Saturday, 16 May 2009

Pope Benedict in the Holy Land

I have not followed Pope Benedict's visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories as closely as I would have liked. I am sure there is a tremendous richness to be found in his addresses during his visit - as always.

One impression I have gained is that of a special warmth of welcome extended to Pope Benedict by the King and Queen of Jordan. This is reflected in the departure from protocol that I think was involved in their meeting Pope Benedict at the airport. What I found particularly touching was that the King and Queen accompanied Pope Benedict on his visit to the site of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, something that had not been included in the original programme. Not only did this suggest a particular care in welcoming Pope Benedict; it also suggested something about how the King of Jordan viewed that particular site, on what is now a border between Israeli controlled territory and Jordanian controlled territory. It was the river that Moses did not cross, to enter the promised land; instead Jesus' baptism represents the start of his ministry that brings to reality access to the promised land of heaven. One could perhaps forgive the King of Jordan for being aware during this visit that the land on the opposite side of the river is strictly speaking Jordanian territory, and that a political boundary prevents his crossing it as he should in principle be able to do.

Pope Benedict's address as he left Israel summarises his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It is particularly striking in the way Pope Benedict talks about his visit as being that of someone who is a friend both of the Israeli people and of the Palestinian people. This could be reduced to a simple question of political prudence in a delicate situation- the Pope not wanting to be seen to take one side over and against the other - but I do not think that such a reduction does justice to what the Pope went on to say. I suspect that he identified key issues for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, rather than avoiding them, when he went on to say:
Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing. Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. ...

One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall....

Expert knowledge of the situation in the Middle East is not necessary in order to add emphases to this quotation to highlight the key issues at stake.

The words immediately preceding this quotation from Pope Benedict's address are, I think, particularly powerful and rule out the possibility of seeing the address as simply an exercise in politics.
Friends enjoy spending time in one another's company, and they find it deeply distressing to see one another suffer. No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades.

No comments: