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HOLY LAND/ What Israeli and Palestinian Christians expect from the visit of the Pope

May Wed 13, 2009

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Fr. Vincent Nagle, FSCB serves as personal assistant to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fuad Twal. Before embarking on his missionary work in the Middle East, he was a hospital chaplain, who was interviewed by Emilio Bonicelli, in the book, On the Frontiers of the Human. A Priest Among the Sick ("Sulle frontiere dell’umano. Un prete tra i malati"), published by Rubettino.

 

Does the Latin Patriarch have any hopes or objectives concerning the Pope's visit to Israel?

 

First and foremost, his hope is that Christians in the Holy Land may, through the visit of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, be reawakened and strengthened in our faith, so that we may fulfil, more deeply and consistently, our mission to be the "living stones" that proclaim the Risen Lord in the land of his earthly ministry. As you know, the chief pastoral concern of the Patriarch is the foreseeable disappearance from the Holy Land of the Christian community, through emigration.

 

Whereas a couple of generations ago, the Christian community made up close to thirty percent of the Palestinian population, today that figure has radically declined. In Israel, Christians now represent about 2.1 percent of the total population; and in the Palestinian Territories, they make up about 1.3 percent of the population. This number continues to shrink. Thus, whereas Christians will always come to the Holy Land to see the stones that Jesus touched and saw, there will no longer be "living stones", his living Church, here to encounter. The Patriarch believes that if local Christians discover their mission to live this vocation of witness in Jesus’ own land, the Christian presence in Israel and in the Palestinian territories will begin to grow again.

 

Second, he is hoping that the visit will provide the impetus for a normalization of the relationship between the Church and the State of Israel. After the 1993 Madrid Agreement and Oslo Accords, which more or less settled upon agreed borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, the Holy See recognized the State of Israel for the first time (the Vatican does not recognize countries without defined borders; for example, it was only under John Paul II that the Vatican officially recognized the state of Poland because until then, Germany and Poland had never signed a full peace agreement; when they did, the recognition came).

 

This recognition was accompanied by an agreement, signed by Israeli diplomats. This document defined and secured rights for the Catholic Church; however, when the diplomats brought the agreement back to Israel, it was shelved. Up until now, Israel has done virtually nothing to proceed with the agreement: Churches are taxed, Church organizations cannot be incorporated (thus making it impossible to own property), certain Holy Sites remain outside Church control, and Church personnel are restricted in their movements across the Israeli controlled borders, making normal pastoral activity impossible. Anticipation of the Pope’s visit has enlivened the official discussions concerning this agreement, but so far, Israel has not put these points in the document into practice. It is the Patriarch’s hope that the visit will engender the good will necessary for Israel to sign the agreement reached by the diplomats so many years ago.

 

Third, the Patriarch hopes that the Pope’s visit will demonstrate that the Church has a concern for all and that the passion of Christ is towards all, no matter what the very serious political divisions. The Pope’s example may encourage an openness and attention to the other where now there is none. In other words, he hopes that it will be a step towards a trust that now seems impossible.

 

What is one particular challenge, found in Jerusalem, to the mission of the Church?

 

The Patriarch likes to say, whereas most countries have several dioceses, his diocese, or patriarchate, has several countries. And all of them have serious border issues. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem extends over Cyprus (a politically divided island, officially in a state of non-active civil war), Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan. This itself presents endless problems for the diocese.

 

Sandro Magister, in La Chiesa, writes that the Pope's toughest job during his visit to the Holy Land will be to win over the Christians (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1338286?eng=y ). Here's a quote: "The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, has confirmed this in an interview: the reasons of the opponents were even explained to Benedict XVI in person. The main concern of the opponents was that the pope's trip – in part because of his extremely positive stance on religious dialogue with Judaism – could be to Israel's political advantage." -- what do you think? Is there skepticism or complaint among Christians concerning the Pope's visit? What is your perspective on this question?

