Rabbi Avraham Skorka, a longtime friend and confidant of Pope Francis, insisted on Tuesday that the pontiff’s much-debated stop at the West Bank security barrier on Sunday should not be seen in a political light or as the pope taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Skorka described Francis as an intensely spiritual figure who places great value on the power of prayer, and that his visit to the walled section of the barrier and his prayer there was an expression of this approach.
The rabbi, who is the rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary of the Conservative Movement and heads the Bnei Tikva Masorati synagogue in Buenos Aires, has known Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Francis used to be known, for more than 20 years and the two men have written a book together and reciprocated in writing introductions to their individual works.
“You can’t interpret his visit to the security barrier as him taking a stance on the Israel- Palestinian conflict,” said Skorka, who added that he believed the visit was spontaneous, although Israeli officials have said that the Palestinian Authority put pressure on the pope to make the stop.
“In standing and praying at the wall, he was praying for a time when it will be possible to pull down this wall,” said Skorka.
The rabbi argued that officials in the Vatican are not naive and know why the barrier was built.
“Equally, when he stood at the memorial to victims of terror at Mount Herzl and he prayed that here should be no more terrorism or victims of terror, he was not taking sides in the conflict,” Skorka continued.
“He will always criticize any situation in which there is a lack of justice and he will always draw attention to the pain of others.
“He identifies with the unfortunate situation of Palestinians, and it comes from his heart. This is true. On the other hand, he didn’t judge the situation politically. He was not judging or criticizing the parties in the conflict itself.
“He was crying out to both sides. Pope Francis knows exactly the importance of the State of Israel and its role in the continuity of the Jewish people and its renewal,” the rabbi said.
Skorka said that during the 20 years he has known Francis, when parting from people he has always asked them to pray for him, and pointed to the invitation to President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray together with him in the Vatican as further indicators of the importance of prayer to the pontiff.
There was an “undoubted political dimension” to his visits to the security barrier and to the memorial, but the essence was “an opportunity for prayer to God to bless man and erase violence and hatred from the midst of human reality,” he said.
Skorka cited the pope’s message to children when he visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Dehaishe south of Bethlehem.
Francis was addressed by a young Palestinian boy who spoke of the “oppressive occupation,” and a desire “to live in peace and dignity in our land and our country.”
The pontiff said he understood the boy’s message, but replied, “Don’t ever allow the past to determine your life, always look forward. But do and act and strive for the things you want.
“Remember that violence cannot be defeated by violence; violence can only be defeated with peace, with peace, effort and dignity to move the nation forward,” he added.
Speaking about the visit in general, the rabbi said the embrace between the pope, himself and Buenos Aires Muslim leader Omar Aboud, who is also a friend of the pontiff, was a particularly spiritual and emotional event in the trip.
“This was a highlight for me, as a Jew, and a person who has been involved in interfaith dialogue and who loves and chases peace.”
Skorka said that the meeting between Francis and Peres at the President’s Residence was another encounter that gave the pontiff particular pleasure.
“He had a very good meeting with Peres, they had a very special chemistry between them, and they both inspired a special affection in one another. It was very clear to see the affection and love between them, and the mutual understanding was very apparent,” he said.
And the rabbi added that the pope’s invitation to Peres and Abbas to pray in the Vatican was one of the most important results of the trip, and could plant “roots of inspiration for the future.”
“The aim of the visit was to give a strong message of peace in the region, to try and move just a little bit the picture of frustration negative attitudes that are usually dominant here.
“What he tried to do was bring some fresh perspective in order to empower the hope of people in this region. He didn’t present a political solution and this is not his task. But he wanted to come here to be heard by Palestinians and Israelis, and Christians on both sides, and to give them a message of hope and peace and love, and this is what he did,” Skorka said.