Pope Benedict has crossed through the imposing concrete wall that separates the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Israel to visit the town of Jesus' birth. The wall is part of the nearly 800 km security barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank in a series of walls, fences, berms and ditches. He was accompanied to the checkpoint on the Israeli side by Israeli security before driving through the barrier to meet up with his Palestinian security escort.
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).
It’s not often you hear the Palestinians and Israelis compared to Jesus or the international community likened to Christ’s closest disciples. But the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, did just that in his address at Pope Benedict’s Mass in the Valley of Josephat today. This is the valley just east of the old city of Jerusalem, close to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed in agony before he was arrested by the Romans led by Judas. The Apostles Peter, James and John had accompanied him but they stayed a short distance away and fell asleep while Jesus prayed. Twal used this image to make a link between that Gospel episode and current day Middle East politics:
At Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, part of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex including Islam’s third-holiest mosque Al-Aqsa, Pope Benedict urged Palestinian Muslim leaders to pursue interfaith cooperation by using an argument that other Muslims have been using to engage Christians — including himself — in dialogue. The need for interfaith dialogue is emerging as one of the two most consistent themes of Benedict’s speeches during his current Middle East tour (the other being the link between faith and reason). Appeals like this risk being empty phrases, but he has given some new twists that make them stand out.
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:
What should a German pope say at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem?
The chairman of the Yad Vashem council, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, was underwhelmed by Pope Benedict’s effort at the memorial this afternoon. “There certainly was no apology expressed here,” he told Israeli television. “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret.” Nor was there an “expression of empathy with the sorrow.” Lau also criticised Benedict for not specifically saying six million Jews were killed — even though the pope did use this figure earlier in the day during another speech.
from AxisMundi Jerusalem:
As a long-time visitor and resident of the Middle East, I often feel a twinge of sympathy for visitors who might not be as inured as I have become to the rough-and-tumble of a region where religious, political and cultural sensitivites permeate every aspect of daily life, where arguments can blow up from the seemingly trivial and where, confusingly, remarkable levels of co-habitation and co-existence still show up against this explosive backdrop.
Palestinian authorities in Bethlehem are playing poker with papal protocol, hoping that Pope Benedict will depart from the script during his visit to the town of Jesus’s birth on Wednesday to give them a better photo op. They are so determined to have the pope stand right in front of the towering wall that Israel has constructed through parts of the city that they have built a small amphitheatre next to it where they want to greet him. Israel says the the open-air theatre, about the size of a basketball court, is illegal and ordered a halt to its construction. The Vatican has said the pope will only visit a United Nations-run school across the street. But the Palestinians have continued work feverishly to have the stage and stands ready just in case.