Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Pope's Unbalanced Neutrality in Holy Land
By Nicola Nasser
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June 6, 2014
Pope Francis’ “”pilgrimage” to the Holy Land last week proved to
be an unbalanced impossible mission. The pontiff failed to strike a balance
of neutrality between contradictory and irreconcilable binaries like
divinity and earth, religion and politics, justice and injustice and
military occupation and peace.
Such neutrality is viewed by the
laity of Christian believers, let alone Muslim ones, in the Holy Land as
religiously, morally and politically unacceptable.
The 77-year old
head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics “is stepping into a religious and
political minefield,” Naim Ateek, the Anglican priest who founded the
Palestinian liberation theology movement and runs the Sabeel Ecumenical
Center in Jerusalem and Nazareth, was quoted as saying by “Time” on last May
24, the first day of the pope’s “pilgrimage.”
symbolic moral and spiritual power of the Holy See was down to earth in Pope
Francis’ subservient adaptation to the current realpolitik of the Holy Land
in what the Catholic Online on May 26 described as “faith diplomacy.”
The pontiff’s message to the Palestinian people during his three-day
“pilgrimage” to the Holy Land boils down to an endorsement of the Israeli
and U.S. message to them, i.e.: “The only route to peace” is to negotiate
with the Israeli occupying power, refrain from unilateral actions and
“violent” resistance and recognize Israel as a fait accompli.
UK-based Jordanian-Palestinian journalist Lamis Andoni, a Christian herself,
wrote on May 27: “We don’t need the Vatican blessing of negotiations …
Whoever sees occupation and remains neutral has no justice in his vision.”
The Vatican and the pope himself had insisted that his visit to the
birthplace of the three monotheistic “Abrahamic faiths” of Islam,
Christianity and Judaism was “purely spiritual,” “strictly religious,” a
“pilgrimage for prayer” and “absolutely not political.”
Vatican expert John Allen, writing in the Boston Globe a week ahead of the
pope’s visit, had expected it to be a “political high-wire act,” and that
what it truly was, because “religion and politics cannot be separated in the
Holy Land,” according to Yolande Knell on BBC online on May 25.
Francis would have performed much better had he adhered “strictly,” “purely”
and “absolutely” to making his trip a “pilgrimage for prayer” and one that
is committed to Christian unity and to helping indigenous Christians survive
the highly volatile and violent regional environment.
Instead he had
drowned his spiritual role in a minefield of symbolic political semantics
The pope finished his “pilgrimage,” which was
announced as a religious one but turned instead into a political pilgrimage,
with a call for peace.
However, the grand mufti of
Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, while welcoming the pontiff inside Islam’s
third holiest site of Al-Aqsa Mosque on May 26, said: “Peace in this land
will not happen until the end of the [Israeli military] occupation.”
Palestinian-American Daoud Kuttab on May 25 wrote in a controversial column
that the pope “exceeded expectations for Palestinians.”
directly from Jordan to Bethlehem in Palestine without passing through any
Israeli entry procedures, implicitly and symbolically recognizing
He addressed the Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas as the head of the “State of Palestine,” announced that there
must be “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign
homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement”
and met with Palestinian children whose parents were refugees whom Israelis
displaced from their homes in 1948.
And in an undeniable expression
of solidarity with the Palestinians, he made an unplanned stop to pray at
Israel’s apartheid wall of segregation in Bethlehem, because, as he said,
“the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become
However, the word “occupation” was
missing in more than thirteen of his speeches during his “pilgrimage” as was
any reference to world’s “largest open-air prison” in Gaza Strip or to
Dahiyat a-Salam (literally: Neighborhood of Peace) and other five
neighbourhoods in eastern Jerusalem, including the Shu’fat Refugee Camp,
where some eighty thousand Palestinians were cut off from the city services,
including water, since March 2014 and isolated from Jerusalem by Israel’s
segregation wall. His itinerary did not include the Galilee and Nazareth
where most Palestinian Christians are located.
However, within less than twenty four hours the pontiff was
to offset his positive overtures to Palestinians and his call for a “just
solution” and a “stable peace based on justice” for the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict with eight messages to them.
The pontiff’s arrival in the
Palestinian Holy Land came three days before Israel’s celebration of its
47th anniversary of its military occupation and annexation of the Christian
and Muslim holy sites in the Arab east Jerusalem and ten days after the
Palestinian commemoration of the 66th anniversary of their Nakba on the
creation of Israel in 1948 on the ruins of more than 500 towns and villages
from which the Zionist paratroops ethnically cleansed forcefully more than
800,000 Arab Muslim and Christian native Palestinians.
The pope had
nothing to say or do on both occasions to alleviate the ensuing plight of
the Palestinians except prayers, because “the concrete measures for peace
must come from negotiations … It is the only route to peace,” according to
the pope aboard his flight back to Rome.
That was exactly the same
futile message the Israeli occupying power and its U.S. strategic ally have
been sending to Palestinians for sixty six years, but especially since 1967:
Palestinians should be held hostages to exclusively bilateral negotiations
with their occupying power. This was the pope’s first message to
For this purpose, the pope invited Palestinian and
Israeli presidents, Abbas and Shimon Peres, to pray for peace at “my home in
the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer” on June 8. The pope's
spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told the BBC it was “a papal peace
initiative.” This was his second message.
His third message to
Palestinians was to “refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict
the stated desire to reach a true agreement” with Israel, i.e. to refrain
from unilateral actions, which is again another Israeli and U.S.
precondition which both allies do not deem as deserving Israeli reciprocity.
By laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the atheist founder
of Zionism who nonetheless believed in God’s promise of the land to His
Jewish “chosen people,” the pope legitimized Herzl’s colonial settlement
project in Palestine. This was his fourth message: Israel is a fait accompli
recognized by the Vatican and blessed by the papacy and Palestinians have to
adapt accordingly. The Washington Post on May 23 went further. “Some
are interpreting” the pope’s act “as the pontiff’s tacit recognition of
the country’s Jewish character.”
The pope sent his fifth message to
Palestinians when he addressed young Palestinian refugees from the Dehiyshe
Refugee Camp in Bethlehem: “Don't ever allow the past to determine your
life, always look forward.” He was repeating the Israeli and U.S. call on
Palestinian refugees to forget their Nakba and look forward from their
refugee camps for an unknown future in exile and diaspora.
same occasion he sent his sixth message: “Violence cannot be defeated by
violence; violence can only be defeated with peace,” the pope advised the
young Palestinian refugees. This is again the Israeli and U.S. message to
them, which after more than two decades of Palestinian commitment produced
neither peace nor justice for them.
The pope prayed at the Holocaust
memorial, the western al-Buraq Wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which Israelis call
“The Wailing Wall,” the memorial of the Israeli victims of Palestinian
resistance, laid a wreath at Herzel’s grave, visited Israeli president at
his residence where he “vowed to pray for the institutions of the State of
Israel,” which are responsible for the Palestinian Nakba, and received
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame complex. The
pontiff was in fact blessing and granting the Vatican legitimacy to all the
Israeli symbolic casus belli claims to the land, which justify the
Palestinian Nakba. This was his seventh message.
All those events
took place in Jerusalem, which Israel annexed as the “eternal” capital of
the Hebrew state and the “Jewish people.” Reuven Berko, writing in Yisrael
Hayom, said that the Pope's meetings with Peres and Netanyahu were “de facto
expressions of the Vatican's recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel.”
The pope’s eighth message to Palestinians was on the future of
Jerusalem: “From the negotiations perhaps it will emerge that it will be the
capital of one State or another … I do not consider myself competent to say
that we should do one thing or another.”
Normalization with Israel
The “greatest importance” of Pope Francis’ visit “may lie in the fact
that it reflects the normalization of relations between the Vatican and the
State of Israel,” head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, wrote
on May 23.
The Second Vatican Council early in the sixties of the
last century rejected the collective Jewish guilt for Jesus Christ’s death.
Since then the Vatican’s “normalization” of relations with the Jews and
Israel has been accumulating.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of
inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, was quoted as
saying by the USA Today on May 26: There “has been a revolution in the
At Ben-Gurion airport on May 25, Pope Francis
reiterated his predecessor Benedict’s call for “the right of existence for
the [still borderless] State of Israel to be recognized universally,” but
was wise enough not to reiterate his “thanks to God” because “the Jews
returned to the lands of their ancestors.”
To emphasise interfaith
coexistence he broke the precedent of including a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim
sheikh in his official delegation. “It’s highly symbolic,” said Rev. Thomas
Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.
By laying a wreath
of white and yellow flowers, the colours of the Vatican, on the Herzl’s
grave, the pope broke another historic precedent. It was an unbalanced act,
110 years after Pope Pius X met Herzl and rejected the idea of a Jewish
The pontiff’s “pilgrimage” could not dispel the historical
fact that lies deep in the regional Arab memory that papacy was “still
linked to the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries” when the
successive popes’ only link to the Holy Land was a military one, according
to the international editor of NPR.org, Greg Myre, on this May 24.
Of course this does not apply to Christianity. The indigenous oriental
churches’ link to the land has never been interrupted while the Catholic
Church was cut off from the region since the end of the Crusades until it
came back with the European colonial domination since the nineteenth
No pope ever travelled to Jerusalem until Paul
VI spent one day in the city, on January 4, 1964, when the holy sites
were under the rule of the Arab Jordanians. John Paul visited thirty six
years later and established a new papal tradition that has been followed by
Pope Benedict, who visited in 2009, and now Pope Francis.
bode well with the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular that the new
papal tradition is building on the background of recognizing Israel, which
is an occupying power and still without a constitutional demarcated borders,
as a fait accompli that the Palestinian people should recognize as well.
* Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Birzeit, West
Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. An edited version of
this article was first published by the Middle East Eye.