Monday, May 18, 2009

Pope visit

Pope's visit upsets more than it pleases

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 May 2009

A missed opportunity. That was how the otherwise sober Left-leaning Israeli daily Ha’aretz depicted Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It found fault with the pontiff for not uttering sorry for what had happened in Europe six decades ago. For centuries the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people were tense at best. The role played by the Vatican during the World War II continues to cloud the relations between the two. Many have accused Pope Pius XII of turning a blind eye towards the Holocaust.

There is also some personal grudge against Pope Benedict. His alleged membership in Hitler Youth was raised even before Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy in April 2005. His recent decision to reinstate a Holocaust denier as bishop only made matters worse. Indeed some media commentators in Israel were fond of referring to the pope by his previous name than as Pope Benedict. Thus many were expecting that the pope would express a formal remorse, both officially and personally.

For its part, Israel was keen that recent tensions in the region would not impede the pontiff from visiting the region. Against the background of international criticisms and condemnation over the recent Gaza war, Israel needed this visit and positive media coverage. The unchartered waters with the new Obama administration in the US meant that Israel needed some positive equation with the pope.

However as the Israeli daily editorially lamented: ‘The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality, evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word — sorry’.

Many Palestinian Christians were angry over the exclusion of Gaza from the itinerary of the pope. Such a visit would have shown Vatican’s sympathy and support for the people who underwent one of the traumatic periods in their history. With much of the Gaza Strip still in ruins, the papal visit would have sent a powerful political message to the international community and reminded them of the plight of the Palestinians.

Precisely for the same reasons, the pope avoided not only the Gaza Strip but also Ramallah. Going there without laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would have been politically untenable. But doing so would be equally controversial. Hence, the Pope’s meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas was fixed at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem. Likewise, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not in Jerusalem but in the Franciscan convent of Nazareth.

Since both parties claim Jerusalem to be their capitals, the pope avoided meeting both the prime ministers in the City of Peace. The Vatican is perhaps sending a subtle message to both the contenders: Don’t count us out.

Politics however is inevitable. The more the pope tried to make his trip a ‘Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’ the more it becomes political. The inter-faith dialogue at the Notre Dame Centre is a classic example. Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, head of the Palestinian Sharia Court used the occasion to list out ‘the crimes of the Jewish State’ and of ‘slaughtering’ women, children and the elderly. Only a moment earlier, the pontiff pleaded the followers of the three religions: “Can we then make spaces — oases of peace and profound reflection — where god’s voice can be heard anew, where his truth can be discovered within the universality of reason, where every individual, regardless of dwelling, or ethnic group, or political hue, or religious belief, can be respected as a person, as a fellow human being?” However, al-Tamimi’s remarks resulted in the pope walking out of the meeting.

The prolonged Jordanian-Palestinian tussle took a religious turn during the pontiff’s visit to the Kingdom before he arrived in Jerusalem. The pope blessed the foundation laying ceremony for Latin and Greek Melkite Churches at Bethany, beyond River Jordan. According to Christian theology, this is where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ and preached.

The pope’s visit to Bethany is seen by many as recognition of Jordanian claims to the true site of baptism and thereby undermining long-held Palestinian claim that baptism took place at Qasr al Yahud in the West Bank. Indeed during his visit to the region in 2000 the previous pope addressed a mass in Bethany but settled for a brief stopover at the Palestinian site. This time around, al-Yahud did not figure in the pope’s itinerary.

Even the Jordanian leg was not without problems. Some Muslim leaders were unhappy over the pope’s earlier remarks in 2006 when he quoted a medieval text that depicted some of Prophet Mohammed’s teachings as ‘evil and inhuman’ especially, the Prophet’s ‘command to spread by the sword the faith.’

Even the Catholics have their own problems with the pope though they are rarely aired in public. The Christians are a vanishing tribe in the Middle East. Demographically they are a minority in towns such as Bethlehem and Nazareth. In the past many have lamented that only Christmas brings cheers and Christians to Bethlehem.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has adversely affected the Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian areas. The Christian Arabs in Israel are only marginally better off than their Muslim counterparts. Over the years, Christians have vanished from many small villages in Israel. The classic example is Abu Ghosh, a small Arab town at the outskirts of Jerusalem; is has a historic church dating back to the Crusader period but no Christian community, except the priest and nuns.

Known for his theological background, Pope Benedict is not aware of the problems of the faithful. Like many of his predecessors, he has to navigate rather carefully. Openly exhibiting his concerns over would only cause more problems for the followers.

Thus different religious groups and communities viewed the papal visit differently. In a region accustomed to zero-sum approach to politics, even a religious pilgrimage ends up being a political contest between different faiths. Thus long after the pope returns to Vatican, the parties would continue to argue over their respective gains and losses.

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