Today is the second and final day of Pope Francis’ whirlwind visit to the region. His schedule today in Jerusalem is once again fraught with potential pitfalls:
Pope Francis faces a diplomatic high-wire act on Monday as he visits sacred Muslim and Jewish sites in Jerusalem on the final day of his Middle East tour.
On Monday, Jews and Muslims are expected to scrutinize the pope’s every word and gesture as he seeks to bridge the religious divides in meetings with leaders from both sides.
The 77-year-old pontiff will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest site, and the holiest in Judaism as the site of the Biblical temples.
He will then pray at the Western Wall before visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, where he will speak with Holocaust survivors, and will also become the first pope ever to lay flowers at Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s grave on Mount Herzl.
The pope will also celebrate mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper.
The site, on Mount Zion, is located in a two-story building also considered holy to Jews and Muslims, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.
My previous post addressed some of the political minefields which it was hoped the Pope would avoid. Unfortunately he succeeded only partially, with a particularly offensive prayer session at the security barrier – whether he intended it to be offensive or not. Various of the Pope’s statements in Bethlehem were also insulting to Israeli ears as he not-so-tacitly gave his blessing to the non-existent Palestinian state.
Adding insult to injury, today he met with the virulently antisemitic Mufti of Jerusalem (as I documented in an earlier post). However I give the Pope credit for making a dig at Muslim violence right there at the Dome of the Rock:
“May no one abuse the name of God through violence, may we work together for justice and peace,” he says.
Shmuel Rabinovitch speaks to the pope, mentioning the temple’s menorah, or candelabra, looted by the Romans 2,000 years ago and thought to have been taken to the Italian capital.
Rabinovitch says the Jewish people are standing strong in Israel after the Holocaust, and emphasizes the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, quoting Jeremiah and Psalms.
He requests that all believers abandon hate and anti-Semitism, noting the deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels on Saturday.
On the negative side, viewing the Pope’s visit and itinerary with displeasure, Paula Stern writes harshly of Papal insensitivity and Jewish self-inferiority:
The Pope is coming to Israel, to our country, the land of the Jews. His scheduled visit is anything but non-political despite his claims to the opposite, and shows, at best, an incredible level of papal insensitivity. A look at the detailed agenda shows a wealth about the real intentions of the Vatican. At best, the carefully scheduled visits are an insult, at worst, they are a blatant attempt to instruct Israel on what the church will permit of us, how it will treat us. It is for us to accept it or fight back. Sadly, it seems our government is not standing tall. Rather, it is allowing itself to be treated as the second class citizens we were once. The Pope will be our guest; perhaps he is attempting to remind us of what it was like to be his.
Then, having come to Israel to first meet with the Palestinians, on his second day, he is return to Jerusalem where he will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The meeting, of course, will not take place in the Knesset or the Prime Minister’s office as that would, I assume, offend the Palestinians and so, instead, the Pope has summoned our Prime Minister to the Notre Dame complex…and our Prime Minister is going to go there.
The Pope does want to visit the Western Wall – which he will do AFTER he visits the Temple Mount to again greet the Muslims. The Vatican refers to OUR Temple Mount as the “Esplanade of the Mosques” – yeah, well.
We can’t really control what the Pope does, what he says, and where he goes, but we can control ourselves. Why is our Prime Minister going to meet the Pope versus welcoming the Pope within the walls of our governing offices? Will we close the Western Wall to Jews to allow the Pope a visit?
This is not a friend visiting Israel – this is a political visit carefully crafted to show support for the Palestinians while doing its best not to blatantly insult those Jews. But those Jews are different today. This is our country.
Only when we hold ourselves to the standards of equality will others treat us with the respect we will have earned. Only when we stop explaining and apologizing and demand an equal and balanced reception, will we get one. I have no objections to the Pope visiting Bethlehem or meeting Abbas – but as he is flying into Israel, driving through Israeli cities and on Israeli roads, protected and escorted by the Israeli army, the visit should have been choreographed so differently.
If the Pope is so busy bowing to Islam, let him fly into Ramallah and let the Palestinians protect him. Let them fly Vatican flags from their roof tops and let them explain why they hold Christianity in such contempt.
And on our side, when will we demand that our leaders act as all others?
Events have slightly overtaken Paula’s article. She criticised the Pope for not meeting with Israeli terror victims but he has adjusted his schedule – perhaps in response to criticism of his prayer at the security barrier – to visit Israel’s memorial to terror victims, though not at his own instigation.
Francis, flanked by Peres and Netanyahu, lays a wreath at Herzl’s grave and marks a moment of silence at the site.
He had originally been planned to be whisked away to nearby Yad Vashem right after, but while at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, Francis will apparently make an unscheduled stop at a monument for terror victims, at the request of Netanyahu.
