As I followed Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Middle East, I felt sorry for the poor man. He was trying his best to be nice to everyone without completely surrendering his dignity and his values and was yet getting consistently bad press.
In his eight-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Pope underscored among many things the myth of Christian secularism. His trip to the Holy Land was labeled as a “pilgrimage” but at nearly every stop and in every speech he never strayed from high politics of war and peace.
The Holy See is both a head of Church and a head of state. The Vatican is a church as well as a country – albeit tiny. It is ironic that while some Muslims wage jihads to establish a Caliphate – that is unite political and religious authority – the only religious community that actually enjoys such a privilege is Catholics. I find it rather clever that Europeans preach the virtues of secularism to everyone and on the sly enjoy having their own real Caliphate.
Actually they have a Caliph who has the symbolic power to do good but lacks the military power to do any harm. It is like having your cake and eating it too.
If there was any doubt about the political stature of the Pope, it was removed by the royal treatment he received in Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In Jordan, both King Abdullah and Queen Rania, were attending the Pope. I guarantee you that there is not single Muslim cleric in the world who would command the same degree of attendance from the Jordanian royalty.
The Pope made the usual expected comments about the importance of interfaith coexistence, dialogue and communication. He praised Islam and Muslims when in Jordan and Judaism when in Israel. He condemned the tragedy of the Holocaust many times in many different ways and called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
He put in a lot of effort to eschew controversy but he seemed to attract it like a magnet. The Islamists, in Jordan, criticized him for not apologizing enough for his earlier insult to Prophet Muhammed. And in Israel there were many who were not satisfied with his choice of words when talking about the Holocaust prompting comedian Jon Stewart – whose incisive commentaries make real news channels like Fox News seem comedic – to opine that some Israelis found the Pope anti-semantic.
On his visit to Aida, a refuge camp in the West Bank for the Palestinians driven out of their homes in 1948 when Israel was formed, The Pope with symbols of Israeli occupation in the background – a military watch tower and the wall of separation – the Pope called for a sovereign homeland for Palestinians with internationally recognized borders.
One of the Pope’s concerns on this trip was the declining population of Christians in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land in general. It is possible that within a few years there will be no Christians left in the land of Jesus’ birth. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies, the population of Christians in Jerusalem has declined from 20% to 2% since the creation of Israel.
It is a strange irony that American Christian donors spend billions of dollars annually to support Israeli occupation and Jewish settlements but do little to support their own coreligionists, who have become an endangered species in Jerusalem.
It is hard to predict what the Pope has accomplished on this pilgrimage of his, which essentially used interfaith relations as a means to mediating international relations. Even his simple request to Israel to grant 500 Catholic priests easy visas to visit the Holy Land was denied. But nevertheless, he spoke with sincerity and faith when he linked justice with peace.
For the beleaguered Palestinians who have lived under military occupation for 42 years, his support for their homeland was a moral tonic even as the Israelis steadily move away from the international consensus of a two state solution.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.