Problematic Pilgrimage (Extract)

Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the Holy Land with a message of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. But as far as the Palestinians are concerned, the pope needs to do a great deal of reconciliation of his own.

02papa224 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract from an article in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive on May 8 for a week's pilgrimage to the Christian holy places in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as meetings with leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition to having to contend with the tense relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews, he will find that the Arabs, both Israeli and Palestinian, Christian and Muslim, have their own sets of complaints. In his "Urbi et Orbi" ("To the City and the World") Easter address on April 12, the pope declared, "Reconciliation - difficult, but indispensable - is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence." Referring to the Middle East, the pope added that reconciliation "can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." But Pope Benedict's papacy has so severely tested his relations with both Palestinian Christians and Muslims that the leader of the largest Christian community among the Palestinians, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Theodosius of Sebaste Atallah Hanna, bluntly tells the The Jerusalem Report, "Pope Benedict is not welcome in the Holy Land in the present circumstances." Speaking with The Report after the official announcement that the pope would begin his pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Hanna, an Israeli citizen born in the northern Galilee region, says, "We are not against the pope's visit to Yad Vashem, but before expressing solidarity with the Jews, he should show solidarity with the Christians of Palestine. We have our own tragic memories… let the pope begin his visit with Gaza first." Hanna, known to be an outspoken critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, continues, "We ask the pope to speak for the people of Palestine. Palestinian Christians are part and parcel of Palestine. Palestinian Christians suffer together with their Muslim brothers. Let the pope advocate for our cause." In 2006, Hanna had publicly defended Pope Benedict against anger expressed by Muslims and several Arab countries for what they perceived as an attack on their faith during a 2006 lecture at a German university. At that time, Benedict had quoted the 15th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus who said: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhumane, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Following the incident, the pope apologized saying he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries" to the passages in his lecture and said that the quote he cited "does not in any way express my personal thought." But not all Muslims were placated. The northern, more radical, branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel has announced that it will boycott the pope's visit, declaring that it has "concerns" about Benedict's views since he had "insulted the Prophet Muhammad," although the movement adds that relations between Christians and Muslims have been marked by "mutual respect and cooperation." "Insulting the prophet is a crime in every sense of the word. As long as the pope is insistent in his position and does not apologize and erase the mentioned insult from the Vatican record, we, the Islamic Movement, announce in all frankness that we will not participate in any activity to receive him during his tour," reads an official statement by the Islamic Movement. In a press release, United Arab List Knesset Member Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, head of the overall Islamic Movement, wrote they were not planning to boycott any of the pope's events, despite differences they have with him. "We will not participate in the ceremonies… to welcome the pope in Nazareth," Sarsour announced. "But I don't think boycotting him is a solution for these disagreements… If we have the opportunity to speak to him, we will say to him openly that we do disagree with him about many things, especially his lecture about the Prophet, peace be upon Him." Vatican officials have said that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, will accompany the pope on his visit to the Dome of the Rock, on what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as Harem a-Sharif, in Jerusalem's Old City. Benedict is also expected to travel to Ramallah, where he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and lay a wreath on the tomb of Yasser Arafat. He is also scheduled to visit the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Even Palestinian Catholics are uneasy about Benedict's attitudes, particularly what they see as his indifference to their plight. "The pope should not ignore the political situation of injustice for the Palestinian Christians," Bernard Sabella, a Roman Catholic member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and former associate professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, tells The Report. Sabella suggests that as a Christian leader, the pope should focus attention on the Palestinian Christians and on "the fact that emigration has taken its toll on the dwindling numbers of Palestinian Christians. The pope is well aware of the declining numbers of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, and his insistence on ignoring these matters is a cause for concern." Extract from an article in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.