I agree with Paula’s criticism of our leaders’ spinelessness (though we can at least give Netanyahu the credit for the Pope’s above change in schedule) in the face of international opinion and their lack of visible national pride. I also concur with her analysis of the visit’s itinerary as “calculated to insult”.
However I would separate the Vatican bureaucracy from the Pope himself. My instinct is to step with care around criticising him personally. He gives the impression of wanting to be a friend of the Jews. I think we might achieve more with honey than with vinegar. We need to regain our national pride as Paula Stern recommends, and show the Pope where he could improve relations.
Then again, perhaps I’m just being too nice or naive.
Arlene Kushner is critical of the Pope too, but in less harsh terms, in her article “Tough going” (which includes other news items too) . Here are some short excerpts, but read it all:
Unofficially, his warmth towards Israel is being celebrated with much enthusiasm. As a JPost editorial – which refers to Francis’s “philo-Semitism” – put it:
Francis seemed to go further when he praised the Jews for remaining faithful to God ‘despite the awful trials of these last centuries.’ If Jews were once condemned for being present when Jesus appeared but choosing to reject him, Francis was now thanking them for holding stubbornly to their faith.”
And yet… and yet… there are elements of his trip that are deeply disconcerting. Yes, the claim has been made – by the pope himself – that the trip is purely religious and not political. Yes, he has to be even-handed. Yes, he must call for peace.
But he didn’t come our way directly from the Vatican via Ben Gurion airport, as might have been expected. He came via Amman, where he landed yesterday, and met with the King of Jordan and other officials. From there he went by helicopter, this morning, to Bethlehem. And, oh, did the Palestinian Arabs make the most of this. They took him on an unscheduled side trip to see the “occupation wall” in Bethlehem – the wall constructed to keep terrorists out. Abbas, additionally, lamented to the pontiff that Israel is “judaizing Jerusalem.”
The Pope at one point referred to the “state of Palestine.” Israel national news further reports:
The Pope “paused for several moments in front of a graffiti on the security wall in Bethlehem, bowing his head in prayer in front of a message proclaiming, ‘Pope we need to see someone speak out about justice. Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.
“Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis, reported in February that the Pope intends to define himself as the ‘Che Guevera of the Palestinians’ and support their ‘struggle and rights’ during his visit.
“…It has been noted that the Pope has been remarkably tight-lipped over the violent persecution of Christians in Bethlehem, instead choosing to condemn alleged Jewish ‘price tag’ vandalism.’” (Emphasis added)
All of this is deeply unsettling, and rather puts the lie to the notion that the Pope is being even-handed. But perhaps most seriously disturbing of all is the readiness by the Pope, in the name of political correctness or devotion to the Palestinian Arab cause, or whatever, to turn his back on the suffering of Arab Christians.
This pope, who has been declared “fearless” in his calls for peace, is without moral authority
There’s a lot more at Jews Down Under. Read it all.
Meanwhile the rumours about Israel handing sovereignty over Mt. Zion to the Vatican have been debunked. This did not stop Jewish protests at the Pope’s visit to Mt. Zion:
A site venerated by Jews as the final resting place of the biblical King David and by Christians as where Jesus held his Last Supper has inspired passions and ignited tensions, casting a pall over a visit there by Pope Francis next week.
On Thursday night, over 1,000 Jews gathered on Mount Zion for a concert and prayer rally intended to send a message that the site would remain under Jewish control.
But as passions grow before the impending visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land Sunday, some elements at the concert pushed a harsh anti-Christian message, one that threatened the event organizers’ goal of Jewish unity.
The building, which also housed a mosque, is also part of a decades-old property dispute between Israel and the Vatican.
Despite official assurances that Israel does not intend to hand the site over to the Vatican’s sovereignty, the idea that Jerusalem will transfer control of the site has gained traction in some religious circles.
Israel says it is in discussions with the Vatican only over the rights of the Catholic church to hold regular masses there, something currently prohibited by the status quo.
“We are not asking for sovereignty over Mount Zion or the Tomb of David,” said Father David Neuhaus, leader of Israel’s Hebrew Catholic community. “We are asking for something very small. In view of the enormous importance of the site, we are asking for access.”
“There is no truth whatsoever to these rumors” about ceding control, said Akiva Tor, head of the Jewish Affairs and World Religions Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.
A planned mass at the site by Francis has raised hackles among some Orthodox Jews. A number of figures from the Jewish far right appeared at the rally calling for the pope to skip visiting Israel.
“We first of all want to pass a message to the government of Israel, that this kissing up to the pope is a betrayal of the Jewish people in all its generations,” Michael Ben Ari, a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, told The Times of Israel. “The pope needs to come quietly, so no one feels him, and see that Christianity has lost in its war against the Jews. To give him a prize for coming here is a loss of values, and is a betrayal of millions of Jews who were slaughtered, who were burned, who were pursued.”
