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(photo credit: AP [file])
This month, Pope Benedict will visit the Holy Land, the third pope to do so, but only the second to make an official visit. Invited to Israel by President Shimon Peres, he will also set foot in Jordan and the West Bank, where it's expected he will go to Bethlehem. Given the sacredness of the Christian sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, it's astonishing that so few popes have gone there since the setting up of the British Mandate in 1920 or the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Benedict could not travel to Jerusalem at a more difficult time. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered a very dark phase since Israel's defensive assault on Gaza at the end of last year. That darkness has less to do with the region itself than with a swelling international hate-fest against Israel that is now growing into a frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism in many European countries. Everything the pope says and does throughout his visit will be watched and weighed against an array of what will often be incoherent and disturbing attitudes and policies, not least the global Islamist and left-wing call for Israel to be destroyed and, in more extreme versions, for the Jews there to be killed.
The pope will go there as a man of peace, and will take every opportunity to advocate peace in the region. But peace may not be the most important thing for him to urge. Nor will any exhortations he may make be enough to make the peace process go forward anyway. The 1988 Hamas Charter declares: "Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement... There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors" (Article 13).
How do you, even if you are the pope, talk peace to men like that, or to mothers who dress their sons in suicide belts?
Whether Aeschylus or Hiram Johnson said it first, many agree that "the first casualty of war is truth." And that is nowhere truer than in the Middle East, where lies and outright fabrications have added greatly to an already rancorous debate. Worse than that, many have spread around the world along with any number of conspiracy theories, many of them echoes of Nazi propaganda during the 1930s and '40s. If the pope is limited in what he can do to further peace, perhaps he can use his visit to speak out about these lies. Is not, after all, one of the several sins against the Holy Spirit "resisting or impugning the known truth"?
Sadly, the pope need look no further than within his own church to see this sin repeated.
By now, everyone knows of Bishop Richard Williamson and his flagrant denial of the Holocaust, his claim that the Jews are the "enemies of Christ" and his belief that that obnoxious forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, really does describe an international conspiracy by the Jews to take control of the world. I hope the pope will visit the Holocaust memorial and museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and while there he must do two things. He must denounce Holocaust denial, not as an error in fact, but as a deadly sin against the human soul. And he must ask for something reciprocal from Israel: a recognition that Pope Pius XII has been much maligned but that in truth he helped save the lives of many Jews.
ISRAEL WOULD also be a perfect place for Benedict to denounce another churchman who has indulged in a similar distortion of the truth. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, recently bought in to a smaller but equally vicious lie, namely that the people of Gaza live in "a big concentration camp." This sits next to other popular lies, chiefly that Israelis/Jews are really Nazis who kill babies for sport, or that there has been genocide, even a holocaust in Gaza.
What concentration camp ever launched a single rocket at its guards, let alone over 8,000, as the Gazans have done? What Nazis ever provided oil, water, food and medicines to camp inmates, as the Israelis have done? What camps had shops stocked from floor to ceiling with goods, or are studded with expensive villas and apartment blocks? What camp inmates would ever have set about destroying Â£14 million worth of greenhouses provided for their well-being, as the Gazans did in 2005?
The "concentration camp" claim is a blatant lie and an insult to the millions who really did suffer and die in the camps, and the pope must denounce it and chasten the cardinal who has promoted it. Only transparency can bring eventual peace to the region.
To claim, as so many do, that there has been a genocide or a holocaust in Gaza is not merely wrong, it is indecent. According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the annual growth rate in Gaza is about three times the world average. The population there has grown by almost 40 percent between 1997 and 2007. What genocide has ever increased the numbers of a population? Yet that lie allows marchers round the world to call Israelis "Nazis" and "Zionazis," and cartoonists to draw hooked-nosed Jews in SS uniforms. We all know the consequences when similar lies were told about the Jews in the 1930s and '40s. There must be no question this time that a pope will denounce these fictions for their incitement to the oldest of evils.
THE POPE must also address the widespread claim that Israel is an "apartheid state." This also is both ludicrous and dangerous. There are no apartheid laws in Israel, Arabs are not excluded from restaurants, cinemas, concert halls or swimming pools, but serve in parliament and on the Supreme Court. The claim is another vicious lie and, given the Church's commitment to anti-racism, it is fitting for the pope to expose it.
Passing beyond the lies (of which there are dozens more), an urgent matter on the pope's agenda must surely be the plight of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza. Harassed by militant Islamic groups, the Christian population there has been dwindling. In 1990, Christians made up 60% of the population in Bethlehem; today, a mere 19 years later, they number just 20% and that figure is shrinking rapidly. Christians in the Palestinian territories have fallen in numbers from 15% of the population in 1950 to less than 1% today. Calls have been made for their extinction, and attacks are regularly made on institutions and individual Christians. More and more Christians pack their bags and flee. In Israel, their numbers have risen from 34,000 in 1948 to more than 140,000 today. If the pope does not speak out and make this an issue of international concern, the bombings, the beatings and the intimidation will continue, and before very long the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will be left to the tender mercies of Islamic Jihad.
THERE IS ONE other thing Pope Benedict should consider doing before he leaves Israel. In Haifa, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, stands a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of the gardens, shrines and international headquarters of the Baha'i religion. It is a beautiful place, one of the loveliest on the Mediterranean coast. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where these places would be safe. Iran, a country that threatens to wipe Israel off the map, is the original home of the Baha'is, who form its largest religious minority. There the holiest Baha'i shrines have been bulldozed into rubble. Since the revolution, Baha'is have been imprisoned and executed, and made the objects of severe persecution. If the pope could stand in the gardens in Haifa and proclaim his abhorrence of all religious persecution, it would send out a firm message to bullies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those, like Hizbullah and Hamas, whom he controls.
There is a deeper message that the pope is well-situated to convey, which is that the truth is greater than the lie, and that there can be no peace while there is falsehood. Only when the Israelis and the Palestinians can engage in complete honesty with one another, and only when the deluded marchers walking on European streets chanting "Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!" have their eyes opened to the enormous deceit that has been perpetrated on them will a real and lasting peace begin to grow in the Holy Land. It's a great opportunity. I pray it is not too late for Benedict to take it.
The writer is a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies, the author of several reports on radical Islam and currently the editor-designate of an international journal, the Middle East Quarterly. This piece first appeared in the Catholic Herald.