns and possible attacks on Benedict XVI at that very point of his journey. The point where the greatest number of Christians are expected to turn up.

The Christians, above all are on Benedict XVI’s mind. Their numbers continue to dwindle across the Middle East, even in Lebanon, where until a few decades ago they were in the majority. A few in Syria – under strict control – violently attacked in Iraq- marginalised everywhere. Iraqi Christian refugees are due to take part in the Mass that Benedict XVI will celebrate in Amman, Jordan on Sunday. In Israel then, there is “ignorance” and “intolerance” towards Catholics. And if the government – which has spent 10 million dollars on the visit – announces a special stamp collection for the occasion and even created a website, in which its states that “His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a pilgrimage of peace and reconciliation”, it continues not to budge on issues such as church property and fiscal issues in the laborious dialogue with the Holy See. Just a sit keeps ominously silent on the issue of returning the Cenacle to the Custody, which in 2000 with John Paul II’s visit appeared close.

Benedict XVI’s visit, on a level of consciousness of the Christian presence in Israel is producing some results. In Israeli papers, articles on Christianity appear more frequently. Haaretz, in mid April even dedicated an article, by no means hostile, to the small community of the Catholic Vicariate “that speaks Hebrew” and “within which there are even some holocaust survivors” that meets in the small Church of Saints Simeon and Anna in Jerusalem.

The Pope will not go there: the packed agenda of his visit only allows for the Holy Sites, the river Jordan, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Holy Sepulchre and the Upper Room, but also to the seats of the other Christian confessions. There is also an ecumenical and inter-religious connotation to this visit in so far as Benedict XVI will visit the Wailing Wall – where he will leave a personal prayer as did John Paul II – and visit two great Rabbis of Jerusalem. An encounter that will finally close the book on the polemics surrounding the Lefebvre bishop and holocaust denier Williamson. A misunderstanding that was already overcome in March last with the visit to the Vatican by a delegation from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Commission for relations with Jews. The Commission first announced by John Paul II in 2000 in the seat of the Chief Rabbinate, where Benedict XVI is due to go.