I have to say that I strongly disagree with this attitude. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Israel has few enough friends in the world, and the Pope’s visit has the potential to hugely expand our pool of supporters. Since both sides insist that the prayer room at Mt. Zion is to stay in Israeli hands, there comes a point when we need to take them at their word.
While I have enormous sympathy for protecting and promoting Jewish pride and identity – it’s what I try to do right here on this blog – we need to pick our battles carefully and reserve our strength for our real enemies. There is no point in antagonizing a potential friend.
Opposing these views and seeing the Pope’s visit in a positive light, Melanie Phillips writes about Israel’s new Christian friends: (emphases are added).
The pope’s imminent visit to Israel will rightly attract much attention. But two largely untold stories about global Christianity have the capacity to shake the world order.
The first is the persecution of Christians in the developing world at the hands of Islam. Boko Haram, which has kidnapped more than 250 Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria, is merely one of many Islamist groups increasingly terrorizing and killing Christians across the developing world.
According to Open Doors, a nondenominational Christian group, about 100 million Christians are being persecuted in more than 65 countries, with radical Muslims the main perpetrators in 36 of them.
She goes on to enumerate all the latest cases that have been making the headlines, from Sudan to Nigeria to Egypt. And yet:
Remarkably, however, Western mainstream churches largely ignore this carnage amongst their worldwide communion.
Instead, they appease Islam and vilify Israel, the one country in the Middle East where Christians are safe (but that’s another story).
One wonders whether the pope will speak out clearly against this Christian victimization when he meets representatives of Islam on his visit to what he calls the Holy Land. He reportedly wants to heal the fissure between Jews and Palestinians. Very nice; but surely his priority should be stopping the slaughter of his own flock.
Yet here’s the really extraordinary thing. Across the developing world, including countries where Christians are being persecuted, the churches are experiencing phenomenal growth. If trends persist, Europe’s Christians will be overtaken by those in Africa, Latin America and Asia, most of the growth driven by the astounding expansion of Pentecostal, Charismatic and other evangelical churches.
One reason for such growth is that people who have suffered from repressive regimes are turning to a religion which (thanks to its Jewish roots) underpins freedom and human rights. The more barbaric Islamic regimes become, the more people turn to Christianity.
The striking feature of these new Christians is that, because they are evangelicals and thus take very seriously what is written in the Bible, they devoutly support Israel.
Algerian Christians say they pray in secret for Israel and the Jewish people. Last year, Nigeria refused to vote automatically with the Palestinians on statehood in the UN Security Council.
Westerners may feel uncomfortable about these new churches since they emphasize healing, prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances and the supernatural. But they are amongst Israel’s best friends in the world. And their amazing growth has major global implications.
In the West, Christianity is in decline. Even in the US where the churches are still relatively strong, the culture war is being lost to the forces of galloping secularism. With the Islamic world exploiting this civilizational vacuum, Britain and Europe are steadily being Islamized. At same time, the developing world is becoming Christianized. The face of Christianity is thus changing color, from white to (its original) brown and black.
This growth is a huge opportunity for Israel because these new Christians are free from the poisonous hostility towards it of the Western churches. Encouragingly, Israel has come to view these new allies as a strategic asset, but it needs to invest in them much more, helping improve their economies and living standards, to cement this friendship and use it to transform Israel’s leverage at the UN.
It’s not true that time is running out for Israel. Time is running out for the West. It’s not true that Israel is friendless.
This pope seems also to be a friend, apparently wanting to put relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people onto a different footing. The ugly protests at his visit from ultra-Orthodox hooligans are sickening. Let’s hope Israel hugs Pope Francis close.
While I agree in principle with Melanie Phillips that the Christians are becoming Israel’s new best friends, I think she swings too far in the opposite direction from the Pope’s opponents. He did not condemn the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, as Melanie thought he might, yet he did tacitly condemn Israel in Bethlehem. It must be made clear to the Vatican that such double standards are unacceptable, and while we shouldn’t antagonize him, that is a two-way street.
You can probably tell from my various remarks above that my personal attitude towards the Pope’s visit is ambivalent. On the one hand I am furious at the “calculated insults” (as Paula Stern put it) built in to his schedule and which were amplified by the Pope’s comments during his visit to Bethlehem and the security barrier, and also his meeting with the well-known antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem today.
On the other hand I feel, perhaps naively, that at least personally, the Pope genuinely wants to continue the rapprochement between the Vatican and Israel and the Jews, and so we need to tread carefully.
In the end I doubt anything substantial will change after this visit. Maybe relations will warm up a degree or two, and that is no bad thing, but the tense relationship probably won’t heal completely until the Messiah comes.
And then we’ll see who was right!