HONG KONG — Pope Benedict XVI’s leaving the home comforts of the Vatican for the political and religious mine field called the Holy Land proved to be his own difficult pilgrimage in which a learned, but aloof, theologian discovered in Palestinian pain and suffering his own authentic cry for peace in a troubled world.
Of greater importance is whether the pope managed to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. Did he manage to convey the pain and suffering and the dangers to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to persuade the reluctant Israeli leader that he must be a peacemaker not a stumbling block, for the sake of Israel, for the Middle East and, it is fair to say, for the future of the world as a whole?
Quarrels between the three major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — that say they believe in an almighty and merciful God have torn apart the region for centuries. But today the threat of terminal violence has become global with the spread of an aggressive version of Islam that often uses Israeli domination of the Holy Land as its excuse for seeking to purify the world by terror.
Pope Benedict’s visit came at a poignant time because Christians are being driven out of the Holy Land by the continuous violence between Israel and the Palestinians. From 20 percent of the region’s population 50 years ago, Christians today number 5 percent. Optimists still hope that the Christians might be a bridge of peace that could link and remind Jews and Muslims of their common heritage.
Pope Benedict did not get off to a promising start on laying planks for that bridge. For a man who is a scholar and theologian used to poring over and picking apart sentences, parsing words and commas, Pope Benedict has sometimes shown himself deaf to the effect of his own words. For the supreme pontiff of a major religion and head of a tiny state, the pope has been oblivious to the diplomatic repercussions of his actions. As a leader whose message is peace, he has shown himself purblind to the importance of presenting his message so that lesser intellects may understand it.
Pope Benedict had already blundered and angered Jews and Muslims. His 2006 lecture quoting selectively from an obscure Byzantine emperor attacking Islam upset Muslims.
More recently, Jews felt insulted when the pope made overtures to reinstate bishops of a breakaway group, including an Englishman who denied the Holocaust — the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews.
The pope also suffers because he lacks both the magnetic appeal and the common touch of his predecessor John Paul II, evidence of which is that on CNN and international media the visit was relegated to the inside pages, appearing after fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and President Barack Obama’s plans for derivatives’ reform and oil prices.
Another aspect that has not been aired, perhaps because of its delicacy, is the pope’s English. Although fluent, he is softly spoken and tends to be didactic, but his accent almost mimics wartime films of how Germans spoke in English.
The pope’s first encounters and the headlines that followed were not very promising. He triggered a few booby traps that should have been foreseen and that suggested that his support team had been asleep or he had ignored them.
After the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, the leading daily Ha’aretz ran a commentary declaring, “Benedict’s speech showed verbal indifference and banality.”
Israel’s commentators picked a fight over the pope’s choice of words, for using “killed” instead of “murdered” or “slaughtered” for the Holocaust victims, for saying “millions” rather than a figure for the dead. More substantially, they lamented that Pope Benedict made a speech empty of emotion or personal feeling about Christian and German involvement in persecution of the Jews.
This was the failure of a theologian to understand the power of words or the empathy that a leader must deploy. Benedict had forgotten that Jesus Christ in the Gospels used parables and stories to get his message across.
Later at a multifaith meeting, Sheik Tayseer Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, seized the microphone, accused Israel of murdering Palestinian women and children and called for Muslims and Christians to unite against Israel. The pope actually shook his hand before he realized the audacity of what had been said and the meeting was abruptly ended. Yet the same man had made the same coup when Pope John Paul had visited nine years ago.
On Wednesday, however, the pope arrived at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ — today beleaguered by Israel’s security barrier, or “apartheid wall” as President Mahmoud Abbas calls it — and found his own voice. Whether he was outraged or had reached a turning point in his own pilgrimage of learning, it was not the voice of a dry scholar.
Benedict drew cheers when his heart went out to suffering Palestinian refugees, whom he compared to the Holy Family forced 2,000 years ago to flee to Egypt. In the shadow of Israel’s security barrier, he condemned the erection of walls. He declared unequivocally that “The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.” Such words spoken by the pope in the heart of Palestine were especially powerful.
Later, he urged Palestinians in a refugee camp “to keep alive the flames of hope” in spite of their suffering. He also pleaded with young Palestinians to “have the courage to resist any temptation to resort to acts of violence.” But who is listening?
Is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who so far stubbornly refuses to accept giving Palestinians their own state, listening? In his meeting with Pope Benedict, Netanyahu shortsightedly tried to push the Palestinians from the main agenda and to plead for the pope’s help in condemning a greater threat from Iran — conveniently forgetting that Iran’s hostility feeds on Israel’s harassment of Palestinians.
Are the Palestinians prepared to silently endure Israeli policies that deny them jobs or a secure livelihood?
Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media, was editor of The Universe, then the world’s biggest English-language newspaper.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.