Pope’s “Pilgrimage” Mired in Politics

Nazareth — Pope Benedict XVI upset the schedule on his first day in Israel by leaving an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem early on Monday night after a leading Muslim cleric called on him to condemn the “slaughter” of women and children in the recent assault on Gaza.
The pontiff walked out, a spokesman noted, because Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi’s speech was a “direct negation” of dialogue and damaged the Pope’s efforts at “promoting peace”.

Before he arrived in the region, the Pope declared that he was coming as a “pilgrim of peace”, with his staff accentuating that his role would be spiritual rather than political.

In truth, however, Pope Benedict’s visit was mired in politics the moment he agreed, at the invitation of Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, to step into this conflict-torn region.

The two popes who preceded him to the Holy Land appear to have better appreciated that point.

The first, Paul VI, made a hurried 12-hour stop in 1964, before the Vatican and Israel had established diplomatic relations, to conduct a Mass in Nazareth. During that time he did not utter the word “Israel” or formally meet with an Israeli official.

The second, John Paul II, came to the Holy Land in radically different circumstances: for the millennium, when hopes were still bright for the peace process. The Vatican had recognized Israel a few years earlier and the pontiff worked hard to soothe long-standing Jewish grievances against the Catholic church.

But he is also remembered by Palestinians for his bold move in joining Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a visit to the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, where he cited UN resolutions against Israel and graphically described the “degrading conditions” under which Palestinians lived.

A decade on, the degrading conditions of occupation have worsened considerably and hopes of peace have vanished. In the circumstances, some Palestinians question what point a papal visit has served.

“The very act of coming here is a political act that works to the benefit of Israel,” observed Mazin Qumsiyeh, a prominent peace activist who teaches at the West Bank’s only Catholic university, in Bethlehem.

“This Pope’s visit, unlike his predecessor’s, offers no novelty — apart from his decision to stand next to [the Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and legitimize an extreme right-wing government.”

Israeli officials too are unpersuaded by the Pope’s claim that he can avoid being dragged into local politics. Or as one government adviser told the Haaretz newspaper: “We have become pariahs in so many places around the globe. Promoting the Pope’s visit to the state is part of changing that.”

Israel has established the largest press centre in the country’s history for this visit, while police have broken up attempts by Palestinian organizations in Jerusalem to present a rival picture to journalists.

The attempts at careful stage management began from the moment the Pope’s plane touched down in Tel Aviv on Monday. At the reception, Pope Benedict stood between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Peres to listen not only to the Israeli national anthem but also to Jerusalem of Gold, a song popularized by soldiers during the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

The lyrics — offensive to Palestinians — describe an empty and neglected city before the arrival of Jews.

Similarly, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, made a point of welcoming him to the “capital of Israel and the Jewish people,” a description of Jerusalem not recognized in international law.

After the Pope failed to object, the Israeli media happily concluded that the country’s occupation of Jerusalem had papal blessing.

In addition, Palestinians, including the 100,000 with ties to Rome, have been angered by the Pope’s official meeting with the parents of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, a humanitarian gesture made political for them by the fact that he has not extended the same courtesy to the parents of any of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli captivity.

Many Palestinians appreciate that the Pope — with his unfortunate, if apparently involuntary, connections to Nazi Germany — has been especially careful not to offend Israeli sensitivities, even if his speech at Yad Vashem failed to live up to the country’s high expectations.

But some also conclude that he has done too little to let the world know of their own plight.

Under pressure from Israel he has refused to visit Gaza, even at the beseeching of the tiny and besieged community of Catholics there.

Yesterday, to minimize Israel’s embarrassment, Vatican officials tried as best they could to keep him out of view of the oppressive wall that encircles Bethlehem. But he did speak to the press outside a UN school at a refugee camp within meters of the wall.

And today, as he headed to Nazareth to celebrate mass, he will not meet Mazin Ghanaim, mayor of the Galilee town of Sakhnin, after Israel labeled Mr. Ghanaim a “supporter of terror” for criticizing its offensive in Gaza.

In private at least, some Palestinian Christian leaders admit that there are pressures on the Pope other than his own personal history that may make him wary of antagonizing Israel.

Most importantly, the Vatican desperately needs exemption from Israeli taxes levied on the Church’s extensive land holdings. Unpaid property taxes are reported to amount to $70 million.

The Holy See also wants a reprieve from Israeli policies that deny visas to many church officials and block clerics’ movement in the occupied territories.

As the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, recently complained: “At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn’t help.”

And finally, the Vatican has been seeking Israel’s agreement for more than a decade to return to its control major sites of pilgrimage, including Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

But Israel has not been able to control the message completely. On his one-day trip to Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp yesterday, the Pope did acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the destruction of Gaza, even if he blamed it vaguely on “the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades”.

He lamented the difficulties Palestinians face in reaching their holy places in Jerusalem, though he appeared to justify the restrictions on Israel’s “serious security concerns.”

And he criticized the building of a wall around Bethlehem, while attributing its construction to the “stalemate” in relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. stanmark said on May 14th, 2009 at 12:19pm #

    One of the best lines I have heard about this visit was on Newsy via Germany Die Welt: “Given all the interests tugging at him, we can’t expect radical statements. Benedict XVI will be busy enough avoiding pitfalls… As the great Jewish philosopher Woody Allen once said, ‘90 percent of success is just showing up.’”?Whether or not Allen is a great philosopher is questionable; still, I think it is an astute observation on the situation.?


