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Deft papal touch in the Holy Land

30 May 2014

Pope Francis avoided the bomb craters that lay in wait for him, says Paul Vallely

THERE is something about Pope Francis which inspires not merely hope but also a sense that change can really happen. The dexterous politics of his trip to the Holy Land offers a key example, with its defining image of the Pope at prayer with his head resting on the eight-metre wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

It was an image bombarded by politics. The Palestinians see the barrier as a symbol of Israeli oppression. The Israelis see it as a safeguard of their security against terrorist bombs. The two sides had played a cat and mouse game in the days before the papal visit, spraying the wall with slogans, painting it blank, spraying graffiti again.

When the Pope ordered his vehicle to stop - something he had planned the day before - it was by a section on which the words "Free Palestine" and "Bethlehem looks like Warsaw Ghetto" had been sprayed so recently the paint was still wet.

Some had hoped the Pope would take sides. The Anglican priest the Revd Dr Naim Ateek, founder of Palestinian liberation theology, had called on him to speak against illegal occupation of land by Israeli settlers. Pope Francis was more subtle than that, but his message was no vague appeal for an end to violence. In his actions and gestures he outlined clear criteria for peace. His official itinerary referred to "the state of Palestine", and he travelled directly to the West Bank from Jordan rather than entering via Israel.

And yet the Pope was deft in his political balancing. He included an unscheduled stop on the Israeli side, too, by a memorial to the victims of terrorist bomb attacks. He placed his hand, though not his head, on that wall, too. Among his marathon of public events and private meetings in Israel was a visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

He kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors as he heard their stories. That, with his impromptu condemnation of the anti-Semitism of Saturday's attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, made up for what many Jews felt was a tepid speech by the German Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. But most significant politically was the wreath he laid at the grave of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, a man rebuffed by Pope Pius X in 1904 with the words: "The Jews have not recognised our Lord; we therefore cannot recognise the Jewish people." Pope Francis's wreath laid to rest an era of Roman Catholic anti-Semitism.

All this was recognising the right of two states to exist, opposing the strangulation of the Palestinian economy by the security wall and yet declaring that violence and terrorism can never be the path to progress. At the Western Wall, a site holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, Francis embraced old friends, a rabbi and imam from Argentina who had accompanied him throughout the trip. "All communities who look to Abraham," he said, must work together for justice and peace.

His surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to visit the Vatican next month for prayer was accepted by both sides. The Americans, under whose aegis successive peace initiatives have failed, rather sniffily announced that "negotiations are conducted in other channels".

But what is inescapable is that, yet again, Pope Francis, with his insistence that the current stalemate "has become increasingly unacceptable", has changed the mood. He has done it not through the mere authority of his office but by the respect that he has won throughout the wider world. And that is how change begins.

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