Pope Francis treads carefully through the Middle East

30 May 2014

REUTERS

Papal audience: Pope Francis prays at the Western Wall

Papal audience: Pope Francis prays at the Western Wall

POPE FRANCIS's three-day visit to the Middle East, which ended on Monday, will be remembered for three significant achievements. He boosted the morale of Arab Christians by his presence in the region; he gave unequivocal support to the Palestinians' demand for statehood; and he drew international attention back to the stalled Middle East peace process.

Fears that his visit might be marred by protests from far-right Israeli groups proved unfounded.

The Pope made it clear before he reached the Middle East that one reason for his visit was to offer spiritual support to Arab Christians, who are leaving the region in large numbers - more often than not in response to the growing influence of militant Islam.

His first stop was Jordan, one of the few Arab states where Christians do not experience undue pressure. Speaking in Amman on Saturday, the Pope praised "the climate of serene co-existence between the faithful of the different religions" in Jordan, where Christians "are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom".

From Jordan, Pope Francis flew by helicopter to Bethlehem, on the West Bank. He is the first pope to arrive directly in this part of the Holy Land rather than land first in Israel - a move that was interpreted by Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike as a symbolic gesture of support for their goal of statehood.

"Coming to Bethlehem, and flying to Bethlehem from Jordan, shows solidarity with the Palestinian people, which is wonderful. We need that," a Palestinian, Samar Sakkakin, told a news-agency reporter in Bethlehem.

On arrival in Bethlehem, to cheering crowds, Pope Francis embraced the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, described in the official papal programme as President of the "state of Palestine".

The Pope, in his address, described Mr Abbas as "a man of peace and a peacemaker". He went on to emphasise the need to find common ground to end "a protracted conflict which has inflicted many wounds so difficult to heal. . . The time has come to put an end to this situation, which has become increasingly unacceptable."

The Pope also used the occasion, standing next to Mr Abbas, to express support for Arab Christians in Palestine and elsewhere. This minority community, he said, "contributes significantly to the common good of society, sharing in the joys and sufferings of the whole people. Christians desire to continue in this role as full citizens, along with their fellow citizens, whom they regard as their brothers and sisters."

Mr Abbas, referring to the collapse of the latest American-backed effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told the Pope that he would welcome "any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land". Pope Francis later invited Mr Abbas and the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, to the Vatican to pray together for peace. Both men accepted the invitation.

En route by car northwards from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, accompanied as he was throughout his visit by a Jewish rabbi and an Islamic scholar, the Pope made an unscheduled stop at the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel, and encircles Bethlehem on three sides.

Putting one hand on the wall where graffiti included the slogan "Free Palestine", Pope Francis bowed his head and said a short prayer. A senior Vatican spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi, said that the barrier was a symbol of the conflict, and it had been appropriate for the Pope to pray for peace there. The prayer, he said, "signifies for me his desire for peace, for a world without walls". 

On Sunday night, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, the Pope met the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, and other Christian leaders, in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of a meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian leaders.

Pope Francis lamented the "tragic" divisions among Christians. "Our disagreements", he said, "must not frighten us and paralyse our progress towards unity."

The Pope spent some of the final leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage visiting Jewish and Muslim sites in Jerusalem, before celebrating mass at the site known as the Cenacle, on Mount Zion, where Christ is believed to have shared the Last Supper with his Apostles: a site sacred also to Jews and Muslims.

Prince speaks out about Christian communities. To coincide with the Pope's visit to the Holy Land, the plight of suffering Arab Christians in the Middle East was taken up by the Prince of Wales in an article published in the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He wrote that he was deeply saddened that the ancient Christian communities were among those facing growing difficulties in the region, "despite the fact that part of their long and deeply rooted history there is testimony to the tolerance and understanding Muslim leaders have shown in the past".

He suggested that "the bridges of understanding which matter to us all are being deliberately destroyed by militant fundamentalists with a vested interest in doing so - and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation, and organised persecution. It is my fervent hope and prayer that this should cease."

www.aawsat.net

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