  2. Michael Kenny said on May 14th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

    Wow! The Pope’s visit has turned out to be a bigger disaster for Irael and the triumph it has been for the Palestinians.srael than even I thought!

    Let’s go through a few of the smears. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Pope didn’t walk out. He sat through the speech and left later after shaking hands with the “offending” speaker. The Post prints the full text of the Vatican statement, which makes no mention of a “walk-out”, does indeed criticise the speech for being a negation of the dialogue that the meeting was intended to promote but merely expresses the HOPE that the SPEECH would not damage the Pope’s mission.

    I’ve never heard of “Jerusalem of Gold”. I wouldn’t recognise the tune and I doubt if the Pope would either. Moreover, according to Mr Cook, it was played, not sung, so the Pope never heard the words. The Israelis chose the music and if they played music offensive to the Palestinians, that was an Israeli insult to the Pope, not a papal insult to the Palestinians.

    Jerusalem. That the Israeli media have tried to hype something out of the mayor’s remark just shows how desperate the Israelis are. Diplomatic protocol requires visitors and host not to insult each other (see above!). The mayor insulted the Pope by making the statement in the first place. The Pope did not lower himself to the level of the Israelis by replying.

    According to Ha’aretz, Peres invited the Shalit family to meet the Pope, not the Pope himself. Is Mr Cook surprised that Peres didn’t invite any Palestinian families?

    Indeed, in his subsequent points, Mr Cook does not deny that Israel controlled where the Pope could go and who he could meet. He also refers briefly to some of the long string of PR defeats Israel has suffered during the visit: Gaza, the Wall, Palestinians’ “right” to a state, dissatisfaction with his Yad Vashem speech. And then the ones he didn’t mention: Bibi wanted a condemnation of Iran. He didn’t get it. And no sign of the famous mantra about Israel’s “right to exist”!

    Huff and puff and distort as he might, Mr Cook cannot conceal the disaster this visit has been for Israel and the triumph it has been for the Palestinians. Indeed, the more he huffs and puffs, the more obvious it is!

  3. bozh said on May 14th, 2009 at 3:31pm #

    if pope indeed met with shalit’s parents and no with parents of slain gazan children or abducted palestinians now in prisons, that was then not the right thing to do.
    to me, it makes no difference who brought shalits to him. And if pope did not demand to end occupation, respect int’l laws, basic human rights, and the destruction of the wall built on palestinian land, he shld have stayed home then or sent a legate to be restricted in freedom to speak.
    however, whenever the tow cults [christianity and judaism] meet, much acrimony arises. A cult can’t stand another.
    they are destined to slug it out for an eternity over eternal ‘verities’ posited centuries ago by mad priests. tnx

  4. RH2 said on May 15th, 2009 at 9:37am #


    well done. Keep it one !


    The German press is pro Israel. Under the pretext of the Holocaust they license the Zionists to occupy and kill. If the Zionists go too far, the Germans are no more than “concerned about the Israeli disproportionate reaction of selfdefense.” So please spare us your shit of “Die Welt”.

  5. RH2 said on May 15th, 2009 at 1:06pm #

    The logic of Michael Kenny in his criticism above is in form correct, but in content deficient, since his premises are unbalanced. I agree that Mr. Cook tends to exaggerate his stories, yet his descriptions are often to the point.

    The Pope has since the bishop Williamson affair not been tired of accentuating the Holocaust and condemning anti-Semitism. In his speeches he prays for peace and “feels” the suffering of Palestinians, laments for their misery. But he does not have the courage (or will) to come to the point and utter the word occupation. I wish he would once mention the word occupation and condemn Zionist racism, before he passes a way and meets his Father in the Empire of God. Or does he really believe that a Moldavian or New Yorker had the right to build settlements in the “Promised Land? He calls this land robbery “Stalemate” of relations. I imagine, the kind of God which would welcome such a Holly See in its Empire must be a grey haired wild pig.

  6. mary said on May 16th, 2009 at 3:45am #

    Jonathan Cook does not exaggerate. He spits the truth out.

    A poem from Ehab Lotayef “Gaza invasion…. the sun shall rise” Arabic poem with English translation

    Message from the writer:

    “I started this Arabic poem during the invasion (early January) and it took shape during my visit to Gaza (early March).
    The English translation (below) is a bit different than the Arabic, so it is not really a faithful translation but I think it is more suitable for an audience that is not very familiar with some of the dynamics in the Arab World.”
    Ehab Lotayef

    The Invasion of Gaza

    I write
    From underneath my collapsed roof
    I write
    From my persistent land
    I write
    In my name
    and for the fighters
    and the martyrs
    I write

    Bitter …
    I write


    The invasion of Gaza
    pierced my heart
    with a poisoned spear:
    Planes and bombs
    Unarmed people
    A world
    that doesn’t see or hear


    I call on you
    You are confused
    Clueless, manipulated, used
    For you too they have a plan
    but you can’t see your time is near


    The invasion of Gaza
    will scar you
    to the end of days
    You can’t move
    and you can’t think
    You’re stuck in fear


    Gaza, my friend,
    will not collapse
    or die
    Plug your ears
    Close your eyes
    Believe their lies
    No matter how long
    falsehood survives
    the sun shall rise