Jorge Mario Bergolio ̶ now Pope Francis, and the first to bear that name ̶ is a good man. All that we read and hear about him attests to his humanity, his humility, his spirituality. He has no place in his life for vanity and outward show. During his 15-year tenure as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he travelled extensively around his diocese on the subway and by bus, regularly visiting the slums that surround the Argentinian capital. “My people are poor and I am one of them”, he said more than once, explaining his decision to live in an ordinary apartment and cook his own supper.
Elevated to the papacy in March 2013, on the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict, Francis has decided that an early priority must be a pilgrimage to what is known in the Christian world as the Holy Land - in other words Israel and the Palestinian territories. He will be here from 24-26 of May and, characteristically, is insisting on using an open pope-mobile and an ordinary car on the trip, rather than the bullet-proof vehicles usually used by heads of state in the Middle East – a decision certainly causing the security services responsible for his safety a few headaches.
In coming to the Middle East, Francis inherits a legacy from three predecessor Popes who also visited the Holy Land. In part his pilgrimage is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the first-ever journey
by a Pope to the region. Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, made a lightning 11-hour trip to Jerusalem in January 1964 – ground-breaking, because he came before the landmark Nostra Aetate
declaration of 1965, which opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and because at the time the Vatican did not recognize Israel.
Back in 1964 there were no “occupied territories” - at least not occupied by Israel, though Gaza was occupied by Egypt, and much of the West Bank and plenty of Jerusalem, including the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. There was no concept then of a “two-state solution” involving a possible sovereign Palestine - the just-formed Palestine Liberation Organization was set on eliminating Israel altogether. Yet Paul VI during his brief stay had a formal meeting with then Israeli President, Zalman Shazar.
The ice had been broken, and in December 1993, immediately following the first Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, diplomatic relations were established
between the Holy See, now led by Pope John Paul II, and the State of Israel. Christian–Jewish reconciliation was a consistent theme of John Paul’s papacy. His millennium visit to Israel in 2000 caused a stir in diplomatic circles, for he made a point of visiting the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Perhaps even more significantly, he made a speech acknowledging the tragedy of the Holocaust and prayed for forgiveness for those who had participated.
His successor, Benedict XVI, followed in his footsteps, striving to foster Catholic-Jewish as well as Vatican-Israeli relations. Indeed, on the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state in 2008, Benedict overshadowed all previous Catholic denials of Zionism by declaring: "The Holy See joins you in giving thanks to the Lord that the aspirations of the Jewish people for a home in the land of their fathers have been fulfilled" – virtually a theological justification of the return of the Jewish people to Israel.
During his week-long visit to the region in 2009, Benedict followed the precedent set by John Paul II by visiting both Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, but was firm on the political neutrality of the Holy See in the Israel-Palestinian dispute. In his farewell speech he said:
"Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely."
This is the papal foundation on which Francis might hope to build during his three-day visit – the historic reconciliation between the Catholic church and Judaism, strong Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations, and a neutral stance in the apparently unresolvable Israel-Palestine impasse.
As regards the inter-faith aspect of his visit, Francis is concerned with relations between Christianity and the other two great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. He has, accordingly, invited both a Jew and a Muslim to be part of his official delegation - an “absolute novelty” in the words of a Vatican spokesman. The two men happen to be old friends: Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, with whom the future pope co-authored a book, and Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic.
Their advice may well be needed to cope with the threat of attacks
by far-right Jewish extremists, backed by some Muslim opinion, over the pope’s plan to hold a Mass at the Cenacle, a building holy to all three monotheistic faiths. On the upper floor of a Crusader-era building, the Cenacle is considered the location of the Last Supper, but in Ottoman times it was a mosque, and it is also directly above the site considered to be King David’s tomb. The fear, shared by some Muslims and held despite continuing government denials, is that Israel is poised to hand over control of the building to the Vatican as part of long-running negotiations over the use and taxation of buildings in the Holy Land.
An inter-faith problem indeed – but In terms of inter-faith relations, Francis carries less baggage than any of his predecessors. As a non-European, he has no association with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, while most Muslims don’t tie him to the Crusades or the “clash of civilizations.” His record of outreach in Argentina, including inviting Jewish and Muslim leaders to join him for celebrations of Argentina’s Independence Day, is well known.
Francis will, however, also have immediate concerns to address about the state of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land. Across the Middle East, Christians have declined from 20 percent of the population in the early 20th century to roughly 4 percent. The city of Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories, where Francis conducts an open-air Mass, was almost entirely Christian a century ago. Today it is more than two-thirds Muslim.
Francis is a down-to-earth pontiff with no time for irrational posturing. So he has decided to cock a snook at all advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, by opting to fly back to Rome by El Al
. In honor of the occasion, Israel’s national airline is decorating one of its Boeing 777s with the Vatican logo – an apt token of the strong and developing relationship between Israel and the Holy See.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog A Mid-East Journal (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)