Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
The rare sense of space and calm that marks out the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is both its blessing and its curse. The acquisition of the land, and construction of the beautiful St. James Cathedral at its heart, speaks volumes for the abilities of this small ethnic diaspora from the Caucasus to secure favour from the Ottoman sultans who partitioned the walled holy city in the hope of a bit of peace from religious rivalries.
But the limited, and shrinking population of the Armenians has made their Quarter an object of envy and desire for other groups, not least the fast-expanding Jewish Quarter next door, which has been massively rebuilt during 43 years of Israeli control after being ravaged during the period of Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967.
The Church itself, proud of a tradition that it was an Armenian king in 301 who first adopted Christianity as a state religion (some years before the Roman Empire), is a solid fixture of Christian Jerusalem. The small ethnic Armenian lay community around it feels less sure of its future.
Having broken with authorities in Constantinople and Rome as early as the 6th century (in a complex dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus), the Church later secured under the Ottoman-era status quo which still governs such matters a share of the tripartite governance of Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites, notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the very much larger Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations. The latter churches and a small community of their Arab Christian adherents dominate the Christian Quarter, leaving the Armenians in splendid, if potentially precarious, isolation in their own Armenian Quarter, following their distinctive traditions in their unfamiliar Indo-European tongue with its unique script.
Israeli police said on Friday they were looking into allegations of sexual abuse against one of the country's most famous and politically influential rabbis, in a case that has triggered dramatic headlines this week.
There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.
When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of. (Photos: Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church, Gaza, 17 May 2009/Suhaib Salem)
Behind the altar at Holy Family Church in Gaza, paintings depict Gospel scenes that all took place within a few hours' drive. There's the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River and the Last Supper in Jerusalem -- all places that Benedict visited. But the only place the Gazan Catholic faithful at Sunday Mass here could hope to visit anytime soon would be the route of the Flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary would probably have brought Jesus through the Gaza region while fleeing Herod's plan to kill all newborn boys in Bethlehem. The rest are all unreachable for them.
Talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words. There's more than that behind this picture of Pope Benedict holding hands and singing a song for peace with leaders of other religions in Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation on Thursday. This might seem like an innocent gesture to most people who see it. To some Vatican correspondents following the pope on his Holy Land tour, it was an unprecedented step that spoke volumes about the evolution of his theological thinking.This sing-along started at an interfaith meeting when a rabbi began singing a song with the lyrics "Shalom, Salaam, Lord grant us peace." At some point, the 11 clerics on the stage stood up and held hands to sing the simple tune together. Never very spontaneous, Benedict looked a little hesitant but then joined in. It was something of a "kumbaya session" -- a "religious version of We Are The World," one colleague quipped -- but it was good-natured and well meant. The pope has been preaching interfaith cooperation at every stop on his tour and it seemed appropriate that it culminate in a show of unity among the religions in Galilee.But wait a minute. This is the same Joseph Ratzinger who, when he was a cardinal heading the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, frowned on Pope John Paul's pray-in with other religions at Assisi in 1986. He even declined to attend what became one of the landmark events of his predecessor's papacy. Catholics cannot pray together with other religions, he argued, because only Catholicism was the true faith and all others were flawed to greater or lesser extents. Praying together carried the risk of syncretism, or mixing religions.Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger made several critical comments about other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam (although he is changing there as well). He drew a sharp line between Catholics and other Christians in the 2000 document Dominus Iesus that called Protestant denominations deficient and not proper churches. They felt slighted and several said so openly. The only faiths Ratzinger seemed interested in were Orthodox Christianity and Judaism (ironically, given the cool welcome he got in Israel -- but that's another story).Things change when a cardinal becomes a pope. Suddenly, he was no longer just the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, he was the head of the world's largest church and its smallest country. He was a spiritual leader, a temporal head of state, a major diplomatic figure and one of the most prominent -- if not the most prominent -- spokesman for religion on the planet. That's a lot to juggle at the same time.
On the last day of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict visited the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic partriarchates, prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and delivered a farewell address that touched on the main political points of his trip.
Here are some excerpts from his speeches:
ECUMENISM: "I pray that our gathering today will give new impetus to the work of theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, adding to the recent fruits of study documents and other joint initiatives. Of particular joy for our Churches has been the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew I, at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome dedicated to the theme: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The warm welcome he received and his moving intervention were sincere expressions of the deep spiritual joy that arises from the extent to which communion is already present between our Churches. Such ecumenical experience bears clear witness to the link between the unity of the Church and her mission."
Who wrote Pope Benedict's speeches for this trip? Why do his speeches to Muslims hit the spot and those to Jews seem to fall short? Does he have two teams of speechwriters, one more attuned to the audience than the other?
We don't know the answers (yet) but a pattern suggesting that has certainly emerged. Look at what he had to say today in Bethlehem to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim:
Four speeches today to four quite different audiences. Pope Benedict first addressed Muslim religious leaders (see our separate blog on that) and then Israel's two grand rabbis. Both were about interfaith dialogue, but he was encouraging the Muslims to pursue it while he reassured the Jews the Catholic Church remained committed to it. He then addressed the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and a Mass in the Valley of Josephat, just east of Jerusalem's old city. At that Mass, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, delivered an interesting address comparing the Palestinians and Israelis to Jesus in his agony in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane and the international community to the three Apostles who slept during that crucial period in Christ's passion (see our separate blog on that).
Here are excerpts from the day's speeches:
TO MUSLIM RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN DOME OF THE ROCK:
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE: "Since the teachings of religious traditions ultimately concern the reality of God, the meaning of life, and the common destiny of mankind – that is to say, all that is most sacred and dear to us – there may be a temptation to engage in such dialogue with reluctance or ambivalence about its possibilities for success. Yet we can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity. Those who confess his name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating his forgiveness..."
Pope Benedict was never going to please his critics in Israel, so it's not surprising that today's headlines were almost all negative about his speech at Yad Vashem yesterday. Reading the English-language press this morning, I was interested in seeing the nuances in the different reactions. Here are a few examples of what I found:
In Haaretz, the main headline read "Survivors angered by Benedict's 'lukewarm' speech.'" That story focused on the reaction from Yad Vashem officials as we reported yesterday. You can see a PDF of its front page here. The two commentaries were more nuanced than the main story.
Pope Benedict's speech at the Yad Vashem today took a different approach from the speech his predecessor Pope John Paul delivered at the Holocaust memorial on 23 March 2000. Polish-born John Paul mentioned the Nazis twice while Benedict, a German, did not. John Paul recalled the fate of his Jewish neighbours; Benedict offered no personal wartime memories. John Paul spoke in a broader perspective, mentioning godless ideology, anti-Semitism, the "just" Gentiles who saved Jews and the shared spiritual heritage of Christians and Jews. Benedict took a narrower approach, meditating on the significance of names and speaking only of the Catholic Church rather than Christians in general.
Here are a few quotations comparing and contrasting the two speeches:
POPE JOHN PAUL: "In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah. My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the War. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbours, some of whom perished, while others survived. I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half a century has passed, but the memories remain. Here, as at Auschwitz and many other places in Europe, we are overcome by the echo of the heart-rending laments of so many. Men, women and children cry out to us from the depths of the horror that they knew. How can we fail to heed their cry? No one can forget or ignore what happened. No one can diminish its scale. We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism."