Politics Have No Place In Pope's Mideast Trip

24 March 2000

By Stentor Danielson

As he got off the plane in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Pope John Paul II was met by three children from Nazareth - one Jewish, one Muslim and one Christian. The children offered the Pontiff a pot of Israeli soil, which he then kissed.

But the interfaith unity shown by the childrens' display was sadly lacking among their elders, and even the Pope himself. What was billed as a spiritual pilgrimage has taken a turn for the political, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders use the Pope's visit to press their views of a resolution to the conflict in the Middle East. And even the Pontiff has gotten into the act, with his endorsement Wednesday of the creation of an independent Palestinian homeland. The Pope's intended message of religious reconciliation is getting lost in the political posturing.

In some cases, the Pope's itinerary seems carefully calculated to avoid controversy. For example, he will visit Wadi Kharrar in Jordan as well as Qasr el Yahud in the West Bank, both of which claim to be the site of Jesus baptism. He balanced a stop at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial, with Wednesday's visit to the Palestinian refugee camp at Dehaisheh.

But it was at Dehaisheh that the Pope made his ill-advised speech advocating the creation of a Palestinian state, justifying Palestinian hopes and Israeli fears regarding the political significance of his trip to the Holy Land.

The content of the Pope's statement was, in and of itself, admirable. He spoke of justice for the Palestinian people and the resolution of conflicts whose present form can be traced back to Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. The timing, however, is not so admirable.

Catholic-Jewish relations have never been rosy. In fact, much of the Church's history was spent persecuting Jews. But ever since the Holocaust, and particularly under the leadership of John Paul II, the Church has been taking strides to close the gap between the two religions.

But despite the Pope's efforts, relations between Israel and the Vatican are still tense. The Pope's recent apology for the sins of the Church over the past 2000 years left many Jews dissatisfied because of its failure to address specific incidents of anti-Semitism. Diplomatic relations date back only to 1994, and the last Papal visit to the Holy Land by John VI in 1964 was characterized by that Pope's careful avoidance of the term "Israel."

Furthermore, the two nations have a history of disagreement on key issues. The Vatican has refused to acknowledge Israel's claim to a unified Jerusalem as its capital and said that East Jerusalem is illegally occupied.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman told the Pope, "Jerusalem is the city of eternity, a city that has been reunified." He was echoed by Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, who greeted the Pope "Welcome to the eternal capital of Jerusalem." And Palestinian President Yasser Arafat also described Jerusalem as the "eternal capital" of his nation. These are quite clearly politically loaded statements. The Pope wisely refused to be baited by Israeli leaders, and stuck to his spiritual focus.

But Wednesday brought a different tone, as the Pope spoke out in support of the Vatican's position on Palestinian independence. In departing from his politically neutral plan, the Pope did not help to reassure Israel of the Catholic Church's newfound friendship.

Earlier in his trip, the Pope said, "The three historical monotheistic religions count peace, goodness and respect for the human person among their highest values." There is no question that such good will among the parties is a vital ingredient for any lasting peace. This is especially true in the Middle East, where Jews, Muslims and Christians all regard many of the same sites, on contested land, as being of the highest sacred importance. And in that respect -- and only that respect - should the Pope's journey carry significance for the political arena.

The diplomatic channels are open between Israel and Vatican City. That is the mechanism that should be used to address the more mundane and secular specifics of peace in the Middle East. The historic significance of the first Papal visit to Israel in 36 years, and its timing in the jubilee year of 2000, make it all the more imperative for the Pope to stick to his message of reconciliation and unity among the three great monotheistic religions, rather than getting swept into potentially divisive secular diplomacy.

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