Pope Francis in the Holy Land

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post


Bishop William Hanna Shomali was a young man when pope Paul VI made the first papal visit to newly independent Israel. In those days, the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control. “He came as a pilgrim, and the visit had ecumenical significance to the church because of his meeting with the Greek patriarch.

This year, Pope Francis will commemorate that meeting and the relationship between the churches by meeting Patriarch Bartholomew I,” he explains. But the pope is traveling in the midst of momentous times. “The Middle East is in turmoil. Syria has a tragedy. Here the peace process is frozen and failed. And the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is only a project; we are waiting for what will happen. There is more religious fanaticism, such as these graffiti and threats.” For many like Shomali, who was born in Bethlehem and is an auxiliary bishop at the Latin Patriarchate, this visit has all the potential to be groundbreaking – if a series of potential minefields can be navigated.

The Tourism Ministry is expecting flocks of visitors following the papal visit. The police have committed large numbers of forces. Foreign Ministry officials are working around the clock, pouring an unprecedented amount of effort into making sure all runs seamlessly and adheres to protocol. Large banners adorn buildings in the Old City. Here and abroad, many talk about messages of peace and expectations for something major to happen.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

POPE FRANCIS is very different from his German predecessor Benedict XVI. Born in Argentina in 1936, he was educated in Jesuit institutions that emphasized passion and humility. He has made modesty a hallmark of his papacy, forgoing the red shoes and ermine- trimmed cape of his predecessor in favor of simple white robes. When elected last March he chose not to live in the traditional suite in the apostolic palace, but in a Vatican guest house. Moreover, the pope has embraced redistribution of wealth and taken what seem like more liberal attitudes to private matters of the home such as homosexuality. Privately some clergy express reservations over his off-the-cuff remarks, which have left the media agape. For instance, in a homily delivered on May 13 regarding inclusiveness, he asked, “If tomorrow, Martians came to us here and said they wanted to be baptized, what would happen?” “Who are we to close doors?” he pondered, ostensibly in a discussion about the early church’s embrace of pagans.

Thus, all eyes are watching the first pope from the New World visit the Holy City, and people will hang on his every word. Although Israeli government officials and the public interpret the visit around its Israeli aspects – the meeting with President Shimon Peres, the visit to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall – this is not the central purpose of the event. Father Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan monk who grew up in Texas and has worked for many years in Jerusalem in key institutions of the church, notes, “The main stated reason, which may be the principal reason, is to commemorate the 50th [anniversary of the] visit of Paul VI to Jerusalem in 1964 and his meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople [the seat of the Orthodox patriarch is still called by its Byzantine-era name, rather than Istanbul]; and that is the main purpose of the visit. “The pope will meet with the current Patriarch, Bartholomew I, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Paul VI in Jerusalem

Paul VI in Jerusalem

Unlike papal visits in places like Brazil, where in July three million turned out at boisterous Copacabana Beach to see him, there will be no giant open-air prayers or streets lined with the faithful as His Holiness walks among them. “There is no large public mass or meeting with the people of Jerusalem. There will be a mass in Bethlehem, though; it is a short trip.”

Athanasius is an expert on the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches; he wrote his thesis on the aftermath of pope Paul VI’s meeting. He notes that before 1964, the last real contact between the Vatican and Constantinople was in the 16th century. “Pope Gregory wrote to his counterpart that they wanted to reform the calendar, because the Julian calendar was slipping; it slips a day every century for the date of Easter. So when Paul VI wrote to the patriarch [and met him], that was the first time in 400 years.”

The Orthodox Church emphasizes this aspect as well. It has dedicated a special website to the occasion, highlighting the 1964 meeting. Historical photos show the Greek Patriarch Athenagoras beaming, his hand clasped over this chest, standing next to a sullen Paul VI, his deep-set eyes making him seem anxious. Athenagoras, who was born in Albania in the 1880s, said in 1967 that it was important “to join that which is divided… affirming the common points of faith and rule.”

For the clergy involved, this meeting with Pope Francis therefore has a 1,000- year history, since the schism of 1054 which resulted in the Catholics and Orthodox going their separate ways. Athanasius argues, “This meeting is more symbolic than substantive. Since 1978 there have been discussions, and the patriarch has been to Rome and even studied in Rome, and the Pope has been to Constantinople; they have had visits on a regular basis since 1964, so the formalities are pretty solid. Therefore, this visit is high-visibility, but I don’t think it changes much.” Yet on the Orthodox side, there seems to be less focus among non-clergy on the occasion. One monk traveling from Eastern Europe felt it was “not at all important,” noting that a pan-Orthodox meeting in Istanbul representing some 250 million believers in March was of greater value.

