Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Next week is the time of year when millions of people around the world look to Jerusalem as the source of inspiration for the Christian festival of Easter and Jewish Passover celebrations. But this week the city is also the recurrent focus of bitter dispute. The United States has directed rare strong criticism at Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements there, saying the building undermines U.S. efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Want to know more? Following are links to a sampling of recent Reuters stories about Jerusalem and a Reuters graphic on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalems:
Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. "I like to keep up with the news," the 83-year-old head of one of the world's oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature "Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith."
Visiting the descendants of the biblical Samaritans was the last stop in a series of visits in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank I made after covering Pope Benedict's trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Leaving Jerusalem with Ivan Karakashian from our bureau there, we drove through Israel's imposing security barrier to Ramallah, picked up our Nablus stringer Atef Sa'ad there and then drove north along the web of priority roads that link the spreading network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Israel. Signs of the Israeli-Palestinian face-off were all around -- Israeli army patrols and checkpoints, guarded Jewish enclaves flying the Star of David flag on the hills and Palestinian villages with their mosques and minarets in the valleys. The tension seemed to melt away, though, when we turned onto a narrow road to wind our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza.
Barely a week after Pope Benedict ended a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, vandals desecrated some 70 graves in two Palestinian Christian cemeteries in the occupied West Bank in what a Palestinian Authority official said was a rare attack on the Christian minority in the territory.
During his trip, Benedict tried to soothe Muslim anger over past remarks on Islam and urged Palestinian Christians not to follow others of their minority group in emigrating abroad.
The Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict's visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel's barrier in the West Bank "one of the saddest sights" on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank "have to be stopped." On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel's blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas. (Photo: Palestinian protesters wave flags at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, 21 May 2009/Amir Cohen)
In almost every speech he made, Pope Benedict pleaded for more interfaith contacts and cooperation as a way to move forward towards peace. With the Israeli-Palestinian issue so polarised, the question of promoting understanding among the people of the Holy Land often seems to be reduced mostly to a Jewish-Muslim issue. The tiny Christian minority in the local population often seems to be standing on the sidelines.
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."
Pope Benedict spent Thursday in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up in what is now the northern part of Israel. With no pressing political issues there, his sermon and speeches had a more religious focus than some recent ones.
MARRIAGE: "All of us need... to return to Nazareth, to contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!"
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:
What kind of gift does a pope give when he visits the Holy Land? This morning, the Holy See Press Office distributed a few pictures of presents Pope Benedict has brought along. Take a look:
Mosaic of the Birth of Christ
This mosaic is a copy of part of the 13th-century mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. It was produced by the Vatican Mosaic Studio in 2000. The pope was due to hand it over to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday.