FaithWorld

Wall overshadows Muslim- Christian relations in West Bank

palestinians-at-damascus-gateThe 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.

But within the occupied West Bank, there are numerous examples of religious coexistence between the Muslim and Christian populations. The West Bank village of Aboud, which I described in a feature you can read here, is a case in point. Father Firas Aridah, head of the local Catholic parish, points to the joint celebration by Muslims and Christians of their respective religious holidays. The Catholic school he operates with a majority of Muslim students doesn’t impose the church’s beliefs on the student body but teaches them their own faiths.

west-bank-wallThe village’s religious pluralism is under threat because its Christians are slowly leaving, changing the demographic dynamics with the Muslim majority. Nearly 900 of Aboud’s 2,200 residents are Christians. One reason for the exodus cited in the Israeli media is rising Islamist extremism. But Fr. Firas will have none of that. “Islamic fanaticism, and all this, is propaganda,” he said. “It is Israeli propaganda that distracts people’s understanding that [Israel] is occupying Palestine.” The reason 34 Christian families have left Aboud since 2000, he said, was the Israeli occupationand the security restrictions it imposes, stifling the economy and limiting opportunity. (Photo: Israeli wall at the Qalandiya checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, 19 May 2009/Baz Ratner)

Husam al-Taweel, a Greek Orthodox member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Gaza who was elected with support from the governing Islamist movement Hamas, told FaithWorld earlier this week: “I won’t say there are no problems and we are living in heaven. But there is no discrimination against Christians in particular. We don’t see ourselves as a minority, but as part of the Arab majority.” (Emigration) “is not a problem only for Christians. This is a problem for the Palestinian community in general. They’re all looking for a job, a better future.”

Impressions from Gaza: minority Christians and Hamas

gaza-sistersWhen 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.

gaza-church-pews-2I made a quick visit to the Christian community in Gaza on Sunday to gauge the mood following the pope’s visit to Israel and the West Bank. My colleague and I had only a few hours until the border closed in mid-afternoon, so there was only enough time for some impressions and short conversations at the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and with a Hamas government minister.

Singing away theological differences in Nazareth

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(Photo: Pope Benedict with Galilee religious leaders, 14 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

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.

PAPA DIXIT — Pope’s last day and departure for Rome

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:

pope-greekAT THE GREEK ORTHODOX PARTRIARCHATE OF JERUSALEM:

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.” (Photo: Pope Benedict presents a book at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, 15 May 2009/Pool).

AT THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE:

Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims

pope-in-dome (Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.

“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”

Pope in Nazareth restates Catholic family values

nazareth-mass (Photo: Catholics attend pope’s Mass in Nazareth, 14 May 2009/Gil Cohen Magen)

After several days when the location of a speech sometimes clashed with the message he wanted to send, Pope Benedict must have been relieved to visit Nazareth today. The town where Jesus grew up lies in Israel proper, in the north of the country, and not in the political minefield of the West Bank that Benedict visited yesterday to see Bethlehem. In the town of the Holy Family, he was able to defend traditional Catholic family values without having to consider issues such as Palestinian statehood or apologies for the Holocaust. As he put it:

“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!”

Of course, this is just as political as the other questions he’s dealt with on this visit, as the growing acceptance of gay marriage at the state level in the United States shows, but it’s on a different level. The issue isn’t the same in Israel, because the the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriages here and rules out gay marriage. The same goes for civil unions. But colleagues in our Jerusalem bureau tell me that times are changing here as well. Israeli social services now often recognise a long-standing gay relationship as similar to common law marriage and extend benefits to same-sex partners.

PAPA DIXIT: preaching family values and interfaith in Nazareth

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.

nazareth-nunAT MASS ON THE MOUNT OF PRECIPICE:

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!” (Photo: Nun waves picture of Benedict at Nazareth Mass, 14 May 2009/Baz Ratner)

FAMILY: “In God’s plan for the family, the love of husband and wife bears fruit in new life, and finds daily expression in the loving efforts of parents to ensure an integral human and spiritual formation for their chIldren. In the family each person, whether the smallest child or the oldest relative, is valued for himself or herself, and not seen simply as a means to some other end. Here we begin to glimpse something of the essential role of the family as the first buildingblock of a well-ordered and welcoming society. We also come to appreciate, within the wider community, the duty of the State to support families in their mission of education, to protect the institution of the family and its inherent rights, and to ensure that all families can live and flourish in conditions of dignity.”

Who wrote the pope’s speeches for this trip?

pope-wall-speechWho 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:

    To Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers…” To Palestinian Catholics at Mass: “In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure.” At Aida refugee camp: “I know that many of your families are divided – through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement – and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. My heart goes out to all who suffer in this way.” On the Israeli-built wall: “In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected… How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!”
(Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, 13 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

These comments stand in strong contrast to his speech at Yad Vashem, which was so abstract that his Jewish audience — and commentators in the media — were openly disappointed by it. They called it lukewarm, said he avoided speaking clearly about the Holocaust and said nothing about the fact he himself is German. He skirted the contentious issues that strain Catholic-Jewish relations, such as the possible beatification of the late Pope Pius XII or the recent lifting of the excommunication of an arch-conservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

A pope arrives bearing gifts

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:

pope-nativity-mosaic

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.

pope-manuscript-1Copy of 14th-century Ashkenazi prayerbook page

This is a copy of a page for the holy day of Yom Kippur. The original book from 1375 once belonged to Queen Christiana of Sweden, whose library was bought in 1690 — one year after her death — by Pope Alexander VIII. The pope presented this to Israel’s two chief rabbis on Tuesday

PAPA DIXIT: to Muslims, rabbis, bishops, faithful in Jerusalem

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:

dome-and-vatican-flagINTERFAITH 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…” (Photo: Dome of the Rock and Vatican flag, 12 May 2009//Yannis Behrakis)

“it is paramount that those who adore the One God should show themselves to be both grounded in and directed towards the unity of the entire human family. In other words, fidelity to the One God, the Creator, the Most High, leads to the recognition that human beings are fundamentally interrelated, since all owe their very existence to a single source and are po”inted towards a common goal. Imprinted with the indelible image of the divine, they are called to play an active role in mending divisions and promoting human solidarity.