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5/7/2009 6:22 AM
Post: 17,329
Post: 49
Registered in: 8/28/2005
Registered in: 1/20/2009
Junior User

I disagree with Magister's title because the Pope is not going to the Holy Land to 'win over' Christians - he's going to 'confirm and encourage them in the faith'. It is up to them if they are willing to be so confirmed and encouraged. It is not within his power to improve their living conditions with a prayer and a blessing.

The Pope's toughest job in the Holy Land:
Winning over the Christians

The Israelis invited him, the Muslims are in favor of his visit.
But not his own faithful in the area: most of the opposition to his trip has come from them.
The reasons for the rejection. And the unknowns.

ROME, May 6, 2009 – The Sunday before leaving for the Holy Land, in a Saint Peter's Square overflowing with faithful, Benedict XVI said in a few words what the aim of his trip will be:

With my visit, I intend to strengthen and encourage the Christians of the Holy Land, who must face numerous difficulties on a daily basis.

As successor of the apostle Peter, I will communicate to them the closeness and support of the entire body of the Church.

Moreover, I will be a pilgrim of peace, in the name of the one God who is Father of all. I will bear witness to the Catholic Church's efforts on behalf of those who strive to practice dialogue and reconciliation, in order to reach a stable and lasting peace in justice and mutual respect.

Finally, this trip cannot help but have significant ecumenical and inter-religious importance. From this point of view, Jerusalem is the city-symbol par excellence: it is there that Christ died in order to gather together all of the scattered children of God.

From these words – reiterated at the general audience on Wednesday, May 6 – it can be gathered that in order to promote peace and dialogue among the peoples and religions in the Holy Land, the pope is relying first of all on the Christians living there.

A bold wager. It's not only that Christians has been reduced to a tiny minority in the region, less than 2 percent of the population, which is mainly Jewish and Arab.

It must also be kept in mind that the Christians in the area have been the most skeptical in reacting to the announcement of the Pope's trip. Many of them, including priests and bishops, have said that his visit is inopportune.

It has taken a great deal of effort to smooth over this front of rejection. 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. [A very selfish and most un-Christian attitude. It's more unworthy even than Bishop Williamson's mild Holocaust engiationism!]

Benedict XVI firmly stood his ground. For its part, Vatican diplomacy did all it could to pacify the opposition.

This explains, for example, the benevolence that the Vatican showed toward Israel's arch-enemy, Iran, during and after the controversial Geneva conference on racism: a benevolence that many observers judged as disproportionate. ['Benevolence' is hardly the word for it - it's Realpolitik: why antagonize anyone unnecessarily? Even Israel (and the Pope's usually reliable Jewish detractors in Rome] did not squawk over the Vatican's well-grounded decision not to boycott eh Geneva conference on racism, which did come out with a fair and not remotely anti-Israeli conclusive declaration on the second day of the meeting when there were still three days remaining of it!]

It may also explain the silence of the Vatican authorities and the Pope himself on the treacherous hanging of the young Iranian woman Delara Dalabi in Tehran. {I must confess I never heard of this case before! In the United States, the emphasis has been on the Iranian-Japanese American journalist who has been convicted by Iran of spying.]

In cases of this kind, publicized all over the world, the Holy See almost always raises its voice in defense of the victims of human rights violations: but this time, it decided to remain silent.


It must be noted that Iran, in turn, is treating the Holy See with unusual benevolence. [Again, hardly genuine benevolence, since Iran has been trying to instrumentalize seeming good relations with the Vaticna in its campaign for world opinion!]

Receiving the new apostolic nuncio to Tehran, Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel, in April of last year, President Ahmadinejad called the Vatican a positive force for justice and peace in the world.

Shortly afterward, he sent a high-level delegation to Rome, headed by Mahdi Mostafavi, a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, the president of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization in Tehran, and a former foreign minister: one of Ahmadinejad's trusted men and "spiritual advisers," with whom he meets "at least twice a week."

The Iranian delegation and an authoritative Vatican delegation held a closed door meeting from April 28-30, on the theme "Faith and reason in Christianity and Islam," which concluded with a meeting with Benedict XVI.

