Visits by high-ranking officials are a lot about impressions and Pope Francis’s short pilgrimage to the Holy Land is no different. Clearly, the pontiff and his Vatican aides worked hard to keep his statements in Jordan, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem even-handed. Rabbi Avraham Skorka, Francis’s close friend from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his trip, together with Sheikh Omar Abboud, said Francis would adhere to “total balance” regarding the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Lasting just three days, the length of Francis’s stay in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel was shorter than the visit by Benedict XVI, which extended over a week. Perhaps this is in part to limit to a minimum the opportunities for a faux pas. At the same time, a short, rushed visit gave Francis fewer opportunities to do what he excels at: reaching out spontaneously to crowds who come to see him.
It is also a pity that the pontiff did not make time to visit northern Israel, including the Sea of Galilee and other sites holy to Christianity. He did, however, convey a message to Christians in the North, which seemed to show his regret.
It is nearly impossible for any pope, even such a popular figure as Francis, to avoid hurting the feelings of one side or another in a region where fault lines are so sensitive and tensions are high.
Overall, Francis lived up to the challenge. He talked of the need for universal recognition of “the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
But he also emphasized that there “must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement.”
He quickly reached out to both sides of the conflict, inviting President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a meeting to discuss peace. The two immediately agreed.
There was one controversial incident, billed as Francis’s “impromptu” stop at a security barrier near Bethlehem.
Perhaps Francis was drawn to the graffiti spray-painted on that particular section of the barrier that read: “Pope, we need someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look [sic] like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.”
Perhaps the stop was planned in advance.
Either way, many Israelis were rightly offended by the gesture. Particularly disturbing was the graffiti’s comparison of a security barrier erected to stop terrorist attacks with the walls constructed by the Nazis around Warsaw to starve to death the Jewish population there.
Still, it is unfair to accuse the pope of being callous to the feelings of Jews. One could just as well interpret Francis’s act of prayer not as an affirmation of the graffiti’s message, but as an expression of sorrow over the need for such a barrier in the first place and sympathy for the many innocent Palestinians – particularly Christians – who abhor terrorism but must nevertheless suffer the consequences.
In what can be seen as an attempt to balance the impression made by his silent prayer at the security barrier outside Bethlehem, Francis also made an unplanned visit to a memorial to Israeli terrorism victims on Mount Herzl. The pope reportedly said at the memorial that “Terror is absolute evil and engenders evil. Never again! Never again!” By using the phrase “never again” in the context of Palestinian terrorism, the pope seemed to draw a link between such terrorism and the racist genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Skorka also noted that the pope’s laying of a wreath at the grave of modern Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, was a significant act that affirmed his support for the Jewish state.
Perhaps too much is being read into Francis’s gestures in Bethlehem and on Mount Herzl. We are, after all, dealing with impressions. And Francis faced a nearly impossible mission. His intention was to be a messenger of love and hope and emphasize the message of peace. But even the most carefully worded messages and acts were unlikely to satisfy the anticipations of either side. Showing empathy for one side risked offending the other side.
Too neutral a message would be seen as bland and lacking in feeling. These nearly insurmountable challenges were met by Francis with grace and charm.