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5/21/2009 9:44 AM
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Benedict XVI:
A political Pope
in the Middle East

by Stéphanie Le Bars
Translated from

Three sensitive destinations. Four burning issues. In one week and some 30 discourses in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Pope Benedict SVI had at least seven good reasons to trip.

But he did not. All in all, Benedict XVI showed a mastery of the geopolitical aspects of the region, even if, in the course of the trip which ended Friday, May 15, he was unable to avoid all the predictable reefs in the context of a region where religion adn politics are often one and the same.

Without abandoning his firmness and his temperament as a theologian, the Pope spoke of politics and acted as an advocate of dialog among religions and cultures.

For his 12th international trip, the agenda was ambitious. And the context unfavorable.

Benedict XVI had to promote inter-religious dialog with the Muslims first and then with the Jews; he had to favor peace between Israel and Palestine, and push for the creation of a Palestinian state; and support the presence of Christians in the region.

The Christian-Muslim dialog, which has become an important challenge for this Pontificate after the controversy sparked by the Pope's Regensburg lecture in September 2006 - which the Muslims read as a criticism of Islam [Many of them never read it at all - all they read was his citation of a Byzantine emperor who criticized Mohammed] - was at the heart of his visit to Jordan and to Jerusalem.

Despite the attempts at political profit by some Muslim authorities, important steps were made. Just the Pope's visit alone to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, was a significant token of the trust between the Vatican and part of the Muslim elite. [Le Bars is another MSM journalist -and Vaticanista, to boot - who completely (an unbelievably) ignores the significance of the Pope's address at the Hussein Mosque in Amman, as the philosophical follow-through of the Regensburg lecture!]

The score is less positive for Jewish-Christian relations and for the image of the Pope in Israeli society. There was an expectation that he could put an end to a period of tension in the Jewish world, resulting from the Williamson case - and from the Israeli point of view, Benedict XVI missed the mark.

Some Israeli rabbis considered his address at Yad Vashem too distant, and that he had not spoken at all about the role that the Church played in fostering anti-Semitism.

These controversies will not endanger the more committed efforts for dialog among Jews and Christians, bust statements of good will will not suffice to clear away , as Benedict XVI had hoped before the visit, "the obstacles to reconciliation among Jews and Christians".

The inter-religious dialog, whether bilateral or trilateral, has not yet matured, notwithstanding the desire, fairly well shared among the religious authorities of all three faiths, to push it.

The picture of the Pope hand in hand with a rabbi and a Druse dignitary in Nazareth will remain one of the iconic images of his trip.

Fundamentally, the Pope intended to stress the 'common values' of the three religions, rather than their differences. Even if he has not yet committed to theological dialog [Another one who ignores the Pope's own statement of the impossibility of theological dialog among three different faiths - and the fact that such a dialog is not only illogical and impractical, but also totally unnecessary!], this is a perceptible evolution for a Pope who, at the start of his pontificate, had thought it urgent to suppress the Vatican dicastery in charge of inter-religious dialog.

{And now, Le Bars is just plain factually wrong. Benedict XVI decided to reassign the man who headed the CIRD under John Paul II to become the Nuncio to Egypt and permanent Vatican observer to the Arab League. Instead of naming a new head, he had the CIRD headed by the President of the Pontifical Council on Culture, although the two dicasteries remained separate and autonomous.]

He re-established it after Regensburg. [Also factually wrong. Pope Benedict named Tauran president of the CIRD in June 2007 and the latter did not assume the position until September 2007, one year after Regensburg. There was no cause-and-effect association!]

Nonetheless, the tensions and suspicions in the region raise doubts about the possibility of a peaceful and lasting coexistence [DIM]8pt[=DIM][among whom? Jews and Muslims, or Jews, Muslims, and Christians?]

But the surprise from this Pope was on the Israeli-Palestinian question. His trip, undertaken barely four months after the Israeli offensive in Gaza and a few weeks after the election of a new Israeli government that is quite hawkish, was a minefield for those reasons.