There is a tiny Catholic community in Iran, which is subjected to smothering supervision. This also helps to explain the "realism" demonstrated by Vatican diplomacy in this and other Muslim countries. Discretion is believed to be more effective than open denunciation in order to save what can be saved.

For example, the Vatican has stigmatized Ahmadinejad's repeated anathemas against the existence of Israel only once, and in veiled form. It did this in a statement from the press office back on October 25, 2005. Since then, silence.

But diplomatic "realism" does not explain everything. Ahmadinejad's anti-Jewish anathemas sound familiar to a significant portion of the Arab Christians living in the Holy Land. For them as well, the very existence of Israel is the cause of all evils.

It must be kept in mind that such thoughts do not circulate only among Arab Christians, but also among leading representatives of the Catholic Church who live outside of the Holy Land, and in Rome.

One of these, for example, is Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian by birth, one of the Islamologists most respected at the Vatican, who two years ago, in a "decalogue" for peace in the Middle East, wrote:

[The root of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not religious or ethnic; it is purely political.

The problem dates back to the creation of the state of Israel and the partitioning of Palestine in 1948 – following the persecution systematically organized against the Jews – decided by the great powers without taking into consideration the populations present in the Holy Land. This is the real cause of all of the wars that followed.

In order to remedy a grave injustice committed in Europe against one third of the world's Jewish population, Europe itself, supported by other powerful nations, decided to commit and committed a new injustice against the Palestinian population, which was innocent in the slaughter of the Jews.

[A view typical of those who only see the 'injustice' done to Palestinians but not the injustice done to the Israeli Jews. History can't be undone, and if the other Arab nations had shown towards Palestinians the accommodation that Jordan did (and continues to do) to them, assimilating them into Jordan as full citizens, rather than leaving them in refugee camps like all the other Arab nations did, the story might be very different.

Any modern history of the region known in colonial times as 'Palestine' (what is now Israel and Jordan, and parts of present Lebanon and Syria) shows that there were no 'Palestinian' people as such through the centuries, but a motley assortment of Muslim Arabs, who mostly never thought of themselves as 'Palestinians' but Muslims living under the British Mandate, and certainly never thought in terms of accommodating a single Jew on what was the historic Jewish homeland millennia before Islam came into being.

In fact up to the eve of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it was the Israeli Zionists (champions since the 19th century of re-establishing the Jewish homeland on their historic territory) who kept using the name 'Palestine' for their homeland, as it was known at the time of Christ.

Perhaps the most striking historical fact that all pro-Palestinian liberals forget is that:

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions, in favour of a plan to partition the territory [what was Palestine under the British Mandate] into separate Jewish and Arab states, under economic union, with the Greater Jerusalem area (encompassing Bethlehem) coming under international control.

Zionist leaders (including the Jewish Agency), accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected, it and all independent Muslim and Arab states voted against it. Almost immediately, sectarian violence erupted and spread, killing over the ensuing months hundreds of Arabs, Jews and British.

It is estimated that some 300,00-350,000 Arabs living in the territory that would become the State of Israel were displaced by the hostilities and the overwhelming majority chose to leave the territory to settle in neighboring Arab countries. (These are those who now insist on the 'right of return' - except that the population explosion after three generations has made them large enough to overwhelm the Jewish population of Israel!)

The Ottoman Turks who held sway over the region for the longest time [1515-1917, with a 10 year hiatus in 1831-1841 when the Egyptians conquered and occupied it) did not call the area Palestine at all!

Palestine did not begin to be spoken of as a 'nation' - as in the two-state/two-nation solution - until the 1980s with the rise of Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) - since when the whole world, including almost all journalists and certainly all political leaders outside of Israel, speak about this Palestine as if it were a sacrosanct entity that had been there all along. As a concept it's not even three decades old.

And worse, to act as though Palestinians alone are 'victims' in this whole unfortunate situation. Why blame the Western nations now for the compromise solution that the UN eventually arrived at? The Arabs rejected the two-state solution offhand in 1947, and chose to engage Israel in four wars instead, each of which they lost ignominiously.]

Having said this, Fr. Samir maintains in any case that the existence of Israel is today a matter of fact that cannot be rejected, independently of its original sin. [What original sin? To want their own homeland on territory that was historically their homeland? It's bad enough that historic Judea - the region that gives them their name - and Samaria are now what is the Palestinian territory of the West Bank! This is also the official position of the Holy See, which has long been in favor of two states, Israeli and Palestinian.

