Pope's Visit Satisfies Few
By Matt Beynon Rees
JERUSALEM — As the Pope’s special El Al flight departed Tel Aviv for Rome Friday at the end of his five-day visit to the Holy Land, he might have kicked off his red slippers, dropped his seat into recline, and wondered why he bothered to come.
He had to endure a nasty anti-Israel tirade by a Palestinian cleric at what was supposed to be an interfaith dialogue meeting in Jerusalem. He was excoriated in the Israeli press for insufficient hand-wringing at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Then the Israeli prime minister buttonholed him about Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, which would hardly be within the remit of Benedict XVI’s “personal pilgrimage” to the Holy Land.
Of course, the Pope wouldn’t be the only one wondering why he came. Israeli newspaper commentators acknowledged that, at best, he meant well. Palestinians were glad he posed in front of the Israeli wall around Bethlehem, but wanted a stronger denunciation of Israel — on that score it’s fair to say they’re hard to please. Even local Christians were disappointed that, unlike his predecessor, Benedict chose not to boost their flagging community by urging Catholics around the world to make a pilgrimage to the Christian sites of the Holy Land.
And everyone wondered why the 82-year-old pontiff didn’t smile.
When he visited the Western Wall on Tuesday, the Pope faced the old Herodian stones of the ancient Jewish Temple’s retaining wall and recited Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”
The response from the people of Jerusalem was, in effect: “Prayers? That’s all you’ve got?”
Because the people of Jerusalem had more than just prayers for Benedict.
At the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute opposite the New Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Pope concluded his first day in the Holy Land by walking off the stage to signal his disapproval of an undoubtedly pre-planned outburst by Sheikh Taisir Tamimi, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s Islamic courts. Tamimi grabbed the microphone to welcome Benedict to “the eternal political, national and spiritual capital of Palestine.”
The interfaith meeting was billed as an occasion to recognize the suffering of others, rather than dwelling on one’s own victimhood as is the wont of Israelis and Palestinians. The Pope’s address was a rather esoteric meditation on religion’s role in a world made somehow smaller by new communications technologies.
“Can we then make spaces — oases of peace and profound reflection — where God's voice can be heard anew,” he said, “where His truth can be discovered within the universality of reason, where every individual, regardless of dwelling, or ethnic group, or political hue, or religious belief, can be respected as a person, as a fellow human being?”
Tamimi had the microphone for 10 minutes. But he’d only have needed one word to give his response to the Pope’s question: No. (Although his accustomed style would’ve necessitated three words: No, no, no. And an exclamation mark.)
Given that Tamimi was the cleric who, at the same location, rained on the parade of the much more popular John Paul II in 2000, the Pope’s entourage ought to have seen this coming. The Sheikh went on to invite Christians to join the Muslim struggle against Israel.
Had anyone bothered to translate the Sheikh’s remarks for Benedict, he might have responded that Tamimi should’ve heard what he said at Yad Vashem an hour earlier: “The Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews."
Of course, Tamimi wasn’t the only one who didn’t listen to those words. Israeli commentators paid more attention to what Benedict failed to say. They attacked him because he didn’t refer to his membership in the Hitler Youth, to his German nationality, or even apologize for centuries of institutionalized anti-Semitism from the Catholic Church. (Just before his departure on Friday, the Pope called the Holocaust an "appalling chapter in history" that must "never be forgotten or denied," and said that many Jews had been "brutally exterminated under a godless regime," according to wire reports.)
It was the same story much of the week. It must have been a relief for the pontiff to arrive Thursday at an interfaith meeting in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up and which is now in northern Israel, to hear representatives of the three major Abrahamic faiths actually talk to each other in a spirit of respect and forgiveness.
At the Church of Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel told Mary she’d bear the son of God, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Obeid, the judge of Nazareth's Islamic court, said: “The Muslim has become a suspect for his mere name, and the Christian's motives are doubted because of his mere words, and the Jew faces anger for his mere entity. All of this disturbs the world's balance and leads it toward evil.”
At the end of the meeting, the Pope joined hands with a rabbi and a Druze religious leader, as they sang a song of peace. Then, finally, he smiled.