The Palestinians feared that the trip would end up in Israel's favor. {A baffling conclusion by LeBars, considering all the public statements the Pope made during the Gaza offensive condemning the Israeli military actions!]

The Pope was 'aware' of this, according to a Vatican spokesman, and it must be said that id didn't turn out as anyone had feared.

[How could it? The Pope has always expressed publicly that both Israel and Palestine have a right to their own state. The only news is that this time, he was saying it on the spot, rather than from his study window in the Vatican!]

Careful to maintain a 'balanced' position, Benedict XVI evoked the 'security of Israel' and condemned 'terrorism' [But why the quotation marks - as though the Pope were simply saying those phrases for show? He, like any right-thinking person, is concerned about the security of Israeli citizens who are at the daily mercy of attacks by militant Palestinians, and about Palestinian terrorism which is very much alive and well in Hamas], even as he showed strong support and understanding of the Palestinians and repeatedly expressed his wish for a Palestinian state.

Putting aside the thorny question of Jerusalem - which he called 'city of peace, spiritual home for Jews, Christians and Muslims' - and his reticence, which the Palestinians underscored, at speaking about Israeli occupation [Right now, Israel is not occupying any Palestinian territory militarily. But there is the presence of some Jewish settlements within Palestinian territory - the most indefensible and neither morally nor legally unjustifiable element of the Israeli border strategy], the Pope did not avoid any questions that his hosts in the West Bank asked him to raise with his Israeli hosts.

Respectful of United Nations resolutions, he did evoke, sometimes in
strong terms, the situation in Gaza, the difficulties caused by the security fence, the question of refugees [Ah-ah! Though he sympathized with the plight of the refugees, he steered clear of endorsing their so-called 'right to return' to places in Israel that their families left 60 years ago during the Arab war that sought to prevent the state of Israel from becoming reality], access to holy sites and political prisoners.

"Walls can be taken down," he said in Bethlehem, saddened by the sight of the Israeli security wall which the Israelis started constructing shortly before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. [Le Bars pointedly omits that the line was followed by, "First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors" - in which respect, I think that objectively, the barriers are far more on the Palestinian side than on the Israelis, who have never committed an unprovoked act of aggression against the Palestinians, but always in self-defense after acts of aggression committed against them. Practically all the reports I read on this statement by the Pope omitted the second line, which I felt, at the time I heard it, was a masterful way for the Pope to remind his hosts respectfully - it was his farewell speech to President Abbas - that they too had a responsibility in why that wall was necessary, to begin with.]

Even if the Pope's words [on political matters] do not have the same weight as that of, say, a Barack Obama, this hope [that the wall may come down] will remain one of the key statements of his visit.

[Of course, the other thing that the reports never mention when denouncing the Israeli fence is that, so far (knock on wood!), it has succeeded in its objective to keep away suicide bombers from entering Jerusalem and other Israeli cities. And yet the cause-and-effect has been so dramatic and obvious as to merit at least an acknowledgment.]

Contact between the Pope and the local Christians, however, was one of the weak points of the trip. Their presence at the various masses, in Amman, Jerusalem and Nazareth, was eclipsed by the thousands of foreign pilgrims.

[That was not the impression one got from the TV coverage. And in any case, their numbers are few, According to the news reports, many chose not to come to the Mass in Jerusalem because they did not wish to be inconvenienced by all the security checks; the only hitch in the Bethlehem Mass was that the 270 Catholics of Gaza did not get more than 100 passes to go to Bethlehem; and the Nazareth Mass appeared to have been the best chance for the Christians to take part in a papal event. Surely, foreign pilgrims could not have represented the majority in that assembly of at least 40,000.]

The Pope's call that they be vectors of peace and 'bridge builders' may have sounded unreal real in view of the constant reduction in their numbers and tensions among the ethnic and religious communities.

Well, the article seems unfinished, doesn't it?

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/21/2009 6:52 PM]
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