Not only that. For Fr. Samir, the Arab Christians living in the Holy Land, although they are few in number, are "the only ones capable of promoting peace in the region, because they do not want to address the issue in religious terms, but according to justice and law." [The problem is there is only a handful of them in the epicenter of the political fault line - Israel and Palestine - and obviously, none in any position of political influence! Israel is an avowedly Jewish state, and the Palestinians are militantly Muslim.]

According to Fr. Samir, in fact, the Arab-Israeli conflict will not end as long as there is a religious war between Judaism and Islam. Only if it is brought back to its political and "secular" characteristics can it find peace. And the Christians are the ones best equipped for the task. [A commendable but very quixotic idea!]


On the eve of Benedict XVI's trip to the Holy Land, Fr. Samir expanded on these ideas about the role of Christians in the region in an interview with the Italian weekly Tempi.

He said, among other things:

Previously, the Nahdah, the Arab renaissance that took place between the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century was essentially produced by the Christians.

Now once again, a century later, the same thing is happening, although the Christians are in the minority in Arab countries. Today the 'new' elements in Arab thinking are coming from Lebanon, where the interaction between Christians and Muslims is the most lively.

Here there are five Catholic universities, in addition to the Islamic and state institutions. There are radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines of Christian origin, for which everyone writes, Muslims, secularists, Christians.

Today, the cultural impact of the Christians in the Middle East takes place through the means of communication: Lebanon has become the leading center for book publication in the entire Arab world, printing Saudi books, Moroccan...

The Muslims also understand that the Christians are the most active groups and the most dynamic cultural elements, as is often the case with minorities.

Christians in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries also have connections and contacts with the West, and for this reason their cultural role is fundamental.

Many Muslims, including authoritative leaders, in both Lebanon and Jordan, but also in Saudi Arabia, have stated this publicly: we do not want the Christians to leave our countries, because they are an essential part of our societies.

[Easy for them to say, but Fr. Samir's view is limited to Lebanon and Jordan, where undoubtedly, Christians have not been persecuted as they are in the rest of the Middle East other than some of the tiny Gulf states.]

To this optimistic picture, Fr. Samir naturally adds the caution that Christians are in danger almost everywhere in Muslim countries.

Beginning with Saudi Arabia, another country that the Holy See approaches from an impartially "realistic" stance, which culminated on November 6, 2007, with the welcoming of the Saudi king with full honors at the Vatican, avoiding any mention of the systematic violations of human rights in the country.

Returning to the Israeli-Palestine question, the role of Christians is seen more pessimistically by another leading expert on the region, the Custodian of the Holy Land, Franciscan Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa. In his view, today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "Christians no longer count for anything, politically." [Have they ever, since the brief ascendance of the Crusaders? Christians have been marginal in the Middle East since Islam overwhelmed the region in the 7th century!]

Moreover, they are the most chilly in welcoming the Pope's visit, despite the fact that he put them first on the list of the reasons for his trip.

Benedict XVI has a tough job ahead of him in the Holy Land. More than the Israelis, who invited him, more than the monarchy of Jordan, which has thrown open the doors for him, he will first have to win over the Christians in the region.

[I continue to believe that Christians in the Holy Land should consider their situation the Cross they have to bear along with Christ, especially since they cannot change the political order in any way. Buddhists in Tibet and Burma, and Christians in India and most other Muslin countries, are perhaps under worse - because overt - persecution.

Christians are not 'persecuted' in the Holy Land - inconvenienced a great deal, yes, and in the case of the 286 Catholics who live in Gaza, they had to suffer along wither Muslim fellow Gazans a situation that was brought on the Palestinian terrorists to begin with! {God knows what persecutions they get at the hands of Hamas, though they neveer say anything about that!]

As Christians we ere taught that each of us has a cross to bear,as pur participation in the Cross of Christ. It is for each of us to bear it as best we can, with the sources and resources of Christian living.

The Pope's visit is an occasion for joy, a point of light in an otherwise bleak prospect. It is not right to place unrealistic political expectations on him. His trip is pastoral and spiritual, and it should be seen in that light.]

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/7/2009 6:56 AM]
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