THE ARRIVAL of Francis is seen through the lens of an increasing pattern of papal visits. Until 1993 there were no relations between Jerusalem and the Vatican and the church was seen as hostile to the Jewish state, especially in the early years. Raymond Cohen is a graduate of Oxford and a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has written a book called Saving the Holy Sepulchre, about how the Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox worked to repair the church. He says, “The interesting thing is that these papal visits have become routine. This is indicative – no one is falling off their chairs because of it.”

It has become formulaic, says Cohen. “The Western Wall, Yad Vashem, president, prime minister, Chief Rabbinate – that was fixed by John Paul II [in 2000], and Benedict XVI followed the same scheme. That has become routine. The same thing is true on the Jordanian side. We tend to think of the pope as a diplomatic or political figure; but his main interest is theological or ecumenical.
Half of the visit is his encounter with Patriarch Bartholomew. That is a significant encounter, and will involve joint prayers and the kiss of peace. He wants to kickstart the idea of the unity of the church.”

Cohen describes how in the old days before 1964, the monks used to get into fights at the Holy Sepulchre. In fact, such unsightly dust-ups took place as recently as 2011 in Bethlehem between Greek and Armenian clergy. “Relations between the Greeks and Latins have been correct and cooperative. That is what has made this visit possible. I think Francis really believes in this idea of church unity,” he explains. The professor also sees the visit as a way for Francis to “strengthen his hand in intra-church discussions, and the reason I say that is because when the pope is elected by the cardinals, he still has to win the sympathy of the church and the Catholics worldwide. That can take a long time. It took John Paul II some years, and Benedict never achieved legitimacy in that way [and retired in 2013]. So he has to prove himself. This is what Francis has been doing in a spectacular way.”

He describes the visit almost like a public relations caravan: “It is a spectacular way to attract the world’s Catholics. The Sepulchre, and other symbolic sites, will resonate with his constituency. He will strengthen his hand in debates within the Vatican and the Curia [Vatican bureaucracy].”
In that sense, the pope’s visit to the ancient city so holy to Christians will serve as a shield against Vatican conservatives; he will show he is not only a reformer and popular abroad, but can function in inter-church and theological matters as well. “He may make up to 30 speeches – and they will be analyzed. He is sending messages, like a president or candidate going on the stump.”

THE POPE’S travels will take him first to Jordan tomorrow, where he will meet the king and queen and hold mass in an Amman stadium. He will then travel to the Jordan River to visit the baptismal site of Jesus, then meet with disabled people and refugees.  On Sunday a helicopter will deposit him in Bethlehem for a visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the Vatican website refers to as “president of the State of Palestine.” He will hold mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity and have lunch with “families from Palestine,” then pay a visit to the church and meet with children from refugee camps in the Dehaishe neighborhood. Late Sunday he will go by helicopter to Ben-Gurion Airport, then to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the central meeting of the visit. Monday will consist of his visits with the mufti of Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. The time spent in Israel is interesting because the pope is not leaving Jerusalem. Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, while enthusiastic, told the The Jerusalem Post, “We would like to see a much longer visit… Israel’s Christian community asked if we could influence the pope to extend it.”

Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee is more upbeat. A former chief rabbi of Ireland and director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, he played a key role in the Bilateral Working Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See, which negotiated the Fundamental Agreement leading to relations in 1994. “What is important is that it is happening. As you know, in Jewish tradition, three times is a hazaka [a propensity].

The fact that he is continuing in the footsteps of predecessors is important. The meeting with officials and chief rabbis and the visit to a synagogue, it is now the fabric of what a pope does – and that is a major achievement of the last 50 years.” As with members of the various churches observing the visit, Rosen sees the long term: “When [Theodor] Herzl tried to get support for Zionism, they [Catholic leaders] said the Jews are condemned to wander and it was anathema to seek sovereignty… So when you think we went from that situation to today, and now they meet with rabbis, the president and the prime minister, and it is so amazing we almost take it for granted – which is a good thing.” He argues that except for “certain sectors of haredi [society] who are isolated and some fanatics, such as the rabbis who organized a protest, the vast majority of the Jewish world recognizes the Church as a close friend.”

Foreign Ministry officials also stressed that people should recall this visit marks 20 years of relations between the Church and Israel, and almost 50 years since Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate in 1965, in which he said the Church “decries hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews, at anytime and by anyone.” Rosen sees Pope Francis as particularly warm towards the Jewish community. “He is a superstar who can pull in six million people [at a mass], and this gives his Jewish friendships more visibility – and the way they see Catholic relations will be enhanced.” He also thinks it is unfortunate it is a short visit, and that there will be no interfaith event in which Muslims, Jews and Christians can meet. “But in the end, that doesn’t matter… it will be a great event and we will reap significant dividends.”

