Pope's Trip Worked In Mysterious Ways

Posted: March 28, 2000

The pope's visit to the Holy Land seemed to be a game of political football, with both the Israelis and the Palestinians claiming he was rooting for their team.

When John Paul II arrived in Jerusalem, the Israeli president, Ezer Weizman, welcomed him to "the eternal and indivisible capital of the State of Israel" - an unequivocal assertion of Israel's determination to maintain total sovereignty over the Holy City.

Likewise, when the pope kissed a bowl of Palestinian soil - a gesture usually observed on visits to sovereign states - it led Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, to exclaim: "Everybody from our Palestinian people understood it as asking for a Palestinian independent state."

But if either Israel or the Palestinian Authority hoped to exploit the papal visit for political gain, or thought the trip could be used to effect a dramatic breakthrough, it was bound to be disappointed. The Vatican does not work this way.

Thus while Israelis may claim to be dismayed to hear the pope's expressions of sympathy for the "torment" of the Palestinian people, they should have seen it coming: The Vatican has long criticized Israel's treatment of the refugees. Similarly, nobody should have expected the pope's words at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial outside Jerusalem, to have gone substantially beyond the guarded apology for the church's historical anti-Semitic sins that he issued in a sermon two weeks ago.

Like it or not, today's Roman Catholic Church moves forward at a snail's pace, and the pope could not jump into Mideast politics or abjectly apologize for the church's past even if he wanted to.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to say the pope's visit to the Holy Land won't produce any real gains. The visit to Yad Vashem is a perfect example. John Paul II, a former actor, is a master of the spectacle and the photo opportunity. The sight of this pope expressing his sorrow, surrounded by the symbols of Jewish suffering and in the full knowledge that he was being watched closely by millions of people all over the world, was a far more eloquent apology than any sermon or papal document.

Speaking in the visual language of the modern world, the pope is able to convey a more sincere and dramatic apology than Vatican protocol normally allows.

Nor do I think anybody should lament that the Vatican isn't more politically activist. The last Christian millennium began with a pope getting embroiled in Holy Land politics: the crusade of Urban II. When the crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred 30,000 Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.

Before the crusades, Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived together in Jerusalem under Muslim sovereignty in relative harmony. After the crusades, nothing was ever the same. After Saladin recovered the Holy City for Islam in 1187, Muslim Jerusalem was a much more defensive, nervous place.

Religious leaders can be peacemakers, but they usually play this role by changing people's hearts, not through diplomatic maneuvering. There is still a long way to go - for the Israelis and the Palestinians as well as for the Catholic Church and the faiths it has traditionally seen as its impious rivals.

And although the pope's visit to the birthplace of Christianity may not have yielded concrete gains, it would be wrong to say progress wasn't made.

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, is the author of "The Battle for God" and "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths." This first appeared in the New York Times.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|