 

Sandro Magister, as usual, is completely correct. Most Christians here have faced the Pope’s anticipated visit with great reluctance, if not outright opposition, because they are afraid that the visit of the Pope will be treated by the mass media as an official approval by the Pope of Israeli policies, as was Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land in the year 2000. John Paul II visited the Holy Land before the outbreak of the second Intifadah, and thus before the total collapse of the peace process. Though Palestinian Christians were uncomfortable when the mass media gave the impression that Pope John Paul II’s visit was a seal of approval for the then current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations in general and the policies of the Israeli state in particular, they did not protest because they nourished the hope that peace was possible; and the Pope’s visit confirmed their hope.

 

Now Palestinians do not harbor hope that the political process can lead to peace, and thus, they do not feel they have any reason to celebrate. They are also aware that the world expects the Pope to come to Israel to mend fences with the Jewish community, and this makes the local Christians wonder whether he is coming here for them or for the Jews. The complete and utter separation between these two communities, fiercely enforced by a police state openly hostile to its own Arab citizens, let alone to the millions of non Israeli Arab residents of the area, makes it difficult to comprehend, on an intellectual as well as on an emotional level, what the visit might be to both. On the ground, in daily life, for both sides – especially the Israeli side – it cannot be for both. For example, when I, an American Catholic priest, speak with Israeli security personnel, an almost daily occurrence, any contact I may have had or plan to have with Arabs is seen as something extremely suspicious and to be discouraged. Moreover, when one of the Missionaries of Charity sisters was renewing her visa, she was asked where she was working. When she replied, “Nablus,” a Palestinian city, she was sent away; and now it has been four months that she is in limbo unable to move from Jerusalem. That answer alone was enough. Most of the Catholic missionaries in Jerusalem that I know do not answer these questions truthfully. These examples demonstrate the extreme level of separation that is experienced and enforced daily.

 

Some of the leaders in my parish have been speaking continuously about their suspicion and opposition to the Pope’s visit. I have had to remind them that something else comes first. If Jesus is our peace and victory, as Scripture tells us, and if we know Jesus is faith, then the most important thing for us, even politically, is to be strengthened in our faith. Peace is a gift of God and victory is a share in his glory. Understanding and living these facts changes us, and when we change, so do politics. I have said many times that the Pope came when things were hopeful, and now he is coming when the political situation is not hopeful; but he always comes for the same reason, to strengthen us in our faith. He is the Good Shepherd, who does not run when things are dangerous, but comforts and strengthens his flock. We need his comfort and strength, and thus we must welcome him.

 

And as for his speaking to others, coming for others, we should rejoice for this reason. Do they not need to hear the word of Jesus; do they not need to be converted, and will they listen to you, to me, to us? If the Pope should help us, how can he accomplish this help? By joining our political party? Or by revealing the Presence of Christ to all, and thus opening a path for us? Haven’t you always wanted to tell the Jews something, but were unable to do so? The Pope can do so, and will do so. He will speak of peace based on justice, and security based on trust, on the answer to human problems being an obedience to divine commands of love. Jesus did not offer a political party, but he said, like the good shepherd, “Follow me.” His own heard his voice. Do we hear the voice of our shepherd? If we do not, are we of his flock? And if we are of his flock, is there not already a new peace in our lives that we can then offer to others?

 

Most of my parishioners really took this reasoning to heart and have truly become deeply excited and grateful for this trip. And now that the Pope is actually here, my experience so far is that even some who were very skeptical about the trip can hardly contain their excitement.

 

What else can you, personally, say about the Pope’s trip to the Holy Land?

 

The Pope’s visit will bring the eyes and ears of the whole Church and the whole world to the Church of this place, and if they are looking and listening they will see something unexpected and hear a different word about this place and the Church’s presence here. They will hear a word that is a real hope. They will hear a word that can establish trust where now there is only fear and hate. The world will, I hope, be able to see that the real adventure in the Holy Land is not so much finding a solution where there is no solution, but of having a passion for the hearts of all, so that people may be released from fear and find the will to discover a way to walk together.

 

(Suzanne Lewis)



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