Oded Ben-Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican who is now a senior diplomatic adviser to the Knesset, agrees and adds that the most significant part of the visit will be the “homage to Herzl at Mount Zion.” He notes that in the famous meeting between Herzl and Pius X, the pope had told the Zionist “we cannot prevent you [from going to the Holy Land], but we will be waiting for you there in order to convert you.”

Mount Herzl

Mount Herzl

However, today the pope “is strengthening the understanding and recognition of our presence in Jerusalem” through his visit to the President’s Residence. He sees an opportunity in this visit to jump-start educating both Catholics and Jews about each other. Bishop Shomali also thinks that Francis is an inspiring figure who has the capacity to heal relations, and remarks on “his openness to others, and his intention to promote ecumenical dialogue and inter-religious dialogue.”

He notes that Francis will be accompanied by a traveling entourage of figures from other religions as well: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud, old friends from Argentina, will be at his side during the visit. “He wants to show from the beginning that he comes to promote better understanding between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the main monotheistic traditions, and show it can promote peace.”

Bishop Shomali

Bishop Shomali

Shomali doesn’t think the visit with Palestinians at Dehaishe will be overly politicized. “Benedict also visited a refugee camp, but this time he [Francis] will meet with children; he wants to hear the children and see the songs and paintings; no speeches. He wants to tell them the future will be peaceful.” The bishop also hopes that Francis will speak out on the Syrian civil war, “the big tragedy, a wound which is bleeding.” The local Catholic community is very excited. “Some believe that the pope will move things – the frozen peace process, for instance. Maybe some are over-expecting, and I tried to tell people not to expect too much, that they will feel frustrated if they over-expect,” says Shomali. He is glad to see the pope meeting with various religious figures, but like Rosen, recognizes that it will not involve dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Beyond the visit, the inter-religious element “between the officials” needs to get down to the street and “grassroots” level, he says.

THE MEDIA have been abuzz with controversy in the build-up to the visit. Vatican officials were quoted as being “concerned over ‘price tag’ attacks.” A blog at The Economist claimed, “While the Palestinians are opening up the streets of Bethlehem and providing the pope with an open car when he visits… Israel is taking no chances. It is planning a strict permit regime, insisting the Holy Father travels in an armored car.” A papal spokesman was quoted as saying, “Israel is turning the holy sites into a military base.”

The more inflammatory aspects of this seemed to be refuted by the Catholic and Israeli authorities. However, Father Federico Lombardi at the Holy See press office was coy when reached, and did not provide a response by press time. Other clergy who spoke off the record claimed it is “overblown.” One noted that “so many problems are caused by lack of communication. We had a meeting with the [Israeli] security people and our guys were not listening; they come with what they want and it is a linguistic and cultural impasse.”

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld is serious but upbeat, noting that large numbers of police will be on hand when the pope arrives. He compares it to a US presidential visit. “There will be high security, including plainclothes policemen; this is a major event from a political, religious and security point of view.” He also notes that they are preparing for the possibility of protesters, likening it to the “Free Pollard” demonstrators during US President Barack Obama’s visit.

It is obvious Jerusalem is pulling out all the stops, and Foreign Ministry personnel seem to be working around the clock on the visit. Talya Lador-Fresher, state protocol chief, describes it as “one of the most important visits we are expecting to Israel this year. It entails a lot of details… we are making sure all the knots in this visit are tied together.”

A plethora of state organs have to be briefed, from religious affairs experts to regional departments and the Airports Authority. Having worked in her current position for three-and-a-half years, she also compares it to dealing with Obama or the French presidential visit. “It is different because they have a different protocol; with other heads of state, the issue for example of a state dinner is part of their protocol.” She notes that the streets of the capital will be closed, as “this pope is relatively younger [than his predecessors when they visited], so the visit will include some walking.” However, “there is no event that is open to the public,” and she describes most events as having between 100 and 1,000 invitation- only guests. “This is a pity, but it is what we have.”
She also cautions that the public is overlooking the fact that the patriarch’s visit is of no lesser importance. “He is staying a little later… we want the crossings [at the border and to the PA] to be as smooth as possible… all of us are doing it with all our hearts, with the hope it will be successful and memorable for the people of Israel and those watching from abroad.”

A 'price tag' attack on a monastery in Jerusalem

A ‘price tag’ attack on a monastery in Jerusalem

The public and officials have also been outspoken on the issue of price-tag attacks, especially against Christian institutions. On May 12, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, who was born in the Christian town of Madaba in Jordan, demanded Israel “crack down” on the vandalism. Especially outraged when he heard graffiti were found outside Notre Dame in Jerusalem, where the pope will meet Netanyahu, he said the “wave of extremist actions of terror… is a blight on Israeli democracy.”

The Vatican insider, for his part, said that “anti-Christian attacks raise fears ahead of the pope’s visit.” Morizio Molinari, Italian daily La Stampa’s Middle East correspondent, claimed the Israel Police had even ordered the Christian Information Center inside Jaffa Gate to remove a banner welcoming the pope “so as not to stir things up further” – though it seemed in the end that the issue had to do with a permit.

One of those who dealt with how this issue overshadows the visit is Faydra Shapiro of the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. She argues that the recent attacks “are really just a symptom of a larger problem. There is already a great distance between Jews and Christians in Israel, a distance born of fear and division. Many Jews in Israel are – unsurprisingly, given our history – nervous about Christians and ignorant about Christianity.”

In order to heal this deeper problem, “we Jews need to accept that some basic literacy in Christianity is important, not only for Jewish-Christian relations but in order to understand anything about Western culture and European history.” Christians can do the same, she says, by learning about Jews and Judaism. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s settlement watch division notes that most price-tag attacks have been against Palestinians. As for the assaults on Christian institutions, “I believe it also has to do with this… racist ideology that says Jews are superior to other religions and nations… I also read that the security establishment is worried about potential problems during the pope’s visit.”

She argues that the problem is also deeper, but not due to lack of understanding – rather because the “prime minister is advancing a law that is going to define Israel as a Jewish state, which is undermining the rights of the other nations living in Israel. This also sets the norm and the tone of what is acceptable and not acceptable.” In her view, extremists then think they have free rein.

Bishop Shomali takes it in stride. “We are not intimidated; the people who do it are afraid and they only do it at night.” He sees them as cowards, in that “if they were courageous, they would do it during the day.” He notes that fellow Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, who serves in Nazareth, recently received a threatening letter. “This is serious… we raised our tone… and asked for harsher measures against those responsible.”

Against this backdrop, there are other controversies. On May 13, a group of Arab Catholics calling itself the “Palestinian Christian community in occupied Jerusalem” sent a letter demanding “our legitimate right to greet our spiritual leaders.” They argued that the closure of the streets and the lack of a public mass deprived them of the services granted their brethren in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Catholics in Gaza have also requested 600 permits to attend the mass in Bethlehem, and said they intend to invite the pope to their community. There is also emerging conflict over the use of a room on Mount Zion known as the Cenacle, or site of the Last Supper. “Rumors and fear-mongering,” says Shapiro, have fed extremists who claim that the Catholics want to take over the room and the state is going to give it to the church. An April article on Arutz Sheva spoke of a “secret deal,” quoting a rabbi who claimed it also involved giving the Temple Mount to Muslims.

Prof. Cohen illustrates that this site has a long history of dispute. Located in a historic Crusader building, it was owned by the Franciscans until the winter of 1551, when the Ottomans wrested control of it from them and gave it to Muslims. This was 10 years after Suleiman the Magnificent had built the current walls of Jerusalem; the empire was at its height, and struggling with Christendom for control of the Mediterranean.

Before 1948 it was run by the Dajanis, an ancient Jerusalemite Muslim family, with a mosque atop it. Beautiful stainedglass windows with Arabic script saying “He who ruled the people in justice you shall follow,” testify to this connection today.

After the War of Independence, Israeli troops occupied Mount Zion and Jews began to pray regularly at David’s Tomb. Since then Christians have also visited the room of the Last Supper, which adjoins the tomb on the second floor. Scholar and tour guide instructor Yisca Harani thinks the dispute is ironic. “If King David came back and was asked to take people to Mount Zion, he would not take people there; neither would Jesus.”

She argues the site received its identification between the fourth and 11th centuries, yet today the faithful care deeply for it. Although Cohen claims, “I don’t think Israel has any intention to transfer ownership,” the issue is very important “because of the proximity to David’s Tomb” – and the pope intends to say mass there at 5 p.m. on Monday. Cohen notes that for 15 years there have been discussions about increasing Catholic rights to the room. He suggests we look at it in perspective: “Every time there is a papal visit, these issues come up. Last time, it was an issue about clergy wearing crosses at the Kotel [Western Wall].” Bishop Shomali seeks to reassure that “Christians don’t want to own this place… we want to be able to visit it as we do now… but we see it is contested by some fanatics who do not want it even used for prayer by Catholics.”

Abroad, many see this as an opportunity to emphasize a positive message. James Adler, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and a blogger on Israeli and Palestinian topics who lives in “very Catholic” Boston, sees this “exceptional pope” making major strides in the Holy Land. “He will help in his own way to contribute to peace, moderation, reconciliation, broader perspectives on all sides that go beyond petty politics… Francis will try to explain and reconcile and use this in an effort to calm the waters; to create more empathy and reduce the political temperature; to show that everyone is human, especially the members of the three great monotheistic religions.” Archbishop Maroun Laham in Jordan had a more staid view: “He will not work miracles, the politicians are hardheaded.” 

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