Walking the Papal tightrope


The week-long coverage of the papal visit to the Middle East continues with the Pope treading through the minefield of Israeli-Palestinian politics.

It is rare to attend a papal Mass where someone does not shout, "Viva il Papa!" It is unusual to hear it alternated with "Viva la Palestina!," as one did over the loudspeakers yesterday in Bethlehem.

Arriving in the West Bank, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the Holy See's longstanding support for a sovereign Palestinian state.

That's not new, but saying it in the West Bank makes it news. The two-state solution is the favoured policy of most countries and of many Israelis, Jewish and Arab.

Indeed, what other solution is there that preserves the right of Israel to exist without having to rule over the Palestinians in perpetuity? Getting there is another matter.

So is the Pope on the Palestinian side? Convincing the outside world -- and themselves -- he is was the goal of Palestinian leaders, both sacred and secular, yesterday.

The Pope may be able to go many places as a pilgrim and avoid politics, but he cannot do it in the West Bank.

So all day long there was a delicate back and forth, with the Pope making strong statements and the Palestinians urging him to go further still.

For example, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, referred to the concrete barrier built in the West Bank as the "apartheid wall."

While the Vatican opposed building the wall, Pope Benedict was measured in his response, praying "the serious concerns involving security in Israel and the Palestinian territories will soon be allayed sufficiently to allow greater freedom of movement.

So who is responsible for relieving the suffocation of the West Bank under oppressive security measures? Both sides -- as is usually the case when popes speak about the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. That's maddeningly frustrating for Palestinian and Israeli-Arab Christians, who would like the Holy See to fly the Palestinian colours more boldly.

The struggle between those competing agendas was visible yesterday. When the Pope greeted the pilgrims from Gaza, one of them put a Palestinian scarf around his neck; papal aides immediately removed it. During the open-air Mass under a hot sun, organizers gave pilgrims white hats emblazoned with the Palestinian flag, but no papal or religious symbols, making it a political choice for a religious event. A huge Palestinian flag was draped across the building facing the Pope.

Having addressed political questions earlier, Pope Benedict steered clear of them during the Mass itself, even though Mr. Abbas was given the most prominent place directly in front of the altar, flanked by the Palestinian Authority leadership, most of whom are Muslim. At the exchange of peace during the Mass, Mr. Abbas was brought forward and the local bishop, Patriarch Fouad Twal, warmly embraced him. Pope Benedict remained firmly behind the altar and Mr. Abbas gave him a wave from a distance.

And so it went. At the visit to the Aida refugee camp, the Holy See declined the provocative Palestinian plan to put the Pope on a platform built directly against the security wall. It was conceded instead he could be photographed in the popemobile in front of the wall.

And so it went. At the visit to the Aida refugee camp, the Holy See declined the provocative Palestinian plan to put the Pope on a platform built directly against the security wall. It was conceded instead he could be photographed in the popemobile in front of the wall.

The Pope denounced the building of walls in general, but carefully attributed this wall to the "stalemate" between Israelis and Palestinians. It is likely no one in his Palestinian audience considered that the cause; the universal view in Aida is that the wall is simple Israeli oppression and an illegal land grab.

There is no aspect of life apart from politics in the PA as is often the case in failed states. The Israelis blame corrupt and violent Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians blame Israeli occupation.

Pope Benedict aimed not to take sides but simply to sympathize with suffering. Yet given his flock here is Arab, not Jewish, the local patriarch pulls the Pope toward the Palestinian side.

When he arrived at Aida, schoolchildren released 61 black balloons to symbolize the 61 years since 1948. Israelis remember May, 1948, as the time of independence and liberation -- a new state. Palestinians call it the naqba (the catastrophe) and mark it every May 15. So Pope Benedict spoke about "events of May, 1948." History here is never just history.

The Pope also spoke imaginatively about the "spiritual infrastructure of peace."

But things of the spirit were far from the minds of his hosts. It was a day to maximize the political advantage of a papal visit.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Walking the Papal tightrope." National Post, (Canada) May 14, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

PHOTO: Reuters


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